Art With Impact: Inside the Ethical Fashion Initiative

Imagine waking up every morning to the sweet song of birds instead of your aggressive alarm clock. And instead of bumper to bumper traffic, your daily commute includes a run-in with a zebra or giraffe. Sounds like a dream, right? For Tassia Butlin, Assistant Production Coordinator for Artisan Fashion, this is her reality. Tassia moved from the U.K. to Nairobi, Kenya in 2019, where she connects African artisan collectives with international fashion brands. Artisan Fashion works directly with local communities on the ground in Kenya to produce handcrafted goods fairly and ethically as part of the global Ethical Fashion Initiative program.

Chan Luu recently partnered with EFI on the Chan Luu x Ethical Fashion Initiative collection, a special capsule designed in collaboration with Kenyan artisans. This partnership helps support sustainable work opportunities for the skilled workers within the region, empowering them to achieve economic independence and build better lives for themselves and their communities.

We sat down with Tassia to hear more about what it’s like living in Kenya, how EFI has impacted the communities she works with, and the one piece of advice she values most.

Moving to Kenya from the U.K. is a pretty major life decision! Why did you decide to move there?

I first visited Kenya in 2014 to see friends and fell in love with the country. In 2017 I returned for a few months to network. I moved there permanently in 2019 for my role with EFI, and although there are things about the U.K. that I miss, I was very happy to trade them for the warmth and creativity of Nairobi!

How did you become involved with EFI?

I studied fashion textile design at University and started my own ethical womenswear line in 2010 alongside my full-time job as a visual merchandiser in the U.K. When I returned to Kenya in 2017, I was researching sustainable production options for my line and was introduced to a few people from Artisan Fashion and we began discussing what a role could look like for me.

What are some of the biggest differences between daily life in Kenya and life in the U.K.?

I will never get used to Nairobi traffic! But I love waking up to bird songs and falling asleep to the sound of hyrax calls and hyenas in the distance. Generally though, living in a bustling city like Nairobi doesn’t differ much from daily life in the U.K.

What was the hardest thing to adjust to when you first moved to Kenya?

I definitely had to adjust to the slower pace of life. But now, I love that things aren’t as rushed as they are in the U.K. I don’t stress if I’m running late or if someone I’m meeting is a little bit behind - it’s often due to Nairobi traffic!

Has your personal style changed since moving to Kenya?

I have to dress for the climate mostly, so my staple wardrobe is loose cotton trousers, usually in a bold print, and a simple T-shirt or vest top. But I do love to wear a simple midi dress and add bold jewelry pieces. There are such good brass and bead jewelry designs available in Kenya, as you can imagine!

What do you love most about living in Kenya?

I love how close to nature you are, even in the city. My commute to work includes passing the Nairobi National Park and often I spot giraffes, buffalos and zebras. I also like being able to take road trips to amazingly beautiful spots like Lake Naivasha or the Maasai Mara, and visiting the beautiful Kenyan coast.

You work with a few different artisan communities in Kenya. Prior to EFI, what kind of job opportunities were typically available to them?

The communities we work with have traditional artisan skills passed down through generations, but often only for their personal use or for tourist sales. These opportunities are limited and don’t provide consistent income. Many of the communities we work with are women’s groups, with mothers who have children to feed and clothing and school expenses. Work opportunities for women that also accommodates child care are rare and often include doing laundry or cooking small food items to sell. These jobs aren't consistent and don’t pay enough to support their families.

How has EFI impacted the artisan communities they work with?

Once EFI began working with these communities, their skill level increased to a point where we can now offer international brands more marketable quality products. This means that the communities have a much more regular source of income, with larger orders, so they are able to send their children to school, feed their families and even save some money for the future.

There’s a lovely member of the Olonana Women’s Group, Maria, who has five children. Maria pays for their school with the money she earns beading. Before EFI began working with the Olonana group, the community had a much more sporadic source of income, with less chance of regular schooling for their children, and even a lack of food when things got tough with droughts, etc. Maria very much appreciates a steady stream of work through EFI.

The artisans we work with are all so motivated to craft and create beautiful items they’re proud of. I love their drive and determination and I’m so proud to help create beautiful, ethically made products for different brands around the world.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?

When I first spent time in Kenya, a friend told me to stop comparing everything to the U.K., because then you often view the country with a critical eye. If you take Kenya as it comes, and learn that many things work differently but also many things are better once you let go of that comparison, life is instantly much more free-flowing and happy!