Safia Minney is a rock star. Well she’s not really, but she’s my rock star.
This remarkable woman founded ethical clothing brand People Tree 25 years ago, was its CEO for 24 years, and pioneered fair-trade in the fashion supply chain before ethics in fashion became the ‘in’ thing.
She is to conscious fashion what Heston Blumenthal is to restaurants.
We ethical fashion influencers owe a great debt to Safia for putting ‘fair trade’ squarely on the fashion map. Her passion and unwavering persistence to bring ‘ethics back’ is the reason why nowadays ethical fashion is a concept that’s more common than foreign.
Why I have a girl crush on Safia Minney.
I launched Eco Warrior Princess in 2010 before it was the ‘cool’ thing to care about ethics and sustainability in fashion. Back then – and unlike today – there weren’t many ethical fashion advocates I could look up to. Safia was one of a handful of people that I knew of (along with NYC-based academic Sass Brown and the world’s first ‘eco’ model Summer Rayne Oakes) advocating for change in the fucked-up fast fashion system.
In addition, not only did Safia launch People Tree, she is also the Managing Director of ethical shoe brand Po-Zu, an award-winning social entrepreneur, a published author of three books: Naked Fashion, Slow Fashion and Slave to Fashion, has been interviewed countless times for documentaries including the highly-praised The True Cost, AND brings humility to the fickle and superficial world of fashion.
While interviewing Safia Minney had been on the cards for some time, I was always too busy to initiate it. Last year on Boxing Day when I received an email from a reader ‘Vicki’ suggesting I interview Safia Minney I took it as the sign I needed to take action. Perhaps I could finally cross interviewing Safia off of my ‘Bucket List’ and add to my list of ‘Accomplishments’.
After returning from my Bali trip in early February, I made my move.
On February 9 I sent an email to Safia. Then I waited.
Over a month went by and still no reply.
Recalling that Safia had sent me a direct message last year on Twitter about her Kickstarter campaign, I decided to reach her on there instead. On March 27, more than six weeks since I first emailed her, I direct messaged her on Twitter.
Again I waited.
This time I didn’t have to wait very long. Safia responded just three days later.
PRESS RELEASE: SAF JOINS SVEN & @po_zu as Managing Director. I will remain non-exec Director of @peopletreeuk @peopletreejp & continue my work campaigning against #slavery in the #fashion industry with @slavetofash alongside other campaigners @livia_firth @theseagull @franklincaryn @1rebeccapearson @dean_newcombe @rikasueyoshi @taka_tsujii @ethicalfashionforum @wfto_fairtrade @1josephine @strawberryearth @fact_studio @newinternationalist @leahwoodofficial @aliciareguera @incredibusy @theonlyalexandria and many other friends :)))
JN: You started People Tree over 25 years ago and are considered a pioneer in the ethical fashion movement. Can you describe for me the moment you decided to start the brand?
SM: I realised I wanted clothes that were made with respect to people and the planet. I was reading about sweatshop production of denim and sportswear brands in South East Asia. I was in Tokyo, Japan at the time and working with volunteers. I started working with an Indian friend to help me research and build the first organic cotton supply chain and Fair Trade manufacturers in the world. I just knew that if I wanted stylish sustainably and fairly produced clothes I wasn’t alone.
We did events around the country and more and more buyers wanted to stock our products. We started using traditional craft skills and partnering with the best Fair Trade groups. And we collaborated with international designers and influencers like Emma Watson.
JN: How long have you been there [at Po-Zu] and what are your biggest priorities now that you’re at the helm?
SM: I have been at Po-Zu since January and the big priority is helping the company grow into the go to ethical footwear brand and make the most of the amazing Star Wars collaboration. This is huge and fans everywhere are getting in touch – we start Pre Sales on May the 4th – May the Force be with You!
We are also increasing the number of partners we work with in Portugal making sustainable footwear and strengthening our collections and communications. I’m currently making films in Portugal just to show how differently our hand made, sustainable shoes are.
JN: What does your ‘typical’ day look like?
SM: I do regular meetings with People Tree but my day-to-day is working at Po-Zu which is very exciting. We are doing a collaboration with Star Wars and this is the first time I think any ethical brand has worked with a film like this.
At Po-Zu we are strengthening the collections and distribution and supply chain at the same time we are sharing knowledge through the Better Shoes Foundation. It is really great putting a creative media team together and working with the team at Po-Zu. Sven Segal, the Founder is a real ecologist and as dedicated as me to doing fashion and changing the fashion industry by setting a great example.
JN: Of all your work achievements, which is the one you’re most proud of?
SM: I think it’s the very real relationships that I have with producers and how it’s changed things at ground level working in partnership. Craft Innovation through Fair Trade and livelihood promotion to promote women’s rights is my thing – and I like that ethical fashion can be a natural part of an ethical lifestyle. It’s more relevant today than ever before. That’s why I wrote Slow Fashion – Aesthetics Meets Ethics.
And my new book Slave to Fashion was inspired by my disgust at how women are treated in fashion as slaves and commodities. Human trafficking, bondage, child labour and sexual harassment are possible because of the poverty women face and the little respect they are given in society. We need laws that are enforced. And for men to stand up for women and the poor. I guess initiating World Fair Trade Day as an international event and helping promote Fair Trade and good design has been an achievement and something I have very much enjoyed.
JN: Has there been a point in your long career where you’ve wanted to give up? If so, what motivated you to keep going?
SM: The people and communities I work with keep me motivated. The smiles of the people – and their hugs. The creativity that comes with constantly having to overcome problems. We have faced natural disasters together, the tsunami in Japan, awful political unrest and two days off for maternity leave wasn’t easy, but you grow and learn. Living and working like this is my life work. Most of it is enjoyable!
JN: Many ethical fashion designers I know are having difficulty growing their brands to the point of financial sustainability. Do you have any advice or tips for them?
SM: I think it’s terrible how little support social businesses and small businesses get. They compete in an impossible environment with no grants or tax breaks for their pioneering work.
I think we need to collaborate to survive. I think we need to be careful also who we align ourselves with. Get lots of experience, know your strengths and weaknesses and work hard. Health is everything – so eat organic, do yoga and love.
JN: What do you think has been the key to People Tree’s success?
SM: Passion and long term innovation. Design and collaborations with great people. Creativity to solve very difficult problems. Love of crafts and technical attention to detail which comes from Japan!
JN: What do you know now that you wish you’d known before you launched People Tree?
SM: How tough it would be. But also how joyous!
JN: How else do you think we can increase the rate of ‘ethical fashion adoption’ so that it becomes mainstream?
SM: I would like to make ethical shoes an easy and obvious choice. That’s what we are working on at Po-Zu.
Safia is the closest thing to a ‘role model’ that someone like me – who regularly admits to not having any – could have.
This act of kindness – generously giving me her time during such a busy time as she prepares to launch her latest book Slave to Fashion on the 24th April, the 4th anniversary of the Rana Plaza building collapse – is something I will never ever forget.
To learn more about Safia, visit www.safia-minney.com
Photographer credit: Featured image of Safia Minney by Akio Nakamura.