Paul David Hewson, more commonly known as Bono has made a name in business for quite a while now that it hardly seems surprising to see him on the front cover of TIME magazine or the Economist, so much that U2 almost appears as a side project. His latest new venture has seen him team up with his wife, Ali Hewson, to form a clothing company with a conscious. We went to speak to them about their hottest project yet; a business aimed at pioneering ‘trade instead of aid’. “Heard this all before,”I hear you say. Perhaps, but there’s no taking away from it that it’s a business first and what they’ve ultimately done is made social enterprise raunchy again.
Not only did he launch the infamous commercial venture with a social undercut; Product Red, but he sits on the board of Elevation Partners, the American private equity firm, has a hotel in Ireland and in his spare time co-founded DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade in Africa). Sure, they’re celebrities, but they still have to make a business float or it will go bust like any other. He knows about taking risks and he knows how to implement his own concepts into a strong business model that fits with his ideals. Most of all he knows how to start a business and make any idea off the top of his head, commercially viable and that’s why the brand EDUN is now currently sold in department stores in the UK, Italy, France, Japan, Germany and Sweden.
The line inspired by the Weimer period and Bauhaus cuts has cleverly been designed to appeal to the current avant-garde fashionistas whilst subtly sneaking the small issue of ethics in. Founded on the premise of trade versus aid as a means of building sustainable communities, the company works on a micro-level to help build the skills sets of the factory workers where the clothes are produced. They currently produce their fashion line of men’s, women’s and kids clothes across India, Peru, Tunisia, Kenya, Uganda, Lesotho, Mauritius and Madagascar. While EDUN’s primary focus is trade, they have made sure to use organic materials, but insist this is not a priority. Their main focus is to use factories in Africa, South America, and India that provide fair wages to workers and practice good business ethics to create a business model that will encourage investment in developing nations.
They want to act as a voice that will encourage the UK business community to work with other countries fairly. Ali states; “In 1980, Africa had 6% share of the world trade. By 2002, this dropped to just 2% despite the fact that Africa has 12% of the world’s population.” Their theory is, if Africa could regain just an additional 1% share of global trade, it would earn $70 million more in exports each year. This is several times more than what the region currently receives in international assistance. Ali and Bono have been drumming on about this for a while now but it’s also good to see they’re realistic, frequently stressing that Project Red and EDUN are not charity side-projects, “this is not philanthropy.” Indeed it’s not, it’s a commercial venture.
“Philanthropy is like hippy music, holding hands. Project Red is more like punk rock, hip-hop, this should feel like hard commerce”, he passionately says. By the looks of it EDUN is heading in the same place only with a softer edge and a more versatile feel to the brand, and this is where the business acumen feels most apparent. Product Red, after all, another initiative begun by Bono was a cock-sure urban brand first, a business, that generated funding for AIDS research, through the exclusive branding of commercial products. He attracted the attention of American Express, Apple, Converse, Motorola, Microsoft, Dell, Gap, and Armani. The business model, quite cunningly, was formulated so that each company would create a limited-edition product with the Product Red logo, then a percentage of the profits from the sale of these labelled products would go to the Global Fund. But if corporate play is what defines you as businessmen/woman, then both Ali and Bono have dabbled in a little big shot business too, through private equity investment firm Elevation Partners. Elevation Partners became the first outsider to invest in the company, taking a minority stake in Forbes Media LLC, a new company encompassing the 89-year-old business which includes Forbes magazine, the Forbes.com website and other assets and has no doubt elevated the Hewsons business credentials.
Ali Hewson is certainly the one to watch out for, she’s a whole different kettle of fish. She reeks of entrepreneurial spirit and doesn’t care much for courting the media. She’s calm, collected and precise and seems to have the determination to quietly do the graft work and get EDUN up there as a major brand. “I knew that if we really wanted to make a difference we had to do it with this company. I didn’t have any other skills to be honest. I don’t regret it. I still get a fright when somebody recognises me because of EDUN in America – that’s never happened before. Our main focus is to get this brand to be right up there with the big boys, and encourage more businesses to work the same way.” So can fashion really have a conscience? In a world where fashion is becoming disposable and heavily priced? Where a bag can cost as little as £10 or as much as £10,000, can you really cater to the concerns of both the consumer and worker and expect healthy business profits? “Yes” she says. ” it’s the consumer who’s leading the move towards socially conscious clothing and EDUN was founded with that in mind.
People want to feel good as well as look good in what they wear. They want to know that their clothes tell a good story. It has gone beyond questions being asked about what is in our food. People want transparency about the manufacturing of products that they buy. They know it is special when they buy a product that also has meaning, meaning is becoming the new luxury!” You can appreciate their enthusiasm, especially when asked if it’s possible to be 100 per cent in control of a product’s journey, from design to manufacture to retail. “Well trying is always possible! It’s also certainly possible to take actions to continually improve conditions. We work with a number of third party monitors to assist us with the 100% target.” It’s refreshing to find that they both know their strengths and weaknesses, and that they don’t set ridiculous goals. They refuse to take shortcuts, “Why take the easy road when you can take the hard one is our family motto.”
Fashion has always seemed particularly wasteful, with trends changing every six months. So why have they made it their mission to save the fashion industry? “The remarkable thing about fashion is that it is seen as such a superficial industry, but for that reason there is so much potential in it to do more and develop. Due to unfair world trade policies, Africa in particular has been really suffering from soar deals. A commitment from the fashion industry. Working both environmentally and with conscience, could help certain countries in the continent get back on the world trade ladder, in a responsible way. That makes the fashion industry a positive force.” So is business a place for politics today and can you really make a profit from a fair trade business model? “Shopping has become politics.” Hewson responds. “People are realising that they not only have a political vote but they also have a directly effective economic vote! They can shut down companies by refusing to buy their products. This in turn influences trends and therefore government policies. There is real power in people’s pockets today. EDUN is just responding to their demands. Developing clothes that are desirable is our aim. You can do both!”
Ali Hewson has a social science degree under her belt and even some avid followers insisting she run for Ireland’s next prime minister. When questioned as to where the decison to do things ‘ethically’ rose from, and why they feel they must encourage businesses to become responsible, she sharply replies: “There is pressure as a mother to do the right thing. I would not want my children to wear clothes made by other people’s children,” she says. “The pressure for ethical trading is coming directly from the consumer and it’s a positive thing. It is changing the way the world does business and I approve of that.
It’s not about being self-righteous, we are responding to a growing market that wants to consume products differently. I know small businesses are always under pressure but they can take measures to be ethically compliant without threatening their profits,” she says. Their branding includes signature prints and graphics that are often dark, blended with a bit of romance. The Rainer Maria Rilke poem, The Eighth Elegy, is imprinted inside the pockets of all EDUN’s jeans. Taping on jackets, tops and denim bears the slogan “we carry the story of the people who make our clothes around with us.” I think they’ve got a point, consumers are starting to want a connection with what they buy, there definitely seems to be more guilt upon us all, free range this, cruelty-free that, who would have thought a little humility would prove lucrative?