Is EDUN a success?

In 2008, as part of a conference goodie-bag, I received an EDUN t-shirt. The shirt’s tags indicated my shirt was made in Peru, from organic Peruvian cotton. The small pamphlet attached to it noted that the company, started by Bono and his wife Ali Hewson, was focused on sustainable, ethical and eco-friendly fashions. I remember liking the shirt and the story behind it, especially because my job at the time had me focusing on economic development for small-holder farmers in rural Peru. I liked the idea that not only was the organic cotton produced in Peru, but instead of being exported as a raw material, the value-added product was created there in Peruvian factories, thus enhancing economic returns locally.

Me and my Peruvian-made EDUN shirt

EDUN’s mission though, according to Ali Hewson is to make a profit — not because the executive board needs the money but to demonstrate to other entrepreneurs that it’s possible to do so in developing countries, paying fair wages and relying on local raw material entirely processed and manufactured by local labor, from start to finish.

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An article entitled “Out of Africa, Into Asia” in Friday’s Wall Street Journal explains how the company decided to move a majority of the production to China because of various issues with the manufacturers in the developing world, particularly in Africa. Delivery delays and quality problems were affecting the clothing line to the point where the company hosted “a party in the dark, at the chic cabaret venue The Box, to draw attention away from the clothes.”

According to the WSJ:

After putting around $20 million of their own money into the still-unprofitable brand, Bono and Ms. Hewson sold 49% of the company last year to LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton for about $7.8 million. LVMH, the world’s largest luxury conglomerate, helped the company recruit new management and a new designer (Mr. Gregory left in 2007), and then tried to convince the founders to expand their sourcing horizons.

Currently, 15% of EDUN’s products are manufactured in Africa; this particular point led to an interesting conversation on Twitter about whether this means that EDUN is succeeding in its mission, or if in fact it has failed to accomplish what it set out to do. Some argued that EDUN was proving that it was possible to run a for-profit enterprise with a strong commitment to fair and ethical practices. Others – myself included – questioned whether EDUN could be considered successful given how much it seems to be deviating from its original intent.

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I can relate to both sides of the argument here. Bono and his wife set out on a creative enterprise which they hope can become a model. As Hewson told the WSJ in 2009, EDUN is supposed to demonstrate that a for-profit business can be successful and ethical at the same time. This in turn can encourage other businesses to adopt new practices: sourcing products (and not just raw materials) from factories with strong labor and environmental standards in developing countries. These are obviously laudable goals that should be supported. However, my concern lies with the fact that Bono and Hewson didn’t actually prove that this was possible through EDUN, given all the issues they encountered in making their vision a reality.

In EDUN’s “mission” section of their website, it seems rather obvious that the focus is strongly on Africa. A rather tedious and unoriginal video of schoolchildren dancing in a school in the slum of Kibera and a slideshow of nameless organic cotton farmers adorn the webpage, along with a “Made in Africa”section, ominously subtitled “coming soon…”

The mission statement talks about about two partnerships: one with the aforementioned school in Kibera, and the Conservation Cotton Initiative in Northern Uganda with Invisible Children (everyone’s favorite advocacy organization) and the Wildlife Conservation Society. Leaving aside the merits of these two initiatives, they do speak to the rather small-scale scope of EDUN’s impact on African manufacturing. Which is precisely why I find it difficult to construe EDUN as a success: they have only very partially achieved their goal of having their fashion clothing line produced in African factories.

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In the WSJ article, Ali Hewson makes it clear where EDUN’s priorities lie: “we focused too much on the mission in the beginning. It’s the clothes, it’s the product. It’s a fashion company. That needs to be first and foremost.” Now this makes perfect business sense – a good company sells quality, in-demand products at the lowest possible cost in order to maximize revenues. What this suggests, though, is that the fair trade aspect of the mission – while still present – is not a priority. This is reflected in the decision to source a majority of products from China, with only a nominal portion coming from Africa. Furthermore, as EDUN’s website suggests, their efforts in Africa seem to be informed by somewhat vague principles and guidelines.

The problem is that EDUN, under these circumstances, is hardly demonstrating that “doing good while doing well” is a viable way to run a business. In fact, I’d argue quite the opposite. Their initial focus on product marketing (through celebrity ad campaigns and thanks to Bono’s superstar status) rather than on developing a viable, sustainable business model eventually forced them to rethink their model. This is particularly frustrating because EDUN could have easily sought to do its homework properly and anticipate the predictable problems they ran into. Saundra Schimmelpfennig wrote about this exact topic last year, and there are hundreds of entrepreneurs in the same space whose counsel could have been sought.

EDUN failed to learn the lessons of their predecessors’ mistakes in order to make their model succeed has they originally intended. Instead of proving that their business model was viable, they seem to have proved exactly the opposite. If it Bono hadn’t had the ability to throw $20mm of his own money into the company when it was suffering financially, if he didn’t have the kind of prestige that would make LVMH purchase the flailing, unprofitable company, I highly doubt EDUN would still exist today.

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I’m one to be supportive of daring entrepreneurship, both social and commercial, and I do have a lot of respect for people who have the courage to throw their energy into creating a successful enterprise. That said, when it comes to EDUN, I feel that the efforts were superficial, in more ways than one. Had EDUN done better research, they might have come up with a better model than what led them to be pretty much ashamed of the clothes that came from Africa (cf. the party in the dark to draw attention away from the clothes – for a fashion company!?) I don’t think anyone considering investing in African business would look to Bono and EDUN’s example as a model for success… In fact, I would imagine that looking at EDUN would discourage potential investors.

It seems that we don’t hold Bono to the same standards we hold non-rock star entrepreneurs. His mere trying to succeed appears to be enough to endear him to his supporters. Frankly, I feel Bono doesn’t deserve much praise here. If he was truly committed to supporting African cotton farmers, sellers and manufacturers, he could have invested in a few small or medium size clothing factories, for example. Industry in the developing world needs capital and improved operational standards, and there are several organizations which focus precisely on achieving this. The Grassroots Business Fund, for instance, makes equity, quasi-equity, and debt investments in the $250,000 – $1,000,000 range in agricultural and artisanal businesses, as well as access to finance and BoP services.

I understand: EDUN is a fashion clothes line, not an aid project. Fair enough. But then let’s see this for what it really is: one among many lines of clothing designed and marketed by a celebrity, with an ethical “twist.” To say that EDUN is a “game-changing” initiative is giving much too much credit to an enterprise which essentially failed to accomplish the mission it set out for itself.

6 thoughts on “Is EDUN a success?

  1. Yeah, pretty much agree with all you’ve written here, though as I was saying on twitter over the last few days, I don’t think the problem is so much with Bono and his wife as with the model. I’m not aware of many ethical businesses, particularly in fashion, who have been able to build stable long-term enterprises which a) do not rely on a significant number of people buying the products out of guilt b) are of poor quality or design c) have dubious benefits to those they intend to help or d) totally sell out from the original vision.

    If you’re seeking to source products away from where everyone else is doing it, you’re going to be heading for tremendous difficulties and there is a high likelihood you will fail no matter how strong your motivation to help. There is a reason why everyone else is not sourcing there! I’ve some experience of small clothing factories in unusual places and I doubt that Bono or anyone else would help them even with large amounts of investment.

    We desperately need to turn the page and find better solutions to support the development of clothing factory workers. Imagining we can somehow get rich people to consume others out of poverty self evidently does not work.

    1. Like I mentioned on Twitter, I think that a broader paradigm shift in the rules of international trade for ethical fashion enterprises to be truly successful and sustainable. The type of investments that are needed – in capital, time, and training – are difficult to reconcile with the demands of profitability. New attitudes and perspectives from shareholders are going to be important; so will consumer behavior. But I also think that improvements in international trade regulation are key, as the terms of trade are still terribly skewed towards richer countries….
      It’s interesting to me that people like you and Saundra are clearly knowledgeable about the potential problems associated with these types of venture. A lot has already been learned by entrepreneurs before Bono, and taking the time to absorb these lessons of the past is essential. In my mind, that’s at least one part of how – collectively – we can find a better way to make the model work.

  2. Great post. And a good view from both sides of the coin. I think that this was a purely vanity play. As you said, if he wanted to prove that investment in Africa can be workable… he forgot to realize that you need “patience” to realize your investment. Fashion is not the way to do that. It is a fickle business and you have to have

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