Biodiversity ‘EcoChic’ At UN: “Organic, Fair Trade, And Damn Sexy” 22/01/2010 by Kaitlin Mara for Intellectual Property Watch 4 Comments Share this:Click to share on Twitter (Opens in new window)Click to share on LinkedIn (Opens in new window)Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to email this to a friend (Opens in new window)Click to print (Opens in new window) Biodiversity preservation is getting a makeover, or so hope the organisers of an “EcoChic” event at the Palais de Nations yesterday. Attendees strategised about how the fickle spirit of fashion might be harnessed to support the UN Convention on Biological Diversity’s access and benefit-sharing regime and sustainability goals, as staff carefully anchored helium-filled white lanterns above a normally staid conference chamber and participants balanced on noticeably higher heels than normally seen in UN corridors. “The zeitgeist is changing,” said Peter Ingwersen, the founder of Denmark-based label Noir. People are suddenly doing and talking about business in such a different way that “even Al Gore turned sexy.” EcoChic, a Hong Kong-based environmental charity, sponsored the two-day “Best Use of Nature” conference with the UN Conference on Trade and Development against the backdrop of the UN’s official ‘year of biodiversity’ campaign that began this month. Conversations about intellectual property rights were for the most part upstaged by talk of fashion, but the challenge of ethical dressing involves by necessity many of the issues of interest to IP community. Many of the designs paraded down the runway make use of traditional knowledge. Paqocha [corrected], an Ecuadorian-based company, makes use of long-held techniques for spinning wool of Andean Alpacas, and Royah, an Afghanistan-based company makes coats from locally-made fabrics and incorporates embroidery inspired by traditional Persian work. “Traditional knowledge is part of these products that are being used increasingly in the fashion world,” said Lucas Assuncao of UNCTAD. “There’s a lot of value when you say this is a traditional African texture or a traditional Latin American way of dying” a textile. “What we tried to do” with the idea of biotrade is “support developing countries to strengthen their sectors of biodiversity-based products,” he told Intellectual Property Watch. UNCTAD, he said, was interested in adding value to biobased products, and designers want to be seen as biodiversity friendly. UNCTAD “would like to introduce some principles, said Lucas, as by and large designers are “not at all aware” of the Convention on Biological Diversity. [The 1993 CBD agreement works to conserve biological diversity, encourage its sustainable use, and ensure equitable benefit-sharing from the use of genetic resources.] But this may be changing. Stylist and image consultant Zoë Robinson, who specialises in ethical fashion, says she tries to promote in her clients the idea that “once you’ve bought [an item of clothing], it’s your responsibility, like a puppy,” which means you pay attention to its lifespan, and whatever waste products it creates. The key, though, is ethical fashion still “has to be in fashion rules,” that is quality, fit and colour have to be there, with ethics mixed in as a bonus, said Ingwersen, who worked for Levi’s jeans until 2001 when it no longer felt right “just to produce another pair of pants.” Noir is his attempt to “turn corporate social responsibility sexy.” Using traditional knowledge also carries responsibilities, said Assuncao. You cannot go “to a remote village in Africa… find this great textile… and sell it in Milan for 1000 times more. You make sure that those who make this technique get compensated somehow,” he added, and as such the access and benefit-sharing regime under negotiation at the CBD is very important. At the same time, the higher profile brought to issues of biodiversity by the fashion world will have an impact on biodiversity discussions currently ongoing at the CBD, said Maria Julia Oliva, who works for the Union for Ethical BioTrade. “Once you’ve bought [an item of clothing], it’s your responsibility, like a puppy.” – ethical stylist Zoë Robinson Technology transfer is another critical part of the eco fashion trade. The cotton used in Noir lines is produced in Uganda where farmers could not compete with heavily subsidised producers in the United States, and could not even afford pesticides. Rather than try to compete, let’s try to develop the most expensive cotton in the world, and “sell the story” of the cotton which Ingwersen called “organic, fair trade, and damn sexy.” The story being sold now supports 16,000 farmers, and a local partner runs radio shows every Sunday to train people in organic farming techniques and to host debates over how to handle problems that arise in cotton growing. Though fashion is still fashion, and that means all is not bread and roses. The vast majority of the money is still concentrated on the hands of end producers, and Noir uses fur, which has been questioned in other fora for both environmental and animal ethics reasons. Labelling Ecoproducts It is “very nice to say that you are using this textile” or biodiversity product, said Assuncao. “But how can you prove it? How can you go beyond the greenwashing stage?” Greenwashing refers to a practice of companies using the green ethic to advertise but not backing it up with truly green practice. There is really a “certification jungle,” said Ingwersen. Some organic labels, for instance, contain labour standards such as the avoidance of child labour, said Robinson. But consumers have no way of knowing. In the beginning there was a lot of enthusiasm over organic labels, but there is now doubt, Ingwersen said. Governments are not requiring such labelling, and that means they are not investing in education around it. And environmental auditors are often bottom-line driven. “[You] don’t know what you’re getting into bed with these certifications bodies,” he said. There is “not an enabling policy environment yet,” for such regulation, said Assuncao. The CBD process is a way to introduce it, however. And, he added, marks for fair trade and biodiversity can “block participation.” Fabric’s High Tech Future Still Outpaces Patent Law Ingwersen predicted that high-tech designs would be the wave of the future. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is, he said “breaking new boundaries on man-made fibres” which can be as sustainable as their natural counterparts. But it is unlikely that patents will be used for such innovations. Trade secrets are far more common in the fashion world than applications for IP protection, because the business “moves too fast,” for patents to be relevant. A patent system where backlogs mean that applications may not be granted for three years (IPW, WIPO, 17 September 2009), will have a hard time in an industry where tastes change every few months. As with all things fashionable, time is short, said Ingwersen: “We have only 2-3 years before this dies, there is a window of opportunity and if we don’t grab it now it will be gone.” Share this:Click to share on Twitter (Opens in new window)Click to share on LinkedIn (Opens in new window)Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to email this to a friend (Opens in new window)Click to print (Opens in new window) Related Kaitlin Mara may be reached at email@example.com."Biodiversity ‘EcoChic’ At UN: “Organic, Fair Trade, And Damn Sexy”" by Intellectual Property Watch is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.