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Isobel Davies is an ethical entrepreneur
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Isobel Davies is an ethical entrepreneur
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"I never felt daunted by anything I had no experience in."
21 May 2012

Isobel Davies is an ethical entrepreneur

Interview by Elizabeth Evans
Photography by Siddharth Khajuria

Elizabeth Evans on Isobel Davies

All cheekbones and eyelashes, Isobel Davies has that just-fell-out-of-bed glamour so typical of French film stars and anyone who dated a Rolling Stone in the 1960s. She has an unassuming air, a quiet elegance, and a slight whiff of intrigue, but don’t be fooled. Beneath that unstructured mystique lies a fierce passion for animals that’s driven Isobel, directly against the odds, to launch three successful businesses, all shaped by her concern for the nonhuman world.

A pioneering ethical entrepreneur, she now runs two vegetarian brands and an award-winning fashion label. Chances are you’re not a cow, a sheep, or a hen, but if you’re a politically-motivated vegan, you’d be fully forgiven for praising the day she was born.

On paper, Isobel’s ideas resemble pipe dreams but her strong, essentially punk ethic has steadily seen her carve out a reality for her expanding vision. In 1994, initially looking to promote a meat-free lifestyle, she launched Farmaround, the first organic veggie box delivery scheme in the UK, and quite possibly the world.

Thirteen years later she took things a step further when she found a viable way to save farm animals from the food chain with the establishment of Izzy Lane, a luxury wool-based fashion line. Inspired to revive the ailing UK textiles industry by stopping British fleece from being tossed into the furnace or shipped off to China, she set about rescuing rare breed Wensleydales and Shetlands, and had the wool processed and made up to her own designs locally. Izzy Lane is now a thriving label that has won the RSPCA Good Business Award, collaborated with Top Shop and staged a catwalk for the Queen.

Most recently, Davies realised a plan to keep cows and hens away from the slaughterhouse when she got together with controversial UK columnist Liz Jones last year to set up Good Food Nation, the first milk and egg brand which supports its animals for the duration of their natural lifespan.

To say Isobel relishes a challenge would be an understatement. Her ventures rest on a delicate balancing act of razor sharp business acumen, and wild risk-taking, all beaten together with confidence and belief.

She’s upset the British Wool Marketing Board with talk of an animal welfare standard for wool, her partnership with the provocative Jones has attracted bitchy press attacks, and her inauguration of a cruelty-free dairy line has upset certain factions of the farming community. She moves in worlds that drive her to tears, but instead of getting overwhelmed and stuck, she responds with even bigger visions.

These days Isobel splits her time between muddy fields and trips to the metropolis, having left London to be with her beloved sheep on her farm in Richmond, North Yorkshire. Her passion for animals is unfaltering, pushing her through potential difficulties so fast she doesn’t seem to notice they’re there. She calls herself a rebel. In terms of a 21st century entrepreneur, her cause makes her nothing less than revolutionary.

This story originally ran in issue #31 of Dumbo Feather

ELIZABETH EVANS: I remember when you launched Farmaround, Britain’s first organic veggie box delivery scheme. And here you are, 18 years later, rescuing sheep and designing luxury wool clothing for your own ethical fashion label. That’s quite a leap.

ISOBEL DAVIES: Well, I guess I like to challenge myself and do things that haven’t been done before. And the beauty of ethical business is that it’s a win–win situation isn’t it? My work has given me a platform to talk about the things I really care about. And the more successful you are, the more benefit there is in the world, even though it’s on a small scale. I mean I couldn’t imagine running a business selling little plastic widgets or something. So while I love business, it has to involve something I feel passionately about otherwise I couldn’t spend my life doing it. And for me, it always comes down to the animals.

You haven’t had any formal fashion training have you?

No, I’ve always just launched myself into things. If I went through formal training for all the things I’ve done I’d spend all my time in training!

It reminds me of when I first started out as a music journalist. I had no idea of how it all worked, but looking back, I think my ignorance was really valuable in that process because it meant I never felt intimidated.

Exactly. I really enjoy going into something I know nothing about. You do look at things differently if you do it that way. If I’d been to fashion college, I’d have been conditioned into thinking about how I should and shouldn’t have done things. But being on the outside gave me a more objective view of it, and a very different one to the one I’d have had if I’d been coming at it from within the fashion industry. I might well have found it more daunting had I had that training, and I might have thought it was all impossible.

This story originally ran in issue #31 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #31 of Dumbo Feather

So it’s much more interesting not to have been trained. I mean life is about the challenge isn’t it?

Definitely. But why fashion? I’m intrigued by what led you from running your veggie box business to designing clothes?

Well, I started out as a singer-songwriter with an indie band called Edith Strategy in the early 1990s, so I’ve always had an interest in fashion, and always had a lot of personal influences. I loved the tailoring of the 1940s and 1950s when they were using all this beautiful wool, it was fantastic in those days. And also I remember the strong styles of the 1960s and the 1970s from when I was little. But even though I love those classic looks, I could never appear manicured because my hair’s always such a mess. So that’s always a giveaway—I’m a rebel! And I like that kind of twist really, because it means you defy categorisation, and there’s something not quite clear cut about it all.

Yes, you can really see that with your look. It’s quite unorthodox, a bit Miss Marple meets Anita Pallenberg. Did you have a strong image in mind when you first thought about a line of clothing?

No. I had a strong idea about the fabric, but not the style or design initially. So when I first started I employed some designers but then I began doing more by myself and I do nearly all of it now. It’s a bit Victoria Beckham really!

But once you’re involved in something creative, as I was with music, it’s quite easy to transpose that creativity into another area, as long as you develop a little bit of skill. Don’t you think?

I’m not so sure…

Well I come from a standpoint of believing that we can do anything really. It’s just a question of application. Most people are more creative and capable than they give themselves credit for. I guess I was brought up to believe that. My mum really instilled in me that I could do anything I wanted to do or be anyone I wanted to be. And so I always had that strong sense of self-belief. I never felt daunted by anything I had no experience in. A lot of it is down to confidence rather than skill—believing that you can do it even if you can’t!

And in your case, a passion for animals.

Absolutely. For me, the whole point of Farmaround was to have a vegetarian business that was linked to animal habitats ultimately. So in a way, Izzy Lane was an extension of that because I’ve always looked at the position of animals in the world and the roles they play. Through meeting organic farmers who were supplying me with vegetables for the box scheme, I discovered all our wool in the UK was being burnt or buried, because the price that was being paid for it didn’t even cover the shearing costs. Due to an Act of Parliament passed in the 1950s, all British farmers are compelled by law to sell their wool clip to the British Wool Marketing Board in Bradford. So they bundle it up, and off it goes to be sorted, and then it ends up in a bulk, and at that point it loses its origins, so you have no idea which farm it’s come from or how the animals have been treated or anything. And then most of it gets shipped off to China. So it just bypasses all our textiles industry which is why it’s all collapsing. So all of this made me adamant about starting a label using British wool.

This is the point at which most people would let their lack of insider knowledge, training and experience grind them to a halt. But this marked the start of a whole new journey for you.

Yes, and first of all I had to source the wool, because I discovered it’s illegal to buy wool directly from the farmers. You have to go through the Wool Board. Then of course I realised that all of these sheep are facing slaughter, and I wanted no part in that, so I began searching the country for flocks that were being kept for reasons other than meat. There was nothing, absolutely nothing anywhere, except for the odd one that was being kept as a family pet, so it became obvious I’d have to get my own sheep. Initially I looked at the rare breed societies for Shetlands and Wensleydales, because my research taught me these produced the best wool, so I began contacting breeders saying I would buy anything that would be going to slaughter that year. I started getting a stream of male lambs, and then old ewes, ewes who’d aborted or miscarried or not got pregnant, sheep who were on the small side, and anything that was less than perfect. I didn’t realise this at first, but rare breeds are bred primarily for show so they have to conform to the perfect standard or they just get culled out.

It’s all about vanity, so in some ways it’s even more sinister than the meat market.

Anyway, then I had to deal with the Wool Board because I had more than four sheep, which was ridiculous. They make it really hard for farmers actually because they have such a monopoly and they really don’t pay a fair price for the wool. They’re one of these old institutions that were set up after the war and it probably worked in those days because farmers were getting a good price then and they didn’t have the hassle of having to find their own marketplace, but I don’t see why it was ever enshrined in law and passed through an act of parliament. You should be voluntarily able to go through them or not. But you can’t unless you become a member of the Wool Board and get an exemption licence which is what I did. It doesn’t cost anything, but it’s a difficult process. The Wool Board don’t want things to break down because they depend on this critical mass of wool coming in and they’d prefer to keep control over it rather than let the farmers operate independently, and they don’t like people coming in and stirring things up.

Which is precisely what you did.

[Laughs] Yes! The Wool Board don’t like me at all, because I’ve brought a lot of these issues to the attention of the press, but mainly because I’ve been trying to work out a way of establishing the first animal welfare standard on wool. Apart from satisfying my own desire to improve the situation for animals, I think it would be really marketable and very exportable. I nearly managed to forge a collaboration with Tesco to sell products that abided by a basic animal welfare standard, but when we approached the Wool Board they were completely immovable. As far as they were concerned, all the sheep in the UK were being raised decently, and to their minds, the introduction of a welfare standard would have undermined the entire UK wool industry, so it fell through which was immensely frustrating. I wrote to my local MP, William Hague, the former leader of the Conservative Party, and he wrote to the Wool Board on my behalf, but nothing shifted, and I haven’t done any more about it yet. I just keep moaning about it! But it’s still there in my mind. I’ve just got to figure out a way of doing it.

What would such a standard involve though? And might it not make things even more difficult for the farmers in terms of expense?

Well, it’s so simple really, and actually the farmers would get a better deal out of it. I just want to make it easy for designers to go straight to a farmer, offer them a decent price for the wool, and be able to promote that wool, that farmer and those sheep in their designs and marketing stories. A basic animal welfare standard would involve sticking to a maximum distance to slaughter, no live exports, and having regular inspections. The farmers would work in close collaboration with the welfare organisation and the designers, and get paid directly, and at the end of it all the consumer would know the whole story, just as they do with meat nowadays.

Meat has become all about the producer, and people really like that, but that kind of traceability is still completely lacking with wool and fashion. To me though it seems logical that the next step is clothing.

Someone who knows where their organic beef comes from would surely want to know where their woollen jumpers come from, because really it’s just the same isn’t it? But people go and buy their lambswool jumpers, and they have no idea that the wool has just been shaved off the skin that’s just been stripped from a dead animal.

Also, historically, in terms of clothing and ethical fashion, the concern has always been around cheap labour and issues which affect humans, and there’s never any mention at all of the creatures that supply the animal fibres. They are totally ignored.

And of course I wasn’t aware of these issues until I started looking into them, so part of my job now is to raise awareness and to educate people and make them think, and to show them how and why what I do differs from the norm. My animals aren’t going into the food chain, and that’s something that has never been done before, anywhere probably.

There are more ethical labels popping up in the UK including Eloise Grey, Makepiece and Monkton Farm, and surf brand Finisterre, who have revived the Bowmont sheep and are now producing a beanie from the wool. It seems as if you’ve been one step ahead of the Zeitgeist.

I do seem to be able to get ahead with my ideas for some reason. I don’t know what it is really. I do work very independently, because I’m just not that interested in what other people do. I’m really funny like that. I get my ideas and tend to focus on them and I don’t tend to get very influenced by other people. And because I know that I have been ahead of these trends, it’s hard to know whether I got in first or whether I’ve had a hand in actually creating them.

As I said, I put enormous pressure on the Wool Marketing Board. They’d never had an onslaught like the one I created in the press, so they really felt quite under threat and I’m sure that’s partly why they launched the Campaign for Wool, and brought in this new PR person who approached the Prince of Wales about becoming their patron, and then suddenly all these companies started backing the Made in Britain thing. Of course I don’t know exactly how instrumental I was in all this, but I’m pretty sure I had a role in it.

In 2008 you won the RSPCA Good Business Award and the RE: Fashion New Designer of the Year Award at the first ethical fashion awards in London, and you were even asked to organise a catwalk show of your collection for the Queen. Then, last year you launched your collaboration with Topshop. You’ve definitely made an impact, but big business often entails corrosion of integrity, and compromise. So what’s had to give?

Nothing. There’ve been no compromises at all with Top Shop. It wouldn’t have been in their interest to try and get us to compromise because they approached us at London Fashion Week in 2010, for exactly what we do, and they were very respectful and receptive to work with. Because of the Prince of Wales’ Campaign for Wool, they were quite keen to have British wool in their stores, and they wanted to tell the story of the rescued sheep because don’t forget, their customers are young women, most of whom are probably animal lovers. All of the coats we made with them were manufactured in Britain, nothing was outsourced to Asia or anywhere. And for us, to get onto the high street and be on the mannequins in London’s Oxford Street, and then in the Chicago and New York flagship stores was fantastic.

I think the whole problem with ethical brands is that they’ve all got the principles but they can’t sell and they can’t fund their ventures, and can’t sustain themselves. They’re all very highly principled and creative and cutting edge and movers and shakers, but I think one of the only ways forward is to get onto the high street. It’s the most effective way, otherwise you don’t get any platform, you just stay on the margins and then you’re just invisible.

This is the Vivienne Westwood approach isn’t it? Subversion from within the establishment. But while there’s a huge suspicion of the mainstream within the ethical community, a lot of the time it’s for good reason.

Well, it’s a tricky dance, and sometimes it’s very hard to know where to fit in because we’re competing with the high street and the high end luxury labels and we’re trying to hold onto our ethics too, which makes it so much harder. But when I started Izzy Lane, I never ever wanted to be a little cottage industry. That was never the intention. I wanted a really serious brand that would give me a platform to talk about animal welfare and animal rights to the biggest audience I could possibly get. I never wanted to be quaint and indie. I don’t want to just talk to a niche market of people who already share my beliefs. I want to go beyond my obvious target audience and raise awareness.

But I haven’t made any money—all I’ve ever done is spend money. We have a nice body of customers, but we’ve never got distribution because when you factor the sheep into it our stuff ends up being too expensive for any of the boutiques to stock us. Sometimes I think What’s the point of it? I haven’t made a penny from it! But it’s part of my whole vision, like Farmaround and Good Food Nation. Maybe I will never make any money, maybe I will always have to fund everything, but I’m living my vision, true to my beliefs.

It sounds like a very expensive vision though. Sheep don’t live on air do they? And even rescued ones must cost you something. How on earth have you managed to fund all of this?

I’ve funded Izzy Lane through Farmaround. I’ve sunk all of my profits from the one business into the other, and Farmaround’s suffered quite a bit because I spend everything on the sheep. So it’s tricky, and the recession knocked the organic market too so that made things hard for a while, but things are picking up a bit now.

Moving to Yorkshire from London wasn’t too hard because obviously property is cheaper here, and I don’t own the land, although renting the fields is quite expensive. And all the peculiar weather we’ve been having lately has pushed up the price of hay.

But I like a challenge. It’s what gets me up in the morning. Honestly, I really do feel I need to live on the edge. I just need to prove I can do these things.

Having said that, we’re at our limit with the animals now although if someone rings me and says they have some lambs, once I know about them I have to take them because I can’t bear the thought of them going to slaughter. Just a few days ago five old ewes arrived, and one had an eye infection and another was just skin and bone, and the breeders always want full market value for these animals. A month before that we had ten lambs. But I’ve asked both of these breeders not to contact me next year because we’ve got as many as we can possibly take. And I just can’t say no, which is the problem.

They’re obviously very dear to your heart.

Oh, they’re beautiful. The Wensleydales are really placid, calm, quite lovely spiritual types of creatures really. They’re completely different to the Shetlands. Shetlands are really really naughty. They’re like goats. They’re always climbing out through little holes in the fences and hedges, and they chase each other round the fields and have fights and they get into these gangs—they’re unbelievable! And they’re very hardy. They’ll thrive anywhere. They’re incredible sheep.

You’ve recently launched another radical, and presumably expensive, venture that is also keeping animals out of the food chain, only these are animals that generally belong in the thick of it. Tell me about Good Food Nation.

Yes, another terrifying project! Well, there’s this argument that farm animals wouldn’t exist if we didn’t eat them. And, if I think of the way that things have rolled out, I’m sure I’ve always had an unconscious plan to answer this, because really that whole argument about farm animals has burrowed into my deeper mind and become something I’ve needed to answer in my lifetime. Step one in this plan was Izzy Lane, which offered a way of keeping animals in a viable model without them being eaten. Then I began to consider the notion of supplying Farmaround with slaughter-free milk. I didn’t know how it could work, but then I saw the Hare Krishnas were doing it, and then I met a farmer who’d been talking to the Hare Krishnas, and then it all clicked for me in this eureka moment, and I could see there was a model there. I didn’t know what the details looked like, so I sat down and worked it out in terms of the life expectancy of the cow, factoring in sex selection and the number of lactations across a cow’s natural lifespan, and I worked out a model that culminated in the price of the milk. The farmer’s cows are now in the process of being transferred to my business partner, Liz, and I.

After that, it was obvious that hens was going to be a no-brainer, so it became a matter of trying to find someone who would be persuaded to let their hens live out their natural lives. The thing is that no one has ever done it, in a commercial context, so there was no information about it. All the graphs charting hens’ lifespans stop at 72 weeks, which is when they’re slaughtered. But we had to factor in the whole natural life of the animal in order to price our eggs. Inevitably, our products are more expensive because we are supporting the animals until they die naturally. Left alone, a cow will live for 20 years, but in the dairy industry they’re culled at six, as soon as they might start having any problems with mastitis or lameness or anything like that. Even in my local paper, here in Yorkshire, I was reading something recently about how to increase milk yield, and it basically involved the advocacy of heavy culling. Isn’t that disgusting?

Perhaps I’ve just been very naïve, but for some reason, I’d always imagined that organic dairy cows and free-range chickens were exempt from the more callous practices of farming.

No, they’re not. I didn’t know about this either, and I don’t think many people do. Because we’re bombarded with free-range egg advertising campaigns featuring happy hens. One day I said to Liz, I wonder how long happy hens live for? So she rang up one of the companies and was told they live for 72 weeks which is the same as any other conventional company. It’s utterly ruthless, they’re culled when they’re in the prime of their lives just because they’ve reached the tip of their productivity.

So is this where your animal pension scheme comes in?

[Laughs] Yes, there’s a fund set up for them, because although we’re paying the farmer a premium to keep our hens, at any point he might want to stop doing it, or he might go bankrupt or anything might happen. So with this fund, we’re dreaming of buying a massive estate in Scotland that will safeguard all of our animals and that’ll be their ultimate retirement, like a sort of retreat, where animals are just as important as the humans. That’s’ what I love about Liz’s home. She’s got so many animals there,

and when I go to stay with her it feels like my spiritual home because the animals almost feel more important than humans. I mean where else can you experience that?

We humans have taken over the planet haven’t we?

Tell me more about your infamous business partner, Liz Jones. She’s one of the most controversial, highly paid journalists in Britain, and is universally reviled. Didn’t this association pose a real risk for you?

Well, we met when she came to interview me about Izzy Lane and actually, she’s one of the kindest, most generous people that I’ve ever met. She absolutely loves animals, which is well known, but she’s also been a really loyal, kind friend to me. I can see the more outrageous side of her and I know what she writes—and in that sense, she’s terrible—but we’ve all got different sides to us haven’t we? And different situations bring out different aspects in us, as do different people. The formula that makes her one of the highest paid journalists in the country is the controversial side. She isn’t aware of the press she gets though, she never Googles herself or anything. She’d have a heart attack if she did. She’s living in blissful ignorance! But she’s the second most tweeted-about person in Britain, and she is truly hated because she really puts people’s backs up.

She sounds like the Courtney Love of journalism. I’ve met Courtney and I don’t mean this as a compliment…

Yeah, I think she is actually.. Oh God! [Laughs] Her high profile does have its advantages but I don’t want the message of Good Food Nation to get lost in this criticism of her because what we’re doing is so important. I read this piece in The Times and they started speculating about the identity of some rock star she’d been dating. Really they should have been focusing on the fact that our male calves aren’t going to be shot in the head when they’re born, or exported to Spain for slaughter before they can even stand up.

Initially I was beginning to get classed as some sort of nutter because of the association with her. One thing I read made me out to be a really rich, very mad woman who had no idea of business, because I sell our fleeces for £2. Well, that’s not the point is it? If I was just shearing the sheep and selling the wool to the Wool Board then no, that wouldn’t be a business model. But by taking the wool and processing it and selling it through sheer bloody hard work then yes, I have turned it into a business model.

So, given all the negative press she attracts, is it actually worth having her on board?

Well, my first reaction to some of these early reports was to get online and right the wrongs that were being said, but I decided it was best to ignore it and let them get on with it, and it’s all died down now. And I did tell Liz that I really wanted to keep farmers on our side because the real issue is with supermarkets and legislation, so I have tried to stay pragmatic and diplomatic with the farming community because I’ve always been involved with farms and farmers.

But really it’s great to share Good Food Nation with someone, because I’ve always run my businesses on my own and that can be quite lonely, especially when you’re going through the trials of it all. When I first met Liz she was planning to start a food business anyway, so together we became more ambitious and embarked on developing the full-scale brand. Lately she’s had this idea of starting a processing plant to make use of rejected vegetables, so we can rescue all the produce that doesn’t make the grade and really address the element of waste in the food industry. So I’m relishing this opportunity to work with someone else now. But we are getting a PR company!

At the end of the day it’s about what we’re doing though, and I’ve had loads of emails about Good Food Nation from people saying thank you, this is my dream come true etc etc. One woman wrote to me saying she couldn’t sleep because she was so excited about our produce. Isn’t that incredible? Isn’t it lovely? Vegetarians have always lived with the guilt of eating eggs and dairy because they know what goes on in the industry, so this will be the first time they can have these things without feeling that guilt, and also not just that, but by buying these products they’re actually saving the lives of our animals.

You deal with such contrasting worlds—farmers and vegans, ethics and consumerism, high-end fashion and disappearing craftsmanship. How do you keep your head?

I do get very upset over certain farming practices. When I was younger, I thought that in 100 years’ time everyone would stop eating meat and I mean, that was so ridiculous really. I’ve lived for half of that time now and nothing’s changed in my lifetime.

And if you think back to forty or fifty years ago, the mills were thriving and clothes were made within the local community from locally grown wool. People don’t have those connections to their clothes anymore. Everything comes out of the same factory now whether it’s Prada or Primark. You go into these mills in west Yorkshire and on the Scottish borders, and you see all these old wooden steps that have been worn right down in the middle from hundreds of years of millworkers walking up and down them, they’re amazing places. And those Victorian looms are so sophisticated. And there are all these men that know how to mend them! It is incredible really. But sadly most of the mills have been shut down now. There’s just a handful left and it’s not easy to revive those skills. It’s all been lost with the relatively very recent establishment of globalisation and fast fashion. So I don’t feel much optimism really.

But I do think we’re living in quite revolutionary times. Probably because of the state of the world economy, people are rethinking the way they live.

In this economic climate, the only power we have is what we buy, and what we buy is going to determine what our future looks like. If we buy crap, then as far as the eye can see we will produce crap. What we buy, that’s what it’s all about.

Where we put our money in this day and age is absolutely critical.

So let’s slow things down, and develop the idea of slow food and the slow wardrobe, slow down our purchases, and when we do make them, make really conscious choices.

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