Thursday, 31 March 2016

Safia Minney | People tree founder

When I think about ethical fashion, it is always People Tree that enters my mind first. While many may think of it as a UK brand, Safia Minney actually founded it in Japan 25 years ago. It is crazy to think that they have been around for ¼ of a century. Safia’s new book “Slow fashion” is a compilation of stories and personal profiles of designers, eco-concept stores and people bringing the alternatives to mainstream fashion. I interviewed Safia to find out more about the inspiration behind the book.

What are the key ideas behind Slow Fashion as a movement? What do you think is the most important aspect of it?

As a campaigner and social entrepreneur what is really exciting is seeing how all the campaigns have really driven change over the last 3 years. On the civil society level, people are much more aware, they are demanding accountability and transparency. I get very excited looking at this incredible movement and the development of eco concept stores, there are people with fashion and retail experience who are really passionate about creating social change. They are curating fair trade, sustainable and ethical fashion: womenswear, menswear, footwear, often lifestyle products, sometimes they have an organic café. They run really interesting talks on wellbeing and social issues, they are very linked to the community. It is such an interesting type of a retail concept centered around ethical consumerism. I really wanted to dedicate a large part of the book to that and as you will see in the book, we have films that go back to all of the stores. You can download a QR reader on your phone and have a virtual visit to these stores, look at the products and hear what the person who runs it says about the store. For me it has always been about finding positive ways to create change. Having a focus where the consumer is involved right the way through, whether it is campaigning, or buying the product or learning about them and why they should have them, that has always been central to my mission.

Since you started People Tree have you noticed any positive changes in the fashion industry?

Well, I started People Tree 25 years ago, so I have seen massive changes. In the beginning of course people would say “why would you want to make a dress out of organic cotton if you don't eat it?” And now there is a much greater understanding of how conventionally grown cotton creates toxic environment. There is a greater understanding of organic farming, and there is a passion to find ways to protect the people behind our clothes, the people that make them. At every level, consumer level and retail level amongst the companies themselves, and at the policy level, there are huge changes. I was at parliament the other day and we were looking at OECD paper on garment supply chain and accountability within it, and that is a new piece of legislation that will be introduced at the end of April. Then we have the Modern Day Slavery Act here in the UK, which means all companies will have to report as to what they are doing to eradicate slavery from their supply chain. We as consumers will  genuinely be able to start asking  fashion companies questions.

What would you say is the biggest challenge for an ethical brand today?

I think most ethical clothing companies today still have enormous challenges, because they are competing on an unleveled playing field. They tend to be smaller, so they don’t have the economies of scale, they are having to compete on price and quality, where most conventional fashion brands will be delivering on a price that doesn’t actually afford any decent working conditions or anything close to a living wage, whilst they pollute the planet. So clearly ethical fashion brands have a huge challenge ahead of them.

As a green beauty consumer, natural/organic skincare has become much more available. I could go into a larger Boots on a highstreet and find something fairly easily. Yet I haven’t noticed the same growth with organic cotton in fashion shops on the highstreet. Why do you think that is?

I think fair trade and organic cotton, depending on the country, is very widely available. We’ve had fair trade cotton in large retailers like M&S in UK. In terms of a more mid-market fashion offer, People Tree was in Top shop for a while, Selfridges is curating around sustainable brands. We have People Tree in Fenwick and John Lewis. It is becoming more mainstream, it is just a little bit behind the curve when you compare it with food and beauty products.

Where do you see ethical fashion heading in the future? What are your hopes for it?

At the same time as we find ethical fashion mainstreaming we will also find that conventional brands will have to do a much better job of compliance. We will get to the point where brands will have to legally maintain living wages and safe working conditions. They won’t be allowed to pollute the planet as they go. But I think it is important that consumers continue to engage with the issues. For example we’ve had a huge response to True Cost movie, and a lot of people sharing it: from university groups to even fashion companies. Fashion companies shared True Cost in a bid to improve their design and make their supply chains more sustainable. There is definitely a large number of really significant campaigns now that are forcing the industry to change.

How do you think "slow fashion" is evolving?

One reason why we held The Slow Fashion book launch in The Duke of Cambridge organic pub, is because we really wanted to link it to slow food. Slow food is a huge international campaign with groups everywhere. Organic food, slow food is really becoming very accessible, and I think this is where sustainable fashion is heading. It is going to take a little bit more time, as we are about 20 years behind the organic food movement. You can see that there is a huge interest with the rise of platforms that talk about it and new retail spaces that stock ethical fashion. There is this whole industry that just didn’t exist 10 years ago.

A few years ago People Tree did a collection of dresses and bags that were made using recycled sari fabrics, but you never use recycled polyester or other recycled synthetic fibers? What was behind that decision?

There is a huge amount of oil and energy used to create synthetic fibers and textiles, and we don’t think that is sustainable. There is a lot of research and development that I pushed through with People Tree, which means that there are more fibers and fabrics available. There is still very little in terms of recycled fiber waste that actually meets environmental standards. For us as a brand we don’t want to use polyester, but we are looking into new textiles like tencel, banana fibers and nettle for example. It is a struggle because we are developing as we go, we were probably the first company to bring in an organic fabric with stretch in it that was woven poplin to make the perfect dress. These things take time and working very closely with the producers. Sometimes it can take 2-5 years to create a new fabric and create the market for it.

"Slow Fashion" is available in paperback and hardback from Amazon, or Ethical shop in UK.

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