Safia Minney

Kate Woods meets Safia Minney, the founder of People Tree

If businesses were measured by the amount of good karma they created, rather than financial profit, People Tree would be one of the most successful companies in the world. When I visited their London office, hidden deep in the backstreets of the uber-trendy Hoxton area, I was welcomed like an old friend. There was a kitchen in the huge open plan office, where people sat and shared food, and everyone I spoke to seemed to genuinely love what they were doing, proud to be working for a company that was making a difference in the world. And none more so than Safia Minney, People Tree’s founder and driving force.

The world needs more women like Safia. Her commitment and passion imbue everything she does, and her single-minded belief in the importance of fair-trade and the positive impact it can have on people’s lives is impossible to resist. In person, she is charming, gracious and elegant: I can imagine her as head girl at school, the sort that gets along with everyone in a pleasant, equable sort of way, so you don’t mind too much when she starts telling you what to do! She is certainly a woman with a mission. She works a sixteen hour day, and sleeps only six hours a night; in her London office is a futon, so when she is in town, the office is also her home. She divides her time between Japan, London, and visiting producers in Asia, Africa and Latin America. When I ask how she keeps going, she answers with a giggle, “organic vegetarian food, and lovely people!” She eats brown rice every day, enjoys yoga and meditation (although rarely finds time to squeeze them in) and loves nothing more than a “good boogie” to some jazz funk music. And she is blessed with a wonderfully calm and supportive husband, who shares her vision for the company.

Safia was born to a Swiss mother and Indian-Mauritian father, and was brought up in white middle class suburban England. At 17, she left school and home and went to London, working in publishing and marketing. It was during this time her eyes were opened to politics and environmental issues, particularly during a three month stint in south east Asia when she was 22.

“Travelling around Asia, I was shocked at how wrong my image of people was, at how self-reliant and dynamic so-called poor people are. I was also shocked at how globalisation takes away peoples’ land and livelihood and rights, and decided to support the small people and their initiatives, because they make such sense.”

So when she returned to Britain she started her own communications consultancy working with alternative publications and environmental groups. A few year later, she and her husband, James, moved to Tokyo for his job as a banker. There she studied Japanese full time, before gaining work at a publishing company, and then Body Shop.

People Tree began out of Safia’s living room in 1992. She was shocked at the lack of environmental awareness in the Japanese culture, so, as you do, she set up Global Village; a campaigning and educational network, to get local people into recycling and other aspects of sustainable living. The People Tree label grew out of Global Village, which is still going strong in Japan. Now People Tree works with 70 fair-trade groups in 20 developing countries, employs 40 staff in Japan and ten in London, and has outlets in Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Spain, as well as in Selfridges in London, and a thriving website and mail order department.

Safia stresses fair-trade is not charity; it is a partnership between producer and trader, enabling sustainable development and alleviating poverty. People Tree pay their producers a fair price, promises a regular income and provides technical assistance with product design. Over 60% of their range is made with certified organic cotton, and dyed using azo-free low impact dyes.

Fair Trade fashion is set to be the next big thing. Now people are increasingly aware of the issues, so many of us don’t think twice about buying organic and fairly traded foods. The clothing industry, despite having just as devastating an impact environmentally and socially, has always lagged behind. Eco clothing has been around for a while, but it has been hard to source, and notably unfashionable in the main. But there is a new wave of fashion labels who seek to marry contemporary design with sound ethics. Pioneers such as Wayne Hemingway and Sarah Ratty are gathering more media attention, and new brands are springing up all the time – Bono and his wife Ali Hewson launched Edun back in March this year. People Tree is at the front of this wave, with their designs for men, women and children, as well as jewellery, toys and crafts for the home.

Children’s projects are very important to Safia. She launched the Baby Milk Action campaign in Japan, and ran it for two or three years. This is a non-profit organisation which works to end inappropriate bottle feeding, and particularly campaigns against NestlĂ©, who is notorious for promoting its formula milk to women in developing countries. Women in countries like Bangladesh and India, where People Tree work, see the marketing, and assume that anything that comes from the West is superior, so they give up breastfeeding and switch to formula. Sadly, The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 1.5 million infants die around the world every year because they are not breastfed. People Tree also funds social welfare and environmental projects around the world. A percentage of their profits goes to, amongst other things, supporting The Street Children Project in Nanbam, India. They provide funding for a dining room so the children can eat good food, lockers for their valuable possessions, basic healthcare and access to schooling and vocational training.

So how does Safia combine being the mother of two children with her hectic business life? She has an unconventional attitude to the family, and happily blurs the boundaries between work and home. Pregnant with her first child, she worked from home up to the very minute she went into labour! She gave birth in one room, while volunteers were trying to get on with their work in the next. After a lot of screaming, she delivered the baby, and went into the next room to show her prize, where they promptly all started crying, they were so moved by the new arrival. She continued to work from home until Jerome started toddling. By the time he was one and a half, he was unpacking boxes as fast as she could pack them, and things were always threatening to topple over on him. At that point, she got a full-time nanny, a lady who quickly became part of the family and who is still with them, ten years later.

The typical nuclear family is not something that suits Safia; she believes, “it’s not about having two loving parents there all the time, it’s about having lots of loving people around.” When she is in Japan, she makes sure she is home for the children two or three evenings a week, and is there to spend time with them at weekends. If she is out of the country, they talk on the phone every day. Safia says it is the quality and honesty of the relationship that matters most; keeping that channel open, so the children know she is there for them. The children attend The International School in Japan, and have been brought up on an organic vegetarian diet, with a taste for good food. They understand how important her work is, and are very interested in it: Jerome has written a beautiful book outlining the principles of fair-trade for children, which is published and distributed by People Tree in Japan. They buy fair-trade presents for their friends, provide Safia with ideas for new products and sometimes come into the office to help on a Saturday. When the business was run from home, lunch was a communal affair, children and staff eating together. Safia has raised them to be questioning, to think deeply about issues rather than just accepting the status quo. She says their naturally straight-forward outlook on life has taught her a lot. Safia has been described as the “Anita Roddick of the fashion industry”, and “a kind of Nigella Lawson for the fair-trade movement”. But when fair-trade fashion becomes as huge as it deserves to be, Safia Minney will soon be a household name in her own right.