Safia Minney is founder and director of Fair Trade and environmental fashion and lifestyle label People Tree. Safia has turned a life-long interest in environmental, trade and social justice issues from a lifestyle into a Fair Trade business. Safia’s background is in marketing and publishing. She worked for Creative Review magazine for 4 years where she developed a strong eye for visual content and a passion for promoting social and environmental awareness and action through advertising and communications. After backpacking alone for 3 months between Bali and Myanmar, Safia decided to use her experience to help NGOs build their profiles. In 1989, she moved from London to Tokyo with her husband, where she turned her interests into an NGO - Global Village which later became a company.
Fibre2fashion : What inspired you to go the fair trade and ecological way? Why did you choose fashion industry for this? What challenges you faced to make a mark here?
It all started in 1991 in Japan. It came from a volunteer group called Global Village that I founded in a spare bedroom. It was possible to get Fair Trade tea and coffee but not clothing. People Tree grew from this and has now become the highest profile Fair Trade company in Japan. We launched People Tree in the UK in 2001. People Tree started with me, one green consumer with a couple of friends, and is now a community of tens of thousands of like-minded people. We have 100 employees, 40,000 customers, 500 stockists and 4,000 farmers and artisans – we’re quite a team! We do pioneering work to promote ecologically sound methods of production, minimising environmental impact whilst maximising the work and benefits brought to our Fair Trade partners. I travel around the world and I see the problems of our beautiful planet: poverty, environmental degradation, people, exploitation and pollution. We can change our lifestyles and be part of the solution. It’s empowering too for us as individuals. I feel passionately that business should put people and the environment central to everything that it does. So that’s what we’re proving, that it is possible.
Fibre2fashion : Apart from the use of organic fabrics, in what all way is sustainable fashion different from the main stream?
We use organic and Fair Trade cotton and our clothes are made using safe dyes and we steer clear of synthetic and non-biodegradable materials. Fair Trade means working with the most marginalized farmers and artisans in the so-called ‘developing’ World. We give design training and technical support, and management support, pay fair prices and give long term orders. We also run a Market Exposure Programme so producer partners can visit Tokyo and London and learn about the market and their customers. To make Fair Trade possible, we have to pay 50% advance payments. People Tree has pioneered the first Fair Trade and organic cotton supply chain in the developing world, being the first company to have a Soil Association certification for a product brought from the field through manufacture that is completely organic. Mainstream fashion brands rarely start the design process thinking how to maximise the benefits to their suppliers, and reduce environmental impact, that’s the difference at People Tree. We see fashion as a tool for Change. Our recent book “Naked Fashion - The New Sustainable Fashion Revolution” catalogues just how far ethical and Fair Trade fashion has come and how it’s going international and inspiring a new generation of creators and consumers.
Fibre2fashion : Your entire collection is a Fair Trade Fashion Collection, using eco-textiles, organic cotton and hand woven clothing. Does it set a limit to designing? Please comment
Using eco-textiles and organic cotton is not a limitation. It offers wonderful opportunities to use hand skills, revive traditional craft skills like hand weaving, hand embroidery and hand block prints. It’s slow by nature. I like slow, it brings forgotten humanistic values back to our lives and economies. Of course, the production times are longer, so we can’t respond as fast to a trend as fast fashion, but then I want to make quality clothes that won’t be disposed of at the end of a season. Our designers are passionate about natural textiles and handicraft techniques, they find this heritage inspiring too!
Fibre2fashion : Dying, cutting, designing etc all by hand in 21st century, indeed you are empowering people. So is this the USP of People Tree outfits? Being Handmade.
Yes, see above. We also spend years training groups and helping them develop other groups, new skills and new fibres. One of my recent favourites is banana fibre which is from the trunk of a banana tree. The fibres are combined, boiled and then knitted into lovely cardigans. This fibre took 3 years to develop. Now the product is a best seller.
Fibre2fashion : How does the cost vary in comparison to non ecological manufacturing?
People Tree is an alternative to high street fashion and often priced the same as mid-market shops; the product cost is between 30% to 3 times the cost. We try to keep all other costs down so we can keep People Tree clothing competitively priced. People Tree is a registered member of The World Fair Trade Organisation and follows the 10 standards of Fair Trade. The products are 100% Fair Trade and made with respect to people and the planet. People Tree has complete integrity throughout the whole supply chain from the organic cotton and natural fabrics used to our use of sea freight. Hand skills are used in design and production as much as possible. The knitwear is hand knitted, embroidery is stitched by hand and much of our fabric is woven on a hand loom. Our jewellery is produced in India and Kenya and each piece is hand made by Fair Trade groups; one of these is Bombolulu in Kenya. Bombolulu employs physically challenged artisans and provides skill development for individuals that would otherwise find it hard to find work. Because our products are completely handmade, they are unique. We have 150 stockists in UK and Europe and 350 in Japan and Hong Kong, so it is possible to shop in store too- which personally I love! People Tree has its own website, and we sell at ASOS.com, John Lewis, Yoox, Zalando and we have our own stores in Japan. I hope we’ll have one in London soon too!
Fibre2fashion : Please share with us, your views on receiving royal recognition, MBE. How has this helped you and People Tree?
For me it represents an institutional recognition of our work in Fair Trade and the growing sector of sustainable fashion. My personal life and my career are so close. My private life is aligned with my professional life.
Fibre2fashion : People Tree is making remarkable impact towards Fair Trade and sustainability. Tell us about what kind of difference and newness it is bringing to the glamorous world of fashion.
I think when we collaborated with Vogue Japan in 2007 and 4 high fashion designers, Thakoon, Bora Aksu, Richard Nicoll and Foundation Addict modelled by Lily Cole, Helena Christensen, Shalom Harlow and Anne Watanabe, that was a real watershed for People Tree and our artisans. We put organic cotton on the handlooms, we made very complicated patterns and we watched Fair Trade fashion showcased for fashion people. We were all proud that years of hard work and strong partnerships with Fair Trade producers had enabled us to come so far and look so good!
Fibre2fashion : Today, people prefer trendy and stylish outfits over simple and sober ones. In such kind of market don’t you think buying your products might be majorly to support the initiative than actually considering it as a designer wear? Please comment.
Looking good at the cost of people and the planet isn’t cool. Given an alternative- well designed, affordable, accessible Fair Trade fashion - people want to buy it! Anyway, it’s healthier for you to wear 100% natural, breathable and organic materials rather than synthetics! My kids always reached for their organic t-shirts first every time!
Fibre2fashion : People Tree in year 2020 - an exclusive designer wear brand hitting runway or a sustainable & fair trade retailer? Please opine.
An alternative! A business model! A solution for the planet and humanity!
Fibre2fashion : You have combined sustainable fashion and fair trade to bring out the best. It’s a noble cause. How do you see this initiative’s future?
The fashion industry won't change overnight (wanting to make big profits at the cost of workers and the environment) but gradually more people are switching to ethical and Fair Trade fashion. When I was in Japan during the earthquake and tsunami last year, we watched people’s thinking and values change overnight, in favour of organic, sustainable and Fair Trade products. We just need to be shocked or forced sometimes into thinking about what really matters, and how dependent our lifestyles are on each other and the environment. We can change our lifestyles and learn more about the issues, and reflect those in our choices and personal style. It’s empowering too! People Tree has grown by 10% last year, so clearly ethical and Fair Trade fashion is growing. Only pressure on government and business will bring new policy and practice that is truly sustainable and promotes Fair Trade as well as jobs in the developing world, (like enforcing legally agreed minimum wages and ensuring environmental laws aren’t violated).
Many thanks for your time and sharing these pearls of wisdom with our readers. Fibre2fashion hope to see you onboard in more times to come.