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Ali Hewson on Fair Trade Fashion, Motherhood and Celebrity

For a rock star’s wife and co-founder of a coveted fashion label, Ali Hewson is surprisingly down-to-earth, both literally and figuratively. She’s quick to illustrate the latest from Edun, the socially-responsible label she and husband Bono launched in 2005, by standing up to show us the folds of her own drapey black sweater as tactile proof of the spring collection’s soft, easy-going attitude. But the mother of four and longtime activist is also intensely committed to the earth itself, both through her clothing company’s efforts to support economic growth and fair trade practices in developing parts of Africa, Peru and India, as well as through her work with Nude Skincare, a natural cosmetics line she cofounded with Bryan Meehan. During her visit to San Francisco this week to kick-off a two-week pop-up shop of Edun’s spring/summer 2009 collection at Clary Sage Organics, Hewson sat down with us yesterday afternoon at the Clift Hotel to chat about fair trade, motherhood and celebrity.

How great of a challenge is it for a fashion company to try to go organic?

Huge. We aren’t completely organic. We had a trade-off between what we could do to make it about fair trade and what we could do to make it about sustainability and what we could do organically. Being completely organic is very difficult. You might have a button that’s not organic....It’s a road, and we’re definitely on a journey.

What misconceptions do you think people often have about fair trade?

I think fair trade has gotten wrapped up in a lot of red tape. Quite often, the farmer has to pay to get the stamp of approval, and [the cotton farmers Edun works with] are farmers that can’t afford it. I think the approval system is not right....It’s not as cut and dry as people feel it is. It’s a dialog, and it’s an educational process, and it’s about understanding the culture [of] where the clothing comes from.

How did you come to the decision that encouraging economic development in developing countries was more effective than charity? Was there a specific experience you had that taught you that?

No. Like everyone else, I started off with that idea, and it was through learning more about it and understanding the way forward that trade was far more beneficial. It gives back dignity. If Africa could just gain back one percent of global trade, it would be about two-and-a-half times what they receive in aid at this point. 

Through Bono’s trips to Africa, he always came back with the idea that they just needed a helping hand, a committed response.

Why did you decide to launch a fashion company? Is there something about fashion that lends itself to social responsibility?

We decided we wanted to do something on a micro level and put our money where our mouth was. With clothing, it being the first industry that develops in a developing world, the cotton industry was already there and the factories were already there.

Along with Edun, you’re also a co-founder of Nude Skincare.

It was part of a natural progression. If you’re concerned about what’s in your food, and you’re concerned about what’s in your clothing, your skin is an organ, too. All of these things are a natural progression.

Did becoming a mother change your outlook on organic products?

Of course. Definitely my awareness changed completely. You become the protector.With Edun, there was a strong desire to buy clothes for my children that weren’t made by other people’s children.

Do you think celebrities have a responsibility to use their high profiles to support causes?

Most of them feel that way. The negative of being a celebrity is that all eyes are on you. But if you do want to say something, you can make a statement. I have huge admiration for people who go out there and stand up for a cause. They don’t have to do it.

Any favorite San Francisco spots?

I think San Francisco is a favorite spot. Every time I come, it amazes me. I have a lot of friends here, so I really enjoy being here.