Wednesday, December 31, 2008

MIND & BODY: ETHICAL FASHION: You are what you wear

'The reputation I really don't want is 'woolly". So speaks Ali Hewson, the wife of rock-and-roll legend Bono, and the co-founder of socially conscious clothing company Edun (www.edun.ie). She has nothing to fear: 'woolly' is hardly an image she has garnered. Although Hewson has preferred to stay out of the limelight throughout her 23-year relationship with U2 frontman Bono, her image is sleek. It hardly fits the stereotypical 'eco' mould.

Hewson, Bono and designer Rogan Gregory launched Edun eight weeks ago with the goal of providing sustainable employment for factory workers throughout the developing world. For its customers - who include Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington and Helena Christensen - it's about beautiful, edgy, Art Nouveau-inspired fashion for men and women.

'We know that no matter how much people want to dress ethically, nobody's going to wear a hair shirt,' says Hewson. 'They want to look good and feel good. That's the point of Edun: you buy the design first. The good story behind the clothes is secondary.'

Today's clothing industry relies on 'fast-fashion', where designs are manufactured quickly, at cheap-and-cheerful prices. Cheerful, that is, for the consumers at the end of the chain. 'One thing the fashion industry doesn't have is loyalty', says Hewson. 'It will keep moving for lower labour costs, from continent to continent and from season to season. Producers in Africa can't keep up, which means they can't offer regular employment to their employees. So everyone's living on a knife-edge economy.'

Edun is different. Hewson and Bono source factories in developing countries that pay their employees a decent wage. Rogan designs with those factories' facilities in mind. And, crucially, Edun stays loyal. But it is not a charity: it hopes to succeed in commercial terms, thereby providing a business model for other fashion companies and proving that it is possible to produce beautiful clothes beautifully, and at a profit.

If Edun achieves this, Hewson admits that there is a further stigma to overthrow. Ethical fashion has a reputation of being overly worthy. This doesn't sit comfortably in the chichi world of fashion. But impressive new technology means that more versatile, ethically made fabrics will soon be available. We're talking gossamer silk blended with hemp; lush taffeta made from corn; soft, supple organic cotton which has been farmed without using pesticides and fertilisers, without polluting the environment. According to a survey by the Organic Trade Association, sales of organic fibre products jumped 22.7 per cent in 2003, with women's clothing the fastest-growing category. For the ethical fashionista, a consumer heaven awaits.

PeTA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals; www.peta.org) have had an eye - and, as often as not, a paint-bomb - on the fashion scene for 25 years. Although they support all aspects of vegetarian dressing, their most prolific campaign rallies against fur. PeTA have been let down by both former spokeswoman Cindy Crawford, who later signed a contract with a fur company, and by Naomi Campbell, who contradicted her pledge that she'd 'rather go naked' by wearing fur on a 1997 catwalk. But PeTA's campaign remains defiant. Supported by the likes of Kate Moss, Sarah Jessica Parker and Charlize Theron, PeTA forces fashion giants to choose between celebrity endorsement and fur.

Stella McCartney (www.stella mccartney.com) is a dedicated supporter of vegetarian fashion: refusing to use fur or leather has done her no harm in sales or image, either at her own label, or when she reigned supreme at Chlo. In 2000, McCartney hit the headlines by turning down what anyone might well assume would be her dream job: because of their widespread use of leather, McCartney snubbed Gucci.

Even when it comes to the ultimate vegetarian fashion dilemma - footwear - McCartney remains true to her principles. While high street company Kurt Geiger will launch its Terra Plana line this autumn, with shoes made from recycled Pakistani quilts, sustainable wood and vegetarian tanned leathers, McCartney has already offered slinky plastic heels, parachute silk slippers, plush velvet sandals, and even a flesh-free range for Adidas. All of which is good news because there's little alternative.

The Vegetarian Shoes store in Brighton (www.vegetarian- shoes.co.uk) does a roaring trade, selling to celebrity veggies including Paul McCartney and Joaquin Phoenix, but owner Robin Webb acknowledges that his styles are more led by practicality than fashion. 'You need a lot of confidence to predict trends. We are better sticking to basics,' he says. Men can get essentials there, go to McCartney for best, and head to Converse, New Balance, Vans or Blackspot (www.adbusters.org) for vegetarian trainers.

Principled fashion is becoming de rigueur, says i-D fashion journalist Liz Hancock, who is now launching Project, a socially aware lifestyle magazine (www.project-magazine.com). 'We want to appeal to everyone from light to dark green; from people who have been wearing vegetarian shoes for years to those who just want a magazine with a little more integrity', says Hancock. All the labels featured in Project fashion shoots pass the magazine's standards in terms of ethics and style: they are environmentally, ecologically and socially responsible, and they hit the cutting edge. Hancock explains: 'We highlight which labels subscribe to which system of ideals. It's not passing a judgement, it's just showing people what they're buying into.'

'The cheaper the clothes, generally, the less was paid for them in the beginning', admits Ali Hewson. 'But we can charge a reasonable rate and still make a decent profit. There really is a revolution that can happen on the ground. People are starting to put pressure on the clothing industry to create great designs that they can wear and feel good about themselves - in every way.'

For the humbler wallet, there are mail order lines such as Howies (www.howies.co.uk), American Apparel (www.americanapparelstore.com), Loomstate (www.loomstate.org), and Sienna Miller's favourite, People Tree (www.ptree.co.uk). Meanwhile, shoppers who love their labels as well as their world can shop at Oscar de la Renta, Diane von Furstenberg, Katherine E Hamnett (from September - the 'e' is for 'ethical'), and, yes, at Stella McCartney.

'People are beginning to realise that you can make real change with the money in your pocket', says Ali Hewson. 'How you spend your money says a lot about you. People want to know that their clothes weren't made out of despair.'

Cosmetics

With a ban on animal testing of cosmetics throughout the UK, the Netherlands and, soon, Belgium, it seems a safe assumption that we can shop for cosmetics without worry.

However, throughout the EU, an estimated 35,000 animals are used in cosmetic tests every year. Until the EU bans on cosmetics animal testing (2009) and on the sale of animal-tested cosmetics (2009 - 2013) come into play, ethical shoppers need to take care.

It's also worth noting that that cosmetics that haven't been tested on animals are not necessarily vegetarian. Animal products crop up in soaps and lipsticks, and even make-up brushes are usually made with animal hair, although Origins (www.origins.com) and Urban Decay (www.urbandecay.com) use synthetic alternatives.

by Jessica Moore

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