Fair trade haute-couture: making beautiful clothes and making sense

Meet Safia Minney, one of the entrepreneurs changing the way we trade

Meet Safia Minney, one of the entrepreneurs changing the world

Dirty, dangerous, crowded and shockingly low-paid. The record of clothing production is not so much blemished as plagued by bad practice. Nearly one week after the collapse of a clothing factory in Dhaka which has so far claimed the lives of 336 people, fashion production methods have never been under such intense scrutiny. Will Western desire for throwaway clothing ever be sated? Faced with the consequences, many of us are starting to seek alternatives. Read the story of Future Maker Safia Minney, a game-changer in the world of ethical fashion and an example for all to follow:

Safia comes from the fast world of advertisement and glossy magazines. At the age of 17 the Londoner had no further interest in school and began working for an ad agency, turning round the fortunes of an ailing wedding magazine.

The multicultural environment in the office appealed to her, and before long she caught the travelling bug and set out to explore the world.

Healed by a shock in far away land
She went to Bali and travelled from there by land to Myanmar (then called Burma). What she saw during her daily forays shocked her. In her high-gloss world, she had internalised common preconceptions about third-world countries.

She had imagined those who lived there to be poor, pitiful slackers who spent their days sitting around waiting for charitable handouts. Instead, she found hard-working and talented people who manufactured excellent products with craft traditions that had been passed down over centuries.

She saw the miserable conditions under which many of them were forced to work. But above all, she realised that the customary cottage industries had neither the knowledge, nor the basic set-up, to sell their products internationally. The local demand was also quite low.

This upset Safia, hearing the stories of people who, in spite of their hard work, had no opportunity to gain a foothold in international competition. How could they? They had to struggle for a single dollar to be able to put a daily bowl of rice on the table.

When dog food counts for more than people’s lives
Almost a year on Safia returned to London with a tremendous wealth of impressions. She could no longer understand why highly intelligent people spent their days thinking up the latest advertising tricks for dog food and diets.

She thought about the millions of dollars thrown away on advertising battles, while images of people who had barely enough to eat ran through her mind. She asked herself seriously whether the skills of Londoners could be used in a more positive way.

Safia dived in head first and founded her own marketing consultancy. She specialised in consulting for charitable organisations and ethnic minorities. For the first time, she was certain about why she got up every morning. When her husband-to-be received a job offer in Japan, they seized the opportunity and moved to Tokyo.

Japan – a different world
And yet here a new slew of shocks was waiting for Safia, and not only because of the new language and culture.

She discovered herself among Indian and Italian missionaries in her language school who wanted to care for the Japanese homeless in wealthy Japan. Tokyo, the proud high-tech metropolis, apparently did not concern itself with the not-so-successful members of society.

[Safia] could no longer understand why highly intelligent people spent their days thinking up the latest advertising tricks for dog food and diets.

Safia was astonished when she realised that she could find none of the information about organically grown food or fair-trade products that were common in Great Britain. Following her travel experiences she had made it a habit in England to buy socially and ecologically conscious products, but in Japan consuming in a socially and ecologically sustainable way seemed not to be an issue.

After founding ethical consumer NGO Global Village, Safia decided to start up the Fair Trade Company (now known as People Tree) in 1995. Since then, she has shown with People Tree that fair-trade consumer articles are on par with other products in terms of quality and design.

People Tree and its demands
Under the People Tree label Safia coordinates 70 groups of producers in 20 countries. Her teams in both the London-based design centre and in Japan develop high-fashion articles of clothing which are then manufactured by relatively small groups all around the world. This way it becomes possible for tailors in remote Laos or the South American jungle to sell products on the world market.

Quality is the highest imperative: all of the goods have to hold their own in the market against conventionally manufactured articles. Safia has built up suitable local producers, primarily in the developing world. She has made additional education possible for many of them and shown them how fashions are worn in Japan and worldwide.

Free market?
Safia knows all too well that it is impossible for small manufacturers to make their way in today’s free market. She says:

“A free market is among other things a market with perfect information.

“When I think about how bad the information about the ecological and social consequences of the manufacture of many products still is, I don’t think we can speak about free markets with regard to this. Even high-ranking decision-makers in politics and industry don’t know with certainty the consequences they are responsible for.

People Tree Store, Tokyo

People Tree Store, Tokyo

“Consumers are being manipulated very cleverly by well-paid public relations (PR) and marketing professionals. They’re pulling the wool over people’s eyes.”

People Tree, in contrast, wants to enlighten and enable consumers to make conscious purchasing decisions.

Fair trade has to be sexy
Safia wants to help fair trade gain a modern image. She says:

“Fair-trade couture was ugly and old-fashioned ten years ago. Today we have the ability to create very attractive fashions.”

Safia and her team are convinced that high-quality, fair-trade fashions can be brought to stores at reasonable prices.

“There are excellent fair-trade fabrics. Why shouldn’t we be able to make sexy clothes out of them? Of course we need professionals for that. We get them, too.

“Our design centre in London is practically under siege by successful designers who are looking to make their work meaningful.”

Money itself has no meaning
Safia says: “The longer I work in fair trade and the deeper my insight into global relationships gets, the more convinced I am about our work at People Tree.

“Just the positive effects for the people in our partner projects show me that the hard work of the past years has been worthwhile. I can’t even describe the joy and inner satisfaction that you feel when you meet these people.”

Safia could earn much more than she does at big fashion labels or well-known magazines, but that doesn’t interest her.

“I wouldn’t be any happier if I were richer. In my life it’s always been about principles and values”.

Trade is a powerful tool for Safia in making people socially and politically mature, and giving them a voice. However, in most large businesses, social responsibility and ecological stewardship are only at home in the PR department.

“It’s going to take many years before these subjects are anchored in core industry,” Safia says.

She sees one of her tasks as speeding up this process through the example of her own success.

This is an edited extract from The Future Makers: A Journey to People who are Changing the World – and What We Can Learn from Them by Joanna Hafenmayer Stefanska and Wolfgang Hafenmayer, Greenleaf Publishing 2013.


futuremakersThe Future Makers tells the diverse stories of people from around the world who have made a sustainable mark on the world through their careers: from Japanese environmental experts to dancers in Argentina. The Future Makers are people who make the world a better, more beautiful and livable place for current and coming generations.

The authors take you on a journey to people whose values and visions aren’t compartmentalised into corners of their lives. They live their dreams every day. This book will show you how you can do the same.

The Future Makers is out now. If you liked this story and want to discover more, head over to our website. To celebrate the book’s launch we are offering a 10% discount on the paperback. To claim, just enter code FMBE10 at the checkout. Happy reading!

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One thought on “Fair trade haute-couture: making beautiful clothes and making sense

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