Izzy Lane: Food & Fashion Entrepreneur and Ethical Hero
The NextWomen September Food & Fashion Theme.
We absolutely love Izzy Lane's story. A successful entrepreneur in both Food AND Fashion, and an ethical campaigner too. What a hero!
Izzy Lane pioneered the first ever organic vegetable box scheme in the UK with the launch of Farmaround in 1994. She then launched ‘Izzy Lane’, her own ethical fashion label using wool from rescued sheep and more recently started her own brand of organic, cruelty free eggs and milk ‘Good Food Nation’, available through her veg box scheme and Selfridges.
Before becoming an entrepreneur, Izzy was a musician, playing the saxophone in various avant-garde jazz outfits. She forged a colourful career in music, dabbling in various genres, touring and writing her own music and securing a record and publishing deal. Her future was clearly paved in writing songs for other people until the idea for Farmaround came to her and took over her life. Her first company has been a success from day one.
Izzy says: “Whilst I really enjoyed my music career, I felt that I needed to change my course in life, for me playing music made no tangible contribution society. When I started my business I felt like I was part of our society for the first time. Doing a pure art form can be isolating and uses only the creative side of ones brain. Running a business has really challenged me and has definitely made me a more rounded and grounded person.”
Izzy’s mission was to provide an urban-based, health and environmentally conscious crowd with fresh organic produce straight from the farm. The service was the first of its kind in London and was driven by a desire to promote the health benefits of eating organic food, the welfare of animals and the protection of wildlife habitats to those looking for a fresh, ethical alternative to buying from large supermarkets
In 2003, Izzy discovered that farmers in the UK were discarding wool from slaughtered sheep whilst Britain continued to import wool from other countries. Already a vegetarian she decided that she wanted to utilise British wool but did not wish to engage with the process where sheep are reared for slaughter, hence the beginnings of her rescued flock. From four lambs in 2004, she now has around 600 sheep on her farm in the Yorkshire Dales which lead on to her next business, fashion label Izzy Lane.
Launched in 2007, Izzy Lane is an ethical fashion label using the skills of the British textile industry and the wool from her rescued Wensleydale and Shetland flock.
The Izzy Lane collection was featured during London Fashion Week and won the prestigious RSPCA Good Business Award in 2008.
Izzy won the RE New Designer of the Year Award at the world’s first ethical fashion awards in Shoreditch and was asked to show her collection in a catwalk show for the Queen.
In 2011, Izzy co-founded Good Food Nation which sells dairy products and eggs from animals which will never be slaughtered and is sold on the Farmaround website.
We talked to Izzy about the animal welfare issues which drive her business; how she created a successful business from day one; and why she doesn't have a mentor.
TNW: How did you come up with the idea for Farmaround and then arrive at the decision to turn your idea into a reality?
IL: When my music agent disappeared in America I decided it was time to start a business and take control of my own destiny. I had been interested in organic produce for some time. A lot of research had been done into the toxicity of the agrochemicals used on our food – they were dangerous. I therefore couldn’t understand why it was such a niche and ‘hippy’ market as it seemed logical that it’s what we should be eating for the sake of our own health and that of the planet. Supermarkets were not interested in stocking organic – they had potatoes and carrots but nothing more. The wholefood shops stocked organics but having gone through a long supply chain, were expensive and generally past their best.
I did my research and found
organic growers in Kent and Sussex who were really struggling to find a market.
My idea to buy from them and deliver fresh organic produce, just harvested and
straight to the door of Londoners seemed a no-brainer. I went on the Enterprise
Allowance Scheme to work up the model. Subsequently Abel and Cole switched from
delivering battery eggs and conventional potatoes to my organic model and hundreds
TNW: Who were your first customers and how hard was it to attract them?
IL: I started Farmaround when I was living in Forest Hill, South East London. I produced several thousand leaflets and hand delivered them to the affluent Dulwich and its surrounds. I was inundated with response, it took off instantly. I gradually but rather quickly expanded our delivery area to cover the whole of London. I think it was a very attractive proposition. It came at a time when people were lamenting the loss of door-to-door milkmen and a disconnection from the countryside.
I was offering them fresh produce on the same day it was harvested even with butterflies and country insects still abuzz in them. Quite different to the sanitised, irradiated supermarket offering.
TNW: What is next for your company?
IL: Farmaround in conjunction with Good Food Nation ( another of my businesses which I co-founded with columnist Liz Jones) are developing products with the highest animal welfare there has ever been. Last November saw us launch slaughter-free milk which comes form cows which will live out their whole lives along with their calves. Generally dairy cow are ‘culled’ at about 5 yrs old when their natural lifespan is more like 20 yrs. I read an article recently which advocated ‘heavy culling’ as a way to increase milk yields. Meaning not bothering to treat any ailments – just kill them instead and bring in a fresh replacement. Cows are increasingly being kept indoors all year round in bigger ’units’.
The days of the farmer naming his cow
and having a relationship with them are fading. Those types of farmers have
largely been bankrupted because they couldn’t produce milk cheap enough for the
supermarkets. Male calves are either shot at birth or raised for veal –
sometimes being sent as far as Spain when they are so young they can barely
even stand up. We will be introducing cheese in the next few weeks and doing
further product development. We also have eggs from slaughter-free hens. Egg
laying hens are generally killed at 68-72 weeks – even the free range and
TNW: What lessons have you taken from your successes &/or failures?
IL: Far too numerous to mention – the course of my business life has been one entire learning process – especially given I had no business experience and no expertise in the businesses I started. There are many stresses and strains running a business and it is important not to allow your life to be overwhelmed when things aren’t going your way. It’s important to remember to enjoy life, whatever is happening.
You may not be able to take enjoyment from the sales slump, the VAT inspection or the industrial tribunal but don’t let it stop you from going home and enjoying your private life.
TNW: Do you have any tips or any advice for women who are thinking about becoming entrepreneurs?
To try and start it in an area in which you are
passionate. If you can marry up the things you care passionately about with a
business idea – that is perfect. There is your desire to make a difference to
the world, your hobbies and your work
all rolled into one. It doesn’t even matter if you don’t know much about
that area – you can learn and the challenge will make it even more exciting.
TNW: Do you have any role models or mentors?
IL: Unfortunately not ! I tend to be oblivious to others and stubbornly pursue my own ideas and visions. I am too much my own person, playing to my own rules.
I have never wanted to do anything that has been done before so I don’t look to other people – life’s too short !
TNW: What does your day look like?
IL: As soon as I wake up I check my blackberry then I come downstairs, feed Myfa, the fish and the guinea pigs, make a cup of tea and go straight onto the computer to answer emails. On a bad day, I can be on there until 5pm with no break – hundreds of them and then back onto them in the evening until the early hours. I can’t bear anything lingering in my inbox and only feel relieved when all emails are answered. In the days before email, there is no way I could have spoken to hundreds of people in a day. There are some days when I would not have wished to speak to anyone but you can always send an email however you’re feeling. It can be both good and bad that people can now contact you through email who would never have previously contacted you. It takes a lot of time.
On a good day I will be out and about visiting organic farms, woollen mills, designers – seeing the sheep, walking on the moors. But in the knowledge that as long as I am not sitting at my desk, emails are accumulating !
TNW: What has been your biggest challenge throughout the history of your company, from planning to funding and execution, and how could others learn from it?
IL: My business is probably one of
the most difficult to manage on a daily basis. It is very labour intensive – a
lot of customers with relatively small transactions all expecting delivery at a
certain time each week. We need a lot of vans and are up against traffic issues
constantly, especially in London. There are so many variables with the produce–
we source some 25-30 lines of fruit and vegetables each week, all highly
perishable – there is no room for error. Quality is imperative. We buy directly
from farms so there is no packhouse in the middle grading and rejecting, as the
supermarkets have. We have to be very
rigorous in our standards – they can not lapse – even when we have had such a
poor vegetable growing season with everything being attacked by slugs or blight
form the excessive rain. You are only as good as your last vegetable bag !
TNW: Is there a moment in the history of your company which you remember as the highlight so far?
IL: I think its getting recognition – the RSPCA Awards, Compassion in World Farming Awards, Designer of the Year Award, invitation to Women of the Year Lunch, catwalk for the Queen etc. I suppose it’s the things like that which reassure me that I have been making a good effort and making a difference.
The ‘raisons d’etre’ of my businesses are animal welfare and if I have had any impact at all in food and fashion then my efforts are worthwhile.
I get emails
from people around the world who care about animals - they are also my
TNW: What is one career or management decision you would like to go back and change?
IL: Buying a fleet of new VW vans which started breaking down as soon as they came off the forecourt. I bought brand new vans for the first time and ended up paying more in repairs each month than I had been paying on my older ones and this is on top of the monthly repayments. Worse decision I ever made ! The organic market took a bad hit in the recession – its important to keep your fixed overheads as low as possible and allow flexibility to scale up and scale down. Be very wary of contracts and long-term agreements, we never know what the future holds.
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