Fairtrade Interview: Equa founder Penny Cooke

March 2, 2009 by greenmystyle 

Islington-based ethical boutique Equa has been stocking fairly traded fashion labels since it opened in 2005. Already a destination store for stylish shoppers with a heart, Equa is about to add two new fair trade ranges for Spring Summer 09, and is celebrating with a special one-day-only 20% discount. greenmystyle.com editor Sarah Woodhead gets the gossip from founder Penny Cooke. Greenmystyle.com’s Fairtrade Fortnight content is sponsored by Equa.

Sarah: Hi Penny. I hear you’re adding to your fair trade ranges. That’s excellent. How long have you been supporting fair trade fashion?
Penny: Equa opened the Islington boutique in September 2005, and our online boutique launched a year later in October 2006. We have always had an ethical buying policy.  Equa was the first ethical boutique of its kind in London offering ethical fashion on the high street.

Sarah: Which fair trade ranges do you have? Do tell us a little about them
Penny: All of the labels we sell have been produced under the principles of fair trade. Our most well know fair trade label would probably be People Tree, which supports many different fair trade groups and cooperatives in the developing world and uses a lot of Fairtrade Foundation-certified organic cotton in its pieces.  People Tree is dedicated to using local skills and traditional methods to produce many of its collections.

We also have a relatively new label called Annie Greenabelle, which we have stocked since Autumn Winter 2007. It’s one of our best-selling labels, and uses a lot of Fairtrade Foundation-certified organic cotton and reclaimed fabrics in its collections.  It is a great label appealing to many different age groups and its prices (between £30 – £100) means it is very affordable.

One of my favourite labels is La Lesso for the Summer.  It produces the collection in Kenya using local skills and the fabrics are inspired by traditional African prints.  La Lesso’s collection for Equa will be available in store and online from the middle of April.

Aura Que large shopper

Aura Que large shopper

Sarah: So what about these new ranges we’ve heard about?
Penny: Well, we are very excited to be getting in Ivana Basilotta and new accessories label Aura Que.  We have sold vegan handbags from Matt&Nat for a long time now and they do sell incredibly well, however there are those people who really do want a leather handbag and nothing else will do.  Aura Que has answered this need producing beautiful leather handbags made under IFAT regulations in Nepal.  All the bags are dyed in an environmentally-friendly way and the leather used is a by-product of the food industry, minimising waste.  We’ll be getting three styles in from the end of February and I personally cannot wait to get my hands on one.

Sarah: What makes them fair trade? How will shoppers be able to tell?
Penny: As a starting point everything Equa sells has to be produced under the principles of fair trade. This means decent working conditions, at least a living wage and working benefits such as access to unions and paid overtime.  Fair trade also means that the work undertaken has a positive effect on the community as a whole.  A group in Nepal that People Tree work with called Kumbeshwar Technical School (KTS) allows the underprivileged ‘pode’ class to learn skills and earn a wage.  The group now employs 240 people (six years ago it was 15), who are able to send their children to the KTS primary school (50% funded by People Tree), this in turn empowers the whole community not only by giving an education to those who may not otherwise have been able to afford it, but also has a trickledown effect to the rest of the pode community.

Ethical is a very broad word and can be confusing as it means so many different things.  Every piece of clothing hanging up at Equa has one of our Equa swing-tags that not only tells a shopper what the size and price is but also states which ethical criteria that piece adheres to.  All collections produced under the principles of fair trade are labelled ‘Fairly Traded’.

It is also important to remember that poor working conditions in factories isn’t just limited to the developing world.  Where our collections are produced in the developed world we label these items as being ‘Ethically Produced’. This means that the factories in which they are made meet fair trade guidelines for working conditions, and many of the factories have or are working towards ISO certification (International Organisation for Standardisation).

Sarah: Why is it important for style shoppers to think about fairly traded fashion?
Penny: This is one of the most important things for fair trade fashion.  The style-conscious consumer is the hardest nut to crack as they have such high standards when it comes to what they wear.  But it is this customer that is most likely to really change things, they are the ones who not only follow trends but also set them, if they don’t like the ethical fashion on offer they simply won’t buy it, which in turn means that mainstream shops and boutiques won’t sell it. Online magazines such as greenmystyle.com are really helping to move fair trade and ethical fashion into the mainstream arena by showing consumers that there really is an ethical option out there that doesn’t compromise on style.

Sarah: How do you find new fair trade fashion collections?
Penny: Finding new labels that will really work at Equa can be a challenge.  London Fashion Week has its ethical section Esthetica, and Pure launched an ethical area at this year’s show and we went to both of these shows to find new labels.  It is a never-ending search and we’re always on the look out!

Sarah: What are the biggest challenges for fair trade fashion as you see it?
Penny: Since Equa opened in 2005 fair trade fashion has really moved on.  It is incredible to see the number of labels out there actively supporting fair trade principles and really doing their best to make a difference with their businesses.

The real challenge, and I know this has been said a number of time before, is to make fair trade not the exception but the norm in the fashion industry.  To do this, mainstream fashion houses need to work towards improving their production and supply chains.  This is why I am really excited about Made By which is being launched in the UK during London Fashion Week.  Made By is an umbrella group that works with labels to get their production into shape. Fair trade labels such as Edun and Kuyichi work with them, but they are also working with other mainstream labels such as Alchemist (stocked at Equa) and Jackpot.  Both of these labels are dedicated to improving not only working conditions but also using more and more environmentally sustainable fabrics in their collections.  Alchemist uses organic cotton for its basics range and this season we are getting in some of its new bamboo pieces.

Sarah: Is Equa doing anything exciting during Fairtrade Fortnight?
Penny: Our new Spring Summer collection will be coming in throughout Fairtrade Fortnight, including our new labels.  We are also going to have an evening at the boutique where our customers can come along and shop over a glass of organic wine and receive a 20% discount on all new season collections that evening.  This will be on Wednesday 11th March from 5 – 8pm, and if you can’t make it to our Islington Boutique then the 20% discount will be available online all day on the 11th when entering the code EQUAFTF09.


One Response to “Fairtrade Interview: Equa founder Penny Cooke”

  1. green fashion on June 22nd, 2009 8:30 PM

    u can also find La lesso collection in the United States at boutiquemix.com

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