Safia is often asked MANY questions about why she made the decision to make a career working within, and speaking publicly about fair trade and sustainable fashion, and eradicating modern slavery in the fashion industry. Here’s a few of those questions – and Safia’s thoughts in reply.
Speaker agent: Gordon Poole Ltd
1) Safia, what made you decide to make a business from selling ethical and sustainable clothing?
I am simply an ethical consumer. I didn’t want my money to be spent with companies that don’t respect the workers that make their products and the environment. I realised that I would have to design products myself to get products that met high standards. That’s how People Tree started – we had to construct some of the first Fair Trade and organic supply chains in the world for clothing and foods.
2) How difficult/easy was it to find ethical manufacturers/suppliers?
I asked suppliers and Fair Trade groups how important women’s rights and the environment are to them. I would set up a new product with them, and we would work hard to design, sample and market-test it. Through that process I could see how sincere and capable the suppliers were.
It wasn’t difficult to find groups that share the same values, but helping them make good quality products when they needed help in so many ways: training in the design process and product development, in pattern-cutting and quality control management, and help with production and financial planning as well as building infrastructure, processes and procuring environmentally friendly materials in rural areas which is very very challenging. Also, you have to sustain orders. It’s a long- term partnership that helps achieve great things, not one-off orders.
3) Why do you think that some people have the impression that ethical and sustainable clothing is expensive?
Because fast fashion doesn’t cover the true costs: The social costs and environmental costs. Also, ethical brands haven’t reached the scale to make distribution costs really cheap because they don’t use slave labour to build up their businesses.
I always wanted ethical fashion to be “democratic” and affordable. People connect directly with the makers of what they consume. We started small-scale. That’s not very cost effective, but we always kept the prices at People Tree affordable and in-line with mid-market brands. So there’s no excuse not to be able to afford fair trade fashion.
Why Po-Zu Footwear shoes are perceived as expensive?
Our ethically and sustainably made Po-Zu shoes come at a cost (when compared with non-ethical mainstream brands) which we think is not just reasonable, but totally justifiable.
For those who are not aware of this issue, we highly recommend watching The True Cost movie which highlights the reason why most clothing items are in fact too cheap. And of course, reading my book Slave To Fashion published by New Internationalist.
Further information concerning ethical issues more specifically to the shoe industry can be found at the Better Shoes Foundation website. @BetterShoes_F on twitter – http://www.bettershoes.org/
4) How do you keep a good relationship with the suppliers to ensure that the quality of the working environment is up to standard?
We have bi-annual reviews that are monitored by The World Fair Trade Organisation. The Soil Association monitor organic standards for cotton and many of the food farmers. We also visit the groups regularly and work together with them to invest in better buildings, ventilation, water waste management systems and the kind of things that make life healthier where products are produced. We go way down the supply chain too to try to make the best job we can at influencing suppliers to do better. We invest in upgrading skills, and market exposure programmes.
5) Why is hand craftsmanship an important element within People Tree?
It provides more jobs and livelihoods in rural areas for women. That’s the point. Women with families need decent work and a chance to earn whilst looking after their children. People Tree hand knitting, hand weaving, hand embroidery and hand printing provides work for two thirds of the people who make for the company, even though it only accounts for one third of the product sales. I love hand craft skills. They revive traditional skills and celebrate the incredible ancient agriculture and textile heritage of our worlds.
6) Why do you think that most UK high street fashion brands do not follow the same ethics as People Tree?
They are beginning to emulate some aspects. Using organic cotton for example is great. Some progressive brands are starting to look at worker rights through their obligations to eradicate modern slavery.
Some are beginning to phase out the worst types of environmental production techniques.
The problem is that laws need to be properly enforced and business CEOs and Directors held accountable.
7) Why do you think that the general public are only starting to become aware of the severity of modern slavery in garment factories in the last 10 or so years?
I think many of us have been aware for years. Campaigning groups, media makers and ethical fashion brands have done a great job of raising awareness and the government has done little to lead in most countries.
The True Cost movie, Fashion Revolution and many books on the issues have helped get people angry and forcing change. So much is changing now. It’s cool to care. The problem is – is it quick enough and can we change things fast enough? We need collaboration on a huge scale and for business, consumers, govts of every nation and campaigning groups to work to reform business, financial and legislative systems as we know them.
8) Do you feel that UK fast fashion brands use sustainable and ethical fashion as a marketing strategy, therefore not taking these major problems seriously?
I think some are trying hard to revamp their out-dated ways of producing clothes and doing business. I’m hoping that they will share best practice more and more through many new initiatives and through the Ethical Trading Initiative and HULT. We have some very serious problems and very little time to solve them.
I wish that we hadn’t spent 10-20 years with what was generally a load of old ‘greenwash’ wasting time in grappling with the key issues: over production, over consumption, waste and prices so low as to result in a throw away culture that undermines workers’ rights, our planet’s resources and ecosystem and in many cases our physiological well-being.
9) Why do you think that some UK high street fast fashion brands do not take modern slavery in garment factories seriously?
They are beginning to now that the UK Modern Slavery Act requires them to declare what they are doing to eradicate slavery if they are a company of £36million turnover of more. Consumers need to be more demanding and not buy from brands that they don’t trust.
10. Prior to publishing your book ‘Slave to Fashion’, you wrote about SLOW Fashion – what drove you to write the ‘Slow Fashion’ book?
We used to say that clothes made by hand in this way weren’t well designed – now they are. The Aesthetics are good.
And that the shops retailing fair and sustainable fashion were ugly – this is no longer true.
We have many strong ethical brands and gorgeous eco-concept stores around the world. The book “Slow Fashion” features this, with interviews about the key influencers. I used to get so fed up with people using aesthetics as an excuse not to buy responsibly – it really used to make me mad! How can any new product innovation improve without customer support? This is especially unfair when fair fashion competes in the same market with fast fashion often produced by modern slaves.
I wrote “Slow Fashion” because over the last 20 years I have seen cotton grown organically and the care the farmers put in to manage the pests and improve soil fertility and the huge benefits this has to the environment, their incomes and promoting organic foods and health locally and their incomes.
Making fabrics and clothes manually, like hand-weaving fabric, hand embroidery and hand knitting, we create beautiful clothing, in a carbon neutral way, (no energy used except for people-power) and maximise the livelihoods created through this in rural areas. I believe that fashion can be a powerful tool for rural development and help women. We need fashion made like this to become the “fair trade gold label”.
11) What kind of problems do you face when you stock only ethical and sustainable fashion and accessories?
It’s hard work being a 100 percent dedicated ethical fashion company.
You don’t make compromises with workers’ rights or using sustainable materials. In fact you keep setting the bar higher and higher. You try to run faster that the best and set the agenda in your industry. It’s hard, but fun, working with other dedicated change makers – who love design and great products as much as people and our wonderful planet. You have to bring your customers on the journey with you. That’s part of the work that I really enjoy too.
Transcript of interview with Katie Edwards. Summer 2017.
To book Safia for public speaking engagements, please contact her agent: Gordon Poole Ltd
Follow Safia on twitter twitter.com/safiaminney
and Instagram too.