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Routed In Ethics
People Tree founder, Safia Minney, shares with MWB’s Rebecca Jackson what drives her success.

By Rebecca Jackson

26 July 2016

Rebecca Jackson: You’ve launched a new book, Slow Fashion: Aesthetics Meets Ethics. What inspired you to write it?
Safia Minney: There’s been this huge movement in ethical fashion since the Rana Plaza building collapse, and it also coincides with People Tree’s 25th anniversary since I started the brand in Japan. We’ve looked at a huge development of a movement which used to be very minor and very fringe into something which is now incredibly significant in terms of the designers and retailers who are involved with it.

We have some really beautiful eco-concept stores now around the world and I’ve spent the past four years developing the European market for People Tree. I’ve been absolutely blown away by the most incredible people who are opening stores which reflect their values. For me, the book echoes the excitement of how fast the industry is moving.
RJ: You speak about a ‘rebirth’ of the new, global Slow Fashion movement – what does this mean?
SM: It’s a coming of age of the fairtrade and sustainable fashion industry, which for me is really exciting. We’re seeing a lot of discussion now; the whole concept of time is an issue; we have to slow things down.

The evolution of slow fashion has become massive and has really given consumers the opportunity to think about what they want to buy and how disposable it is. It’s also given brands and companies the opportunity to clean up their act and look at their supply chain to be sure that they haven’t got child labour, slavery, highly exploitive working conditions and sub-minimum wages in that supply chain. We can’t do that at this current high speed of fashion production.

We need to change the whole operational model with which fashion companies work in order to be able to do that. Looking at the campaign, which has galvanised consumers and raised awareness, things are moving forward. A lot of the language now in these policy papers is closely echoing what we’ve been talking about for a long time, so it’s a really exciting time. It means that we’re going to see a huge shift.
RJ: You started the label in the 90s, when the fairtrade market was a completely different place. How did you break down barriers?
SM: The sustainable fairtrade offer at that time was very limited and ugly and retailed in not very beautiful places, and that’s why I started the first eco-concept store 20 years ago in Tokyo because I wanted a store that anyone could come to, a one-stop ethical shop where they wouldn’t feel alienated and they would find beautiful, good quality products at affordable prices. I think the important thing is making sustainable fashion accessible. It’s not just about price. It’s about design, quality, image, desirability and awareness. There’s all these barriers to making it understood and also covetable.

When I was developing the first organic supply chain for fashion we had some disasters. At that time I didn’t have a lot of technical and design backing that we have now with specialist models. It’s been an evolution and there’s been support with the ethical customers from the early 90s all the way through to help us develop the product we have today.
Today the market looks completely different; we have lots of other ethical brands out there and we’ve got a debate going on. We’re looking at something which is a different planet from where I started 25 years ago.
RJ: How important is it to get the balance between style and ethical values right?
SM: Since starting People Tree I’ve looked at how fair trade can be covered throughout the design process because you have to start there. For instance, when you’re looking at the drape of a garment you might have to put drip irrigation in organic cotton fields in order to get longer fibres so it will be thinner and will drape properly. So you end up having to think a bit more down the supply chain, which some designers might see as a limitation, but actually a lot of them would find it incredibly empowering to know who made it and that they can use hand craft skills.

There are disadvantages: you can’t respond as quickly because we don’t use synthetic and we’re not happy with sub-contracting, so there are things which slow down the speed to market. And that’s why I say we have to slow down fashion in order to get transparency.
RJ: What is your take on the current quality and volume of ethical fashion labels on offer?
SM: I think there are lots of new ethical brands at different price points, and that’s good to see. It’s not always been clear for the consumer as to where you can buy what, though now when you type in ‘ethical fashion’ you’ve got a lot of choice. People mention the cost a lot, but I know lots of people who are detoxing their closets and buying things that last or that are secondhand instead.
RJ: People Tree has done a lot towards the active promotion of fair trade: where do you go from here?
SM: I’m doing more work independently. For example, I’ve got international talks in the Middle East on sustainable fashion and social entrepreneurship, looking at what social business is and how it’s applicable internationally.

The reason I set up People Tree was to change the world. Little by little with the help of our amazing customers and other social entrepreneurs and campaigners we’re beginning to create this paradigm shift and I’d like to continue to be part of that cutting edge of change. I’m also doing some ethical supply chain consultancy to help other companies as well to move and to start looking at their supply chain. We need big solutions quickly.
RJ: What would you say to a manufacturer, supplier, brand or designer who isn’t convinced about practising fair trade?
SM: Just look at the stats and the data out there. There’s so much out there now; clothing often looks the same, and the story of what’s behind the brand and how it’s made is your point of difference. From a commercial point of view, the ethical and sustainable tag is a reason to buy and will become more so as people start thinking about the future of our planet.

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