Safia Minney is one of the true pioneers of the Fairtrade movement and a leading light in ethical fashion. So when I heard she was speaking at the Oxford Fairtrade Coalition AGM about her experiences of founding a Fair Trade Fashion Company on Monday I thought it was definitely time to pay my Oxford-based sister-in-law a visit. Other fellow fans who couldn't make it asked if I could share any insights, so this is less a cleverly crafted blog post or interview and more a summary of my notes - complete with omissions, misinterpretations and listener's bias!
Safia's background is covered on her own website, but she's best known for founding ethical clothing company People Tree over 25 years ago and her current role as Managing Director of ethical shoe company Po-Zu. She's also the author of several books including Slow Fashion and more recently Slave to Fashion, and she played a big part in the development of the True Cost Movie, which I've gone on about before, and will continue to go on about.
I was quietly pleased to hear her Fairtrade journey started with Oxfam shops, much as I described in a post last year. She undersells the massive drive and determination that must have taken her on from that point to travelling around the world setting up supply chains that honoured and supported workers and their skills; 'Surely economics could do better? We have an international mandate to deliver [ethical trade]'.
Her research for Slave to Fashion revealed children of twelve are still working as bonded or indentured labour in India, with women having to move on from factories frequently to escape sexual harassment and threat of rape. Research has also shown that very few high st brands are not involved in some way with unfair labour. There are glimmers of hope though - simple, cheaper smartphones have made them affordable for female garment workers, making it easier for them to report violations of labour or building standards.
In both the main talk and answers to questions she spoke about responding to the interest of the market. In the early days of People Tree, potential customers in Japan were more excited about craft, materials and sustainability than the human rights aspect, so she used this area of interest to draw them in, whilst ensuring it was also Fairtrade. When asked about trying to get quality indigenous textiles into a British market she pointed out the difficulties in a country where textiles are not highly valued. Asked where consumers are at now, she was enthusiastic about the eco-concept store to do ethical products justice, where aesthetics are well considered, stories behind brands told, and wider 'lifestyle opportunities' on offer. Storytelling came through repeatedly as key for brands to successfully convey the social impact of what they do. Brands should also look at collaboration, she says, speaking of the success of People Tree Japan's collaboration with Vogue and high end designers, People Tree's line designed by Emma Watson, and Po-Zu's breakthrough Star Wars collaboration (have you seen the Porg high tops??!) that continues to raise their profile.
Questions and answers also frequently touched different points of the enormous subject of what 'ethical' - a term that she says she initially avoided as it felt like a watering down of Fairtrade - means: When is it green-washing?; how do you choose between Fairtrade and sustainability when sourcing?; how do we keep Fairtrade pure as companies like Sainsburys develop their own accreditation?; how do you measure impact? These discussions could probably fill a blog or two, but Safia points to the importance of good grass roots organisations like the Fairtrade Foundation or Fashion Revolution to keep setting the standard and challenging companies, and encourages those of us committed to Fairtrade to keep buying from the pioneers like Traidcraft.
The final question from the audience was 'What next?', and while she may have given some hints (and we may have all interpreted them in different ways to suit our hopes!), I think we're going to have to wait and see. I'm just grateful that someone with that level of drive, stamina and skills uses it to break ground for human rights and make a way for the rest of us.
Read a new interview with Safia Minney about plastic micro-fibres in tap water here.
Irregular musings and pretty pictures from the heart of LOST SHAPES.