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  1. Wealth
June 28, 2011

The Aesthetics of Ethics

By Spear's

Without getting too philosophical about it, can you really do good just by looking good? Yep, you can if you’re wearing Edun, says Sophie McBain

Without getting too philosophical about it, can you really do good just by looking good? Yep, you can if you’re wearing Edun, says Sophie McBain

‘SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA is not exactly on the fashion track,’ Janice Sullivan laughs, but as the new CEO for the ethical fashion label Edun she now makes regular business trips to some of the least developed countries in the world. If this was a difficult adjustment for the former president of Calvin Klein jeans, she doesn’t show it.

Described by Sullivan as ‘a really small company with a really big idea’, Edun was founded in 2005 by Ali Hewson and her husband, U2 frontman Bono, with the aim of promoting trade with Africa. The rock couple are helping to inject some much-needed star power into the flagging ethical fashion market, but Hewson is in some ways a reluctant celebrity spokesperson. In 2010, she told The Independent: ‘I’ve always wanted this company to be about the clothes and what it’s doing, not really about me. I much prefer to be in the background on everything.’ So, after an effusive welcome, Hewson quickly disappears in a shock of raven hair and sky-high stilettos, leaving Sullivan to do the talking.

Despite Hewson’s dislike of the limelight, the Edun project quickly caught the eye of luxury-goods giant LVMH. Recognising the label’s early promise, it bought a 49 per cent stake in Edun in 2009 and is now planning to expand the brand, with Sullivan at the helm.

This could be a sign that ethical fashion is going mainstream. Last year, sales of fair-trade products in Britain rose by 40 per cent, but the ethical fashion industry has historically lagged behind, suffering from a fundamental image problem. Fair-trade chocolate may taste as sweet as its non-fair-trade counterpart, but most shoppers will choose a slinky cocktail dress produced God-knows-how over what they perceive as the ethical equivalent: tie-dyed and woven in hemp, self-righteousness and New World guilt.

This is why Edun will put clothes first. ‘We have to hold ourselves to the standards of the fashion industry,’ Sullivan explains. ‘I want people to be in love with Edun, in love with the look, the lifestyle and the clothes.’

Last year Edun appointed Sharon Wauchob as creative director. Like Sullivan, Wauchob is a fashion heavyweight, having started her career at Louis Vuitton before launching her eponymous label in 1999. Her first Edun collection, unveiled last autumn, was effortlessly cool, featuring Seventies-inspired pieces in earthy hued, luxuriously textured fabrics. Sales are picking up, too, and Edun is now available in 270 doors worldwide.

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With such a focus on the fashion side of things, it is not always easy to see what makes Edun ‘ethical’, as Sullivan admits. ‘Edun blurs the lines in a way that’s hard for people to wrap their head around. It’s a socially conscious brand, so the mission of what we do is at our core, and we try to do things in the most respectful way possible. “Ethical” is a broad term, and I’d say that what makes Edun special is that we have a mission to promote trade in Africa.’

It’s a potential pitfall for all ethical brands — the complexity of defining ‘ethical’ when it’s applied to non-moral objects such as coffee beans or T-shirts, and then communicating that to consumers. The instantly recognisable ‘fair trade’ label is hard enough to pin on to a banana, let alone a garment that goes through countless production processes. And consumers find that while ‘fair pay’ and ‘fair working conditions’ are understandable in the abstract, their practical application rarely is.

But Edun is serious about its ethical mission. It is a founding member of the Conservation Cotton Initiative Uganda, which aims to build sustainable, fair-trade farming communities in the war-ravaged north of the country, and has recently started a Kenya Kids Tee Programme to raise funds for schoolchildren in Nairobi’s sprawling Kibera slum. On top of this, the company aims to source 40 per cent of its fashion line in Africa by 2013.

For some, the target is under-ambitious. Edun has come under fire for producing too many of its clothes in China and Peru in 2010 (regular independent compliance audits ensure that all factories in these countries follow the company’s code of conduct.) But Sullivan says that while she ‘feels good’ about the target, she realises it will not be easy to attain. ‘Fashion has a very unforgiving cycle. Timing is everything,’ she explains. When working with tiny, independent producers such as ‘the crochet sisters’, the team of Kenyan nuns who hand-produced the black skirts featured in Wauchob’s first collection, getting the clothes catwalk-ready on time is tough.

It could also be just the reason Sullivan got the job. ‘My background is product, so I knew that I had the operational background to be able to make that happen. You need someone who can roll up their sleeves and get their hands in the detail,’ she says, although her sleeves are organic Edun poplin, her hands perfectly manicured.

Her move to the label was brave, but Sullivan was motivated as much by business as ethical concerns. ‘I really think Edun can be the next big lifestyle brand — I think it’s a really relevant brand to the way people are thinking and behaving,’ she explains. It’s a bold prediction, but judging by Wauchob’s first collection this much is clear: ethical fashion has never been cooler. 

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