The Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle is not the first famous person, by any means, to intentionally wear ethical fashion in the public eye. Celebrities from Naomi Campbell to Dakota Johnson have outfitted themselves in sustainably-made garb for events like the Green Carpet Awards. Cate Blanchett re-wore her 2014 Golden Globes dress to Cannes this year to make a statement about throwaway clothing culture. Emma Watson used the entire press tour for her 2017 film "Beauty and the Beast" to promote only ethical labels.
But the so-called "Meghan Markle Effect" — a term used to describe the commercial impact on any item or brand worn by the recently-minted Duchess — may outweigh them all. During her recent tour to Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Tongo, the Duchess made a point of wearing labels that were either local, ethically made or both, mixing well-known brands like Reformation with lesser-known entities like Outland Denim. The effect on the clothiers in question has been significant, to say the least.
"We've had some pretty incredible women wear the brand, but I would say she's just in her own league," designer Maggie Marilyn said on the phone.
Marilyn, a fashion industry darling from New Zealand who prioritizes ethical manufacturing and production in her two-year-old label, can testify to the Markle Effect firsthand. After the Duchess wore a Maggie Marilyn blazer dress on her trip to New Zealand, Marilyn saw email inquiries and traffic to her site increase sevenfold, and saw a significant boost in social media following and engagement, too.
Outland Denim is another brand with a social mission at its core that received a huge boost after the Duchess wore its jeans multiple times on her trip. The Duchess's "Harriet" jeans sold out on the Australian brand's home site 48 hours after her first outing in them, and the American site followed shortly thereafter. According to a press release from the brand, online traffic increased by a whopping 948 percent. Since Outland's business was built to create jobs for Cambodian trafficking survivors, that boost in sales has also meant a direct impact on the ground in Cambodia. The brand recently announced plans to hire somewhere between 15 and 30 more women in response to the increased demand.
"We were already a 'feel good' brand because of the nature of the work we do and how we do it, but that has been enhanced by Meghan wearing it," Outland Denim's Communications Director Erica Bartle said via email. "Especially while she is pregnant and newly married and just glowing in her new role as a Duchess."
Even for brands that are big enough that the Meghan Markle Effect doesn't result in a spate of new hires, the difference between the Duchess wearing something and another celebrity wearing it is marked.
"Somebody like Lupita Nyong'o or Karlie Kloss wears [our shoes] and we definitely see some lift, but our business is big enough that it's not directly obvious," Kerry Cooper, president and COO of shoe company Rothy's, said over the phone.
But after the Duchess wore black Rothy's flats — which are made from recycled plastic bottles using a nearly zero-waste 3D printing process — the brand saw a three- or four-fold increase in organic traffic overall. The specific style the Duchess wore saw a similar boost, while other styles saw their sales double, Cooper said.
It's worth noting that part of the significance of the Duchess's support may come from the fact that she's choosing to wear smaller brands that feel the impact more deeply than a larger one might. Stella McCartney is another ethical label that the Duchess has worn on multiple occasions, including her wedding day. And though a representative for Stella McCartney declined to provide statistics for this story, it's not hard to imagine that the impact the Duchess might have on a company as well-established as the London-based brand in question is a bit more muted.
But considering how relatively small and recently-established most ethical fashion brands are, the Duchess's support could still have a significant impact on the space. Ethical fashion's biggest and best-established names — like Stella McCartney, Patagonia and Eileen Fisher — are still tiny in comparison to the world's biggest clothing corporations. Having the support of a public figure with followers as obsessive and willing to click "purchase" as the Duchess's could be a boon for the whole conscious consumption movement, with an impact that's deeply felt precisely because so many of the players are smaller.
"Over the years, support from talent and 'celebrities' has been proven fundamental to spread the word about the importance of fashion as a positive force for environmental and social change," said Livia Firth, founder of sustainability consultancy EcoAge and the Green Carpet Challenge, via email. "To now have someone with such power as Meghan Markle shine a light on brands and their stories which we should all connect with — it's magical!"
Will the Duchess's emphasis on sustainable fashion brands continue in the future? Only time will tell. But even if it doesn't, the past few weeks have sent a powerful message about the place ethical fashion deserves in the fashion world: If it's good enough for a royal, it's good enough for anyone.
See more ethical labels the Duchess has worn on her travels below.