Taking Fashion Back to it's Roots

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A few decades ago, hardly anyone had heard of fair trade food, but these days, it’s easy to walk into a café and order coffee and organic treats from fair trade producers. And if People Tree founder Safia Minney has anything to do with it, the same will soon be true for fashion, writes Leeyong Soo.

As anyone who stays in touch with trends knows, a year is a long time in fashion. Any brand that manages to stay afloat for more than a few seasons must be doing something right – perhaps none more so than fair trade fashion pioneer People Tree, where “doing something right” means a lot more than just coming up with the latest cool design or celebrity collaboration (although the brand certainly isn’t lacking in that respect – but more on that later).

People Tree started life in Tokyo, where founder Safia Minney had moved from the UK with her husband, a banker, in 1989. Unable to find “green” products in her newly adopted city, in 1991 Minney established Global Village, an NGO designed to provide listings of organic, fair trade and environmentally friendly products and services and to run related activities such as environmental campaigns. Initially employing a pair of likeminded university students and run from Minney’s kitchen table, Global Village’s activities grew, as did Minney’s desire to actively support the causes it was championing – and so the seeds for the People Tree concept were sown.

Minney and her team began working with and training producer groups in Bangladesh to create handcrafted items, connecting through Traidcraft, Oxfam and other social justice networks which already had links with artisan communities.

“When we first started, the Japanese team helped get producer groups’ work up to a better quality and helped in capacity building in the communities,” she explains. “They had to get products up to a level of quality to sell in Japan, so they had to do things like teach groups how to follow design specs, develop prints and so on. It was a good learning journey for both sides. [In later years] there’s also been instances where a group has asked PT for help to get their products up to a particular standard.”

Launched through a catalogue offering bags, accessories and clogs all handmade in Bangladesh, the brand was the first of its kind, creating work for disadvantaged communities in rural areas of developing nations and, through the Global Village network, raising awareness of social and environmental issues with which first world consumers were rarely confronted, such as the unethical marketing of baby formula to mothers in developing countries (Minney launched Baby Milk Action Japan on the same day that she gave birth to her first child!).

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In 1994, Global Village became a member of what is now the World Fair Trade Organisation and by the following year had grown to such an extent that it was possible to open a flagship store in Tokyo’s chic Jiyugaoka district. The first People Tree fashion line launched in the store in 1997, featuring garments made from organic cotton and non-chemical dyes(People Tree was the first international clothing company to be awarded the WFTO Fair Trade product label)and the brand entered the UK in 2001, beginning wholesaling to Europe in 2004. Adding to these considerable achievements and in between spending two weeks a month travelling to visit People Tree’s producer groups, Minney established World Fair Trade Day in Tokyo in 1999 and was selected in 2004 as one of the world’s most “Outstanding Social Entrepreneurs” by the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship.

The ethical fashion movement was certainly gaining momentum – in fact, Top Shop’s flagship store in London hosted a People Tree concession in 2006 – but Minney credits the real turning point as a collaboration project with international designers and Japanese Vogue magazine* in 2007.

“It really was a watershed moment for fair trade,” she says. “The collaboration meant that we all learnt a lot. The producers had to create at a high standard, it was the first time we’d worked with international designers and the first time for so much press coverage, and it really created an understanding of what fair trade fashion was capable of – at that time most people thought it was just some hippy thing so we were able to show through this project that aesthetically, it had huge potential. It was a huge battle to get people to understand what fair trade was, in the fashion community and among consumers in general, and the Vogue collaboration really helped to achieve this.”
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If consumers wanted to read more about the stories behind sustainable fashion direct from the source, they didn’t have to wait long – Minney published By Hand: The Fair Trade Fashion Agenda in 2008 and Naked Fashion: The New Sustainable Fashion Revolution in 2011. In 2009 she was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list for her role in promoting sustainable fair trade fashion,just one of many awards and accolades she and People Tree have received over the years, the most recent being a spot in the UK’s top five most ethical companies as voted by readers of Ethical Consumer magazine.

  People Tree now has retail outlets in Tokyo and the UK, a stable of well-known designers collaborating on its fashion and jewellery ranges and has counted Harry Potter star Emma Watson among its ambassadors – as well as employing thousands of producers to be the world’s largest 100% fair trade fashion brand (just one of People Tree’s partners in India, Agrocel, supports more than 40,000 organic and Fairtrade** cotton farmers). It really does have the world at its feet, so to speak. But Minney hasn’t let success go to her head – if anything, she seems more determined than ever to advance the causes for which she advocates so passionately through People Tree and the People Tree Foundation, a charitable organisation launched in 2009.

Next week, find out more about this fair trade fashion pioneer as Leeyong Soo interviews the incredible woman behind it.

*In 2007, while working at Japanese Vogue, I initiated a collaboration between the magazine, People Tree and designers Bora Aksu, Richard Nicholl, Thakoon and Foundation Addict. The designers donated designs (and patterns) from recent collections which were then manufactured by People Tree’s producer groups using fair trade materials, and the resulting range was sold at Japanese department store Isetan as well as in People Tree stores in Japan and online. The project attracted international media attention and some of the designers continued to work with People Tree for several subsequent seasons.

**While “fair trade” aims to improve the lives of producers in developing countries through payment of a fair wage and ensuring decent working conditions (among other criteria), “Fairtrade” is a recognised labelling system that guarantees a product meets international social, economic and environmental standards set by the certification body Fairtrade International.

Images courtesy of People Tree