Fast-tracking slow fashion

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The founder of pioneering fair trade fashion label People Tree, Safia Minney wants to fast-track the move back to slow, ethical fashion (read about People Tree’s roots here). But People Tree is not only about the clothes. In an interview with Safia, Leeyong Soo discovered the myriad ways in which the brand helps producer communities.

LS: You’ve been known to call yourself a human rights activist turned ecologist. When you started People Tree, I believe your main motivation was providing fair work to marginalised communities, but is your main motivation now social or environmental? Is it possible to separate the two?

SM: You can’t separate social justice from environmental justice, the two go hand in hand. The concept behind People Tree hasn’t changed over the 20 years or so we’ve been running – we’re a fashion brand with people and the environment central to everything we do.

LS: Twenty years is a long time in business and many labels could have gone off on quite a different course – how has People Tree managed to stay true to its founding fair trade principles?

SM: There are two main pillars of belief behind the business, the first being that women are central to our activities and benefit from them socially and financially. The organisations we work with are campaigners for women’s rights, groups that help women who are studying to be lawyers, groups that deliver education on gender rights and domestic violence and so on in villages – for example, letting women know that it’s not OK for their husbands to beat them. The women we work with receive equal pay to men in an equivalent role and are involved in proper decision making about their work. People Tree also provides day care centres, microcredit, flexible working arrangements and other support that allows women to work but also raise families. We work with groups that champion rights for women and children and run education campaigns, for example in one of the areas we work in in Indiathere is a lot of drug smuggling so we run anti-drug campaigns to help mothers keep their teenage sons away from drugs and stop them getting into the drug trade.

Our other belief guiding the business is to work with groups open to pioneering environmental practices. For instance, we help groups gain organic certification which might be difficult for them to get on their own due to paperwork and expenses up front. [They may not be able to afford initial expenses by themselves] but if they receive long term orders and a fair price for their product then converting to organic farming is a lot more feasible. We also banned many metals that were then banned 10 years later in Europe or Japan, such as nickel, so we are ahead of the curve when it comes to environmental practice.

LS: There must have been quite a lot of challenges along the way. Can you tell us about some of the difficulties you have faced, and in particular, about challenges that a "conventional" fashion brand and its supply chain would be unlikely to encounter?

SM: The handcrafted products we deal with are time consuming to manufacture and rurally produced, so there are natural challenges, but we see these as creating a unique and beautiful product because of the handmade elements.

LS: So the products are not necessarily more expensive in terms of materials or labour, but time wise they’re more costly perhaps – can you tell us a bit more about the financial aspects of running a business like People Tree?

SM: Access to finance is a challenge because we need to pay producers 50% in advance, and we need to pay nine months before delivery. So PT effectively ends up running an “ethical bank” for our producers. We need finance at a reasonable interest rate, which is why we work with banks in Japan as interest rates are very low there. Fortunately, we also have investors who buy bonds in the company, so it’s as if they’re lending money to PT to help make advance payments and pay for training. Every year we spend a quarter of a million pounds on training and support for our 50 sub-groups in eight countries – profitability is hampered because of the spend on social development. It really helps to have the investors. They’re usually just private individuals who believe in what we are doing, such as a retired doctor in Japan who has £120,000 worth of bonds invested just because she wants to back a new, fair economic system.

LS: It’s so inspiring to hear about private consumers with such strong belief in the changes People Tree and fair trade practices can make! What are some of the improvements you have seen in the lives of the producers you work with?

SM: Although we like to think life is improving for developing countries, the gap between rich and poor is actually getting worse. Often, kids of rural workers – for example, workers in fair trade organisations – go to uni but they still end up as taxi drivers or factory workers and then end up coming back to the village. But now it’s not a shameful thing like it used to be, they take pride in the family business in the village, for example. In some places like Gujarat there’s been a reverse migration because of the government incentives such as investment in organic farming. Life is better there than the cities. People want to go back.

LS: People Tree has been around for about 20 years – are there some places where it’s become ingrained in the family structure of producer communities?

SM: Yes, there are multiple generations of the one family working in some of the groups, for example a grandmother, mother and daughter. The younger people in Bangladesh might go to Dhaka to work in a garment factory – they want to see what life’s like in a big city; I was the same, I couldn’t wait to go to London when I was young – but a few months later they get sick from the water or the work conditions and come home. It’s got to the point where the local economy in some areas is booming because of so many people coming back, and there are more schools opening so education and everything improves. It’s not only due to fair trade though, because fair trade needs the economic policies to back it up in order to have the best results. But fair trade has certainly helped lift rural women out of poverty in some areas. As an economist it is very exciting to see that women can rise up and create so much without having to exploit their environment.

Images courtesy of People Tree

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