We spoke to Safia Minney, the founder of People Tree, pioneers of sustainable and fairtrade clothing
How did People Tree first begin? What inspired you?
It all started in 1991 in Japan. It came from a volunteer group I started called Global Village that I founded in my living room. 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. I started People Tree as a green consumer with a couple of friends. Today People Tree is a community of tens of thousands of like-minded people. We have 80 employees, 40,000 customers, 500 stockists and 4,000 farmers and artisans. We do pioneering work to promote ecologically sound methods of production, minimising environmental impact whilst maximising the social benefits brought to our Fair Trade groups.
I’m just a green consumer, I want to spend every pound I have in a way that supports the people who most need it and protects the environment.
I travel around the world and I see the problems our beautiful planet faces - 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 what it makes and sells. So that’s what we’re proving, that Fair Trade and sustainable business practice is good business.
Why do you consider People Tree to be an ethical, responsible retailer?
People Tree’s product range includes Fair Trade and ecological clothing for women and men, and fashion accessories. People Tree products are designed using traditional skills and technologies. By using hand skills like hand weaving, hand knitting or hand embroidery we can create employment in rural areas for women where work is often scarce. Organic and craft production methods are also carbon neutral. All clothes are dyed using low impact dyes, free from harmful azo chemicals which are frequently used in clothing manufacture. We use plentifully available natural and organic materials, including handmade recycled paper products, products made from jute waste and other environmentally friendly materials, and actively avoiding synthetics and plastics and toxic finishes. We provide technical training and assistance for artisans and their Fair Trade groups so they can improve their skills, and strengthen their businesses and social impact. And we regularly make 50% advance payments on orders, to help farmers and producer groups to finance Fair Trade. Fair Trade means far more than paying a fair price, we aim to use fashion as a tool to empower the world's most economically marginalized people. People Tree actively supports 4000 farmers and artisans through 50 Fair Trade producer groups, in 8 developing countries.
How and where are your clothes produced?
We develop a colour palette looking at trends and what our customers tell us they like. In design we start with hand skills, revive traditional craft skills like hand weaving, hand embroidery and hand block prints. 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. 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. We give 50% advance payments where needed. 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.
What’s your biggest professional goal for the future?
People Tree as an alternative fashion business and a solution for the planet and humanity. 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; we need to rethink our lifestyles and our dependency on 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!
Do you buy natural beauty products, if so what do you love and why?
Between People Tree Japan and UK, I am often travelling. Essential Care products such as Organic Avocado Replenishing Cream is perfect for revitalising whilst on the move. Calendula balm is a small tub with enormous power. For lips, cuticles, hands, feet, fingers, elbows, toes and more. Organic Mineral Lipstick is great. I aim to only eat organic, Fairtrade and locally produced food - why should what I wear on my lips be any different?
Who inspires you?
The producer’s smiles.
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