Product, Service & Design Innovation
Liberty & Justice for All:
How Africa Is Challenging Fast Fashion's 'Race to the Bottom'

Chid Liberty and Ellen Johnson SirleafChid Liberty was born in Liberia, his father the nation’s ambassador to Germany — where Chid grew up before his family was exiled and moved to Silicon Valley. After 28 years abroad, Chid returned to Liberia in 2009 inspired by the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Liberian Women’s Peace Movement and founded Liberty & Justice with social entrepreneur Adam Butlein. Now one of BBMG’s entrepreneurs-in-residence, Liberty & Justice is a fair trade-certified apparel company working in Liberia and Ghana, brokering between apparel factories and retail partners. We spoke with Chid about what kind of impact L&J is having in its communities, and the company’s Made in Africa platform, recently announced at the Clinton Global Initiative.

What is L&J’s mission and how do you measure social impact?

We believe that an industry that’s been known as a “race to the bottom” — for the cheapest, lowest-quality materials with the lowest environmental standards and without any regard to worker safety — can become a race to the top. We pioneered this concept while partnering with women’s groups that led the Liberian Peace Movement, an incredible collaboration that shows how social movements can be a powerful force of change in business as well.

We want to shift the manufacturing paradigm. A cornerstone of that mission is that our factory in Liberia is 49 percent worker-owned. In Ghana, it’s 15 percent worker-owned. This is always something we ask the factories in our network to aspire to.

In terms of social impact, health and education are the key metrics we analyze. In Liberia, one of the biggest problems is school enrollment. It’s compulsory, but only 40 percent of kids are in school. Now, 98 percent of L&J’s employees’ kids are in school and 100 percent of workers’ families have access to doctors, a very rare resource. Education and healthcare are two of the biggest ways we’re improving.

What are your factory standards and how were they developed?

Our factory standards are founded on complete transparency, enabled by the best practices in corporate governance. The three primary factors we mandate are workforce development (things like savings, training programs for jobs, literacy and financing), asset development (to help workers develop their assets) and community investment (making sure that our factory’s profits are used to make strategic investments in the larger community).

In creating these standards, we didn’t want to reinvent the wheel, so we borrowed from and built on Fair Trade and GIIRS standards. The Fair Trade standard is the bare minimum of criteria we use to evaluate whether or not we can begin trading with a factory.

Liberian Women's Sewing Project

I’m a huge promoter of doing business in Africa and in Liberia in particular. Recruiting is challenging. This is less true in Ghana because it has been pretty stable politically and is a middle-income country with a great education system, but Liberia is just coming out of a war. To find great managers and other talented, dedicated and affordable people is rare. We are competing with the NGO market, which has a great deal more funding than we do.

What has been L&J’s most exciting accomplishment to date?

Personally, being Liberian, there’s so much that we’ve accomplished that I’m exceedingly proud of. I suppose the achievement that I’m most proud of is the fact that when we first set up in Liberia in 2010, the country couldn’t trade with the United States duty-free. We lobbied the United States and Liberian governments to pass the African Growth and Opportunity Act. In six months we could trade duty-free. That was amazing.

What are your plans for L&J in the next five years? How would you like to see it grow?

We have a lot of exciting things rolling out for 2014. Our Made in Africa initiative just launched at the Clinton Global Initiative, a platform that we’ll use to partner with brands that are interested in creating social impact in Africa. Made in Africa will ask brands to commit one percent more than they did in the previous year to our factories, which operate to make manufacturing socially just and environmentally sustainable. This will really show what L&J will be in five years.

Because of worker safety concerns and the tragedy in Bangladesh, there’s a lot of opportunity to bring a piece of the Chinese and Bengali markets to Africa. Long term, we want to show the world that it’s possible to honor workers and planet at the same time that you’re serving the interests of the North American market. It’s also a matter of disaster prevention: If we can get more retailers to change their behavior and their priorities, we can have fewer tragedies, crises and disasters. This means a behavior shift for everybody. Suppliers, consumers, trading companies and governments all have to take more responsibility for the impact they have. We aim to realign priorities.

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