Safia Minney is a British social entrepreneur and campaigner who has pioneered a sustainable and Fair Trade fashion label, People Tree. Her passion is to provide customers with beautiful, ethical clothing. In 1999, she initiated the World Fair Trade Day which is celebrated on the second Saturday of May each year. In 2009 Safia Minney was awarded an MBE in The Queen’s Birthday Honours. In 2013, Safia launched the Rag Rage Campaign to clean up the fashion industry and is also the MD of Ethical Shoe Brand www.Po-Zu.com
So why did you start People Tree?
As a green consumer I wanted to spend my disposable income on products that would bring about social change. That’s why right from the age of seventeen I have been buying second hand or recycled products and organic food even while earning a tiny salary working for a publishing company at the time.
At the age of twenty five I moved to Japan for what I thought would be a short time, but I found myself in a new country wanting to find organic food like I had done in London but found very little of it. There were some amazing social businesses in the area so I started buying from them as a consumer but also helping them with their marketing and promotion. We started listings on organic food, on how to recycle. When we started publishing these organic and ethical listings we found that so many people were really keen to be a part of the change but didn’t have the information or didn’t know how to. So we started Global Village, which became People Tree. I started visiting groups, I did my research and found out which producer group and which Fair Trade groups were making what. Soon enough designers who were working for Oxfam and Traidcraft found out I was doing a good job of product development and retail in Japan and started contacting me and getting me in touch with other groups they recommended I worked with. That provided me with some fantastic opportunities.
The biggest priorities for People Tree was that these Fair Trade groups were women centric – that they were absolutely focused on delivering social benefit and empowerment to women and that they were open minded to work with new environmental practice, by pioneering production methods. Twenty five years ago was very new! So that was the starting point.
What was your first hurdle?
Fair Trade finance is one of the biggest hurdles. Running a Fair Trade business is like running an ethical bank. Apart from offering fair prices, training and capacity building we also have to pre-finance the orders nine months in advance with fifty percent advance payment to producers. That creates a huge financial burden to the company. We run pattern cutting workshops, dyeing, and quality management workshops to name a few which cost a huge amount. We also bring producers to the cities where we are working whether it be Tokyo or London as part of the Market Exposure Program so that they really understand who is buying their products. It’s a very long term partnering approach and that requires huge investment of money. I think that is one reason why it took us as long as ten years to break even.
So what made you stick at it then, most people would give up if they haven’t made a profit after one year?
I definitely don’t think people should expect a profit after one year, three to five years perhaps would be more realistic. With People Tree, we have really close relationships with producers and the whole ethos of the business is to work in partnership with other businesses that are passionate about how Fair Trade can change the world. And we see that when producers come here or when we visit producers and create films looking at the social impact that is incredibly exciting. That is what spurs us to keep going. I do remember being pregnant with my daughter who is now eighteen years old and just lying there going “Oh my God we have run out of money, what are we going to do!” And so there have been points when we have wondered how we would get through it.
Read Safia’s amazing book Slave to Fashion – www.safia-minney.com stopslavery Tweet This!
What would you say is your biggest failure?
I remember meeting Anita Roddick while working at the Body Shop in Japan when it started twenty-five years ago, she said to me, “Just trust your intuition”. But when you are young in your mid-twenties you don’t trust it enough. I think that is really important. Starting in Japan was very difficult as I had to learn the language first. As women we can sometimes allow chauvinistic, dogmatic thinking to get in the way of what you know can be changed!
Thinking back to your early days, what tips would you give to women starting out?
Definitely having experience in the field that you are starting a company in and applying it. I was very lucky, even though I haven’t come from a traditional design background I had a lot of passion for crafts and textiles that came from my mum and grandmother but I also had worked in publishing, advertising, and communications for about eight years before I started People Tree. I think that was really, really useful. Sometimes there is the temptation to think that you can start a business right away by getting an MBA in business. Sometimes it is actually useful to work in a business first, even if it’s in a conventional sector and then start applying that experience afterwards.
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