Inspiring insights from the pioneer of the sustainable fashion movement and founder of People Tree
Here is a woman who didn’t simply identify the injustice in the fashion industry but she made it her mission to rebuild its landscape. The doyenne of ethical clothing – it is hard to talk about the fashion revolution without mentioning her name.
Safia became a social entrepreneur after a stint in publishing.
She first discovered Fair Trade while shopping at Oxfam, this passion for green consumerism soon flourished into a business idea and People Tree was born.
When Safia met some of the first organic cotton pickers in India she was struck by the sense of family and community in their work.
They focused on crop rotation and were not cash dependent, this cotton was then sent on to handlooms in Bangladesh.
She was fascinated by the production processes and the lives of the people who were so vital in the story of a garment. She saw a desperate need for change and responded to it.
But it is not only Fair Trade that Safia is fighting for. The clothing industry is the second largest pollutant in the world. Safia talks passionately about protecting the planet as well as taking care of its people.
The Fair Trade movement is built on 10 principles of Fair Trade to promote developmental and environmental standards and these principles lie at the heart of People Tree and all of the great ethical fashion brands.
“The concept around People Tree is that it is made by people for people who are not the professional elite – clothes that could be bought and worn by anybody.”
Organic and Fair Trade cotton have helped to reduce water consumption by over 60 per cent in Gujarati (through drip irrigation and the increased water holding capacity of the soil).
It has also helped to build local indigenous seed banks and protect against GMO. “The resulting soil is beautiful, fertile and full of nutrients.”
It was shocking to learn from Safia that there are 250 000 microfibres in one inch of synthetic fleece. The plastic fibres seep into tap water through the washing process.
Plant filters are not strong enough to catch these fibres and they get consumed by fish. It then enters into the food chain through our oceans. “We strive for a holistic lifestyle, yet we wear synthetic fibres that are so damaging to the environment.”
The term ethical fashion has filtered into common usage, but People Tree were instrumental in this change.
They were the first brand to achieve certification (Global Organic Textile Standard) on a product (organic cotton) in the developing world.
People Tree were also the first fashion company to achieve WFTO mark to guarantee Fair Trade throughout the supply chain.
They also increased label transparency by designing their own labels such as Certified Organic Cotton, Hand Woven, Hand Block Print etc.
Nowadays people understand the need for brands to be ethical and to take responsibility for sustainability. However, when People Tree started out this was unusual. Safia is excited about the opportunity around Fair Trade becoming mainstream.
With an increasing number of celebrities using their status to promote the importance of conscious consumerism and more brands starting to consider the full story behind production, important changes are happening.
When Emma Watson approached Safia about creating a range for her age group, Safia understood that the new generation is helping to shape the future of the fashion industry.
Safia was the global CEO of People Tree for 24 years before she wrote her 8th book ‘Slave to fashion.’ She was working as a sustainability consultant when she was approached by her friend Sven Segal to become a CEO of Po-Zu.
The idea appealed to Safia who had struggled to style People tree shoots because of a lack of decent ethical shoes. She relied on borrowed footwear and vintage shoes instead.
Pinewood studios approached Po-Zu to feature their shoes in their films. This gave Po-Zu the chance to commercialise their shoes through the films.
The shoes were produced in Portugal and Safia looked into ways to produce an ethical line alongside the standard line, by including organic cotton uppers etc.
You have to really understand the structure of shoes in order to create proper ethical footwear. This involves the use of biodegradable materials such as Piñatex ® a natural leather substitute derived from pineapple leaf fibre.
Safia has met many people caught in horrific exploitation and slavery over the years and has been able to take some of them out of it.
Her understanding of the economic backdrop and power struggles of marginalised people has meant she has been able to change their lives.
By constantly looking at freedom of association and genuine protection of human rights, she has created a fashion brand that has made a positive impact on the lives of thousands.
The glimmers of hope are growing stronger all the time. Women are using their phones to report violations of human rights – giving the power back to the workers. There are labour unions that raise the alert and put pressure on brands until they improve.
Through the years they relationships have deepened as People tree are collaborating on sustainable designs. With a partnership approach they strictly monitor the living conditions of artisans and farmers.
Improvements three years down the road may not be exclusively down to a brand but there are strong stories there and the artisans reported better working conditions and improvements that could only be due to the brand association.
“It’s all about storytelling, transparency and meeting the people who make the clothes.”
Safia always asks the workers firsthand how their lives could be improved. A group of Sri Lankan farmers asked for free uniforms and transport to work, others ask for literacy training or microcredit schemes.
What is clear is that the importance of ethical production methods and Fair Trade is increasing. More consumers are asking questions and more brands are listening to each story along the supply chain.
“Ethical fashion can mean so many things from poverty elimination to upcycling or using up waste fabric. It can mean human rights or animal rights. The beauty of offering product – it means going on a journey to understand how interconnected things are. It’s about taking a consumer on a journey.”
As consumers, we have the freedom to question each purchase and to learn the history behind our garments. We have the power to make vital changes that will have a positive impact on the future of our world.
“It is so important that we continue to recognise Fair Trade as a grassroots movements – without consumers and that transparency and push we’ll lose the momentum and glimmer of hope.”
Safia appears in the eyeopening documentary ‘The True Cost’ where she gives a candid interview about the true cost of fast fashion and explains how slow fashion can be lifechanging.