Posted on Mon, May 1st, 2006 in Articles
BY JESSICA HEMMINGS
Edun, the socially conscious clothing company founded by Ali Hewson and Bono, has courted the press since its launch in the spring 2005. The business is self-described as for-profit; based on the premise that trade must be built before long-term solutions to poverty can become sustainable. Production of the high-end collection currently takes place in Peru, India, Tunisia and sub-Saharan Africa. The company’s sub-brand, edun LIVE, sports even more ambitious credentials. Dedicated to the wholesale market, edun Live has focused on the production of cotton t-shirts. As a marketing concept it may seem suspiciously simple, but when you consider how many people own, wear and regularly replace the simple cotton tee, it is a concept that makes good sense.
The good intentions of the EDUN brand have found a viable volume market in edun LIVE. This volume market, as opposed to the small and ever changing orders required by a high-end brand, mean sustainable employment opportunities for the individuals who are involved with each stage of the production process. Fabric, colour and cut remain consistent each season. Currently, the line includes basics – women’s, men’s, unisex, kids and toddlers styles in several sizes and three standard colours: Positively Black, Great White, and Super Natural. It might not be the sort of fashion to land the cover of Vogue, but consistency is very good news for the individuals whose livelihoods depend on the farming and processing of the cotton used to make the t-shirts. There are plans, when the time is right, to expand the range to include additional colours and styles.
“Grow-to-sew African” is the phrase the marketing brains at edun LIVE have coined to explain the production cycle that now takes place entirely within sub-Saharan Africa. This lengthy process stretches from the farming and harvesting of the cotton to the ginning, spinning, knitting, dyeing and finally sewing of the cloth into t-shirts. Christine Driscoll, Business Development Manager of edun LIVE explains, “The ethos is about our commitment to seeing the value chain remain in Africa.”
February of 2007 marked a milestone for the company with the first shipment of grow-to-sew organic t-shirts produced in Uganda. Currently one-third of all edun LIVE production is certified organic with all the cotton produced in Uganda for the brand now organically farmed. Currently the organic t-shirts are available in the natural colour of un-dyed, unbleached organic cotton. Ecocert, the French equivalent of Britain’s Soil Association, certifies the garments. This year consulting firms have been brought on board to discuss feasibility studies in connection with a new fund called the Conservation Cotton Initiative (CCI) that EDUN recently launched with the Wildlife Conservation Society. The CCI will support and educate farmers as they make the transition to organic while preserving the natural wildlife habitats in which they live. As Christine Driscoll explains, the move from conventional to organic farming can be a daunting one for farmers. “The transition to organic farming must be supported,” Driscoll observes. “After the transition to organic, the crop yield drops so farmers need support from experts to help teach them about converting, as well as economic support during the transition period. Finally we need to bring the market to them.”
While the plain black, white and natural coloured t-shirts are delivered ready for costumers to print with logos or text as required, the company accepts that the post-purchase printing clients use may not continue the standards established in the garment’s production. “We print our labels with PVC-free, water based ink” Driscoll explains, “but some countries do not have that resource; not all of our customers can access PVC-free ink.” A better-than-nothing mentality seems to be at play here: small sustainable steps in the right direction, rather than a hasty rush to claim perfection.
Driscoll likens Africa’s current textile industry to an hourglass. The raw cotton is farmed in Africa but then quickly exported because “mills are too few and far between.” The result is that countries that produce the raw materials often miss out on the benefit of their labours, which are instead enjoyed by those who process the cotton, such as Turkey. Before the continent’s textile production industry dwindles to nothing, the mills that allow Africa to create garments inside their own countries require internal support. “Africa’s apparel and textile markets are precarious because of competition from the Chinese market,” Driscoll explains. The factories, understandably, are where the jobs lie. But the current economic climate of stiff competition from inexpensive Chinese imports means that the factories of sub-Saharan Africa are not operating anywhere near capacity.
On the horizon looms a further threat. The United States’ African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) will be reviewed in 2012 and could, after review, expire. The policy currently provides duty free import status for sub-Saharan goods moving into the US for sale. More importantly, it allows for the goods sub-Saharan Africa exports to the US to originate, in part, from outside the region. Fabric, for example, could be woven or knit in China, but claim duty free status when entering the United States if the garment is constructed in sub-Saharan Africa. Because of the underdevelopment of the grow-to-sew cycle in the region, this clause provides crucial time for the apparel industry to develop. But the prospect of this tax-free status ending in the near future would lead to contraction, rather than growth, of this fragile economy.
A further twist of fate is, ironically, the increasingly popularity of organic cotton. As this niche market expands by popular demand, the prices paid for organic cotton continue to increase. Grow-to-sew keeps the entire production cycle within the sub-Saharan region, meaning the countries desperately in need of work are able to do the work. Without this network, the valuable organic cotton is exported after harvesting. This movement takes the bulk of profits to be earned away from the region where the resource is farmed and into countries with a more competitive and established manufacturing infrastructure.
In many respects the innovation of edun LIVE lies in its pragmatism. Total control over every stage in the life of a printed t-shirt is an enormous undertaking. Instead the company has elected to chip away at a long list of concerns: dyes for labels that are more environmentally friendly, reduction of fuel thirsty transport between the different stages of the production cycle, even the vagaries of fashion. “A more holistic approach,” is how Driscoll describes it. With the announcement that edun LIVE has recently sold its millionth t-shirt, the model seems to be doing a lot more that is right than wrong. In fact it is a model edun LIVE would love to see the world shamelessly copy.
EcoTextile News (28-29)