Alice Ellerby talks to Safia Minney about how to be part of the solution
Safia Minney founded the sustainable and Fair Trade fashion brand People Tree in the early nineties. She says their mission, unchanged over the last 30 years, is “to put social impact, workers’ rights, livelihoods, craft and sustainable sourcing and production, central to our business.” She created the company “to be part of the solution” in an industry that puts huge pressure on both people and planet. Fashion, the third biggest manufacturing industry, is responsible for 8% of global CO2 emissions; garment workers are subject to poor working conditions; fabrics are sourced unsustainably; the production of synthetic fabrics and the chemicals used for dyeing are highly polluting, as well as toxic to workers; and 80% of clothing ends up in landfill.
I ask Safia if the issues she is working with today are the same as when the company started. “Yes,” she says emphatically. “If anything, it’s got worse. Thirty years ago, we didn’t have the fast fashion culture we have now. The speed at which over-production and over-consumption is happening is impossible to sustain on a living planet with scarce natural resources. Land use, water usage, the loss of biodiversity – it’s the same issues – but the speed of destruction is alarming and the fashion industry is largely to blame.”
The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the humanitarian crisis in the fashion world. Some large clothing companies have cancelled orders with factories across the world, with catastrophic consequences. “There are 4 million garment workers in Bangladesh and 2 million are currently in a very difficult position without employment, struggling to feed themselves because of cancelled work,” Safia says. “We have seen little commitment from fashion companies to honour their contracts with suppliers – and even though these companies have made huge profits from the work of these garment workers, they have thrown them out on the street, with no savings and little, if any, government support. The pandemic has exposed the extent to which capitalism and our trading system are broken. There is no transparency and accountability and civil society and investors need to demand it. Even before the crisis, 50% of garment workers in Bangladesh earned the minimum wage. We need to look at how we pay a living wage, and how we produce clothes in a carbon neutral way with regenerative organic cotton and other materials that support the natural world. We need a fashion revolution that is based on people and planet alongside profit.”
Safia believes that sustainable businesses, like People Tree, have shown the world that “a new way is possible. Through People Tree’s design and production processes – hand-weaving, hand-knitting, the use of certified organic and Fairtrade cotton – we have shown that fashion can be done differently.” She hopes other fashion companies “will transition to sustainability and greater social inclusion.”
While the pandemic has been dramatic and devastating for many people, the uprooting of normal life has created an opportunity for change. “It has helped people to get in touch with their values and has shown how quickly we can change,” Safia says. “The public, investors and the media are calling for a more equitable society and a green economy that puts people and planet alongside profit. People buying new clothing will be asking, ‘How was this made and who made it?’, ‘Has it been made by people who are trapped in modern slavery in Leicester or Bangladesh?’ Half of the fashion industry could disappear in next 18 months to 2 years. What will be left is businesses that have no choice but to engage with sustainability and social inclusion because their supply chains are at risk. Climate risk means financial risk. And if fashion companies can make that transition, other sectors will find it easier to follow.
The scale of the multiple crises we currently face makes it easy to despair, but Safia inspires a focus on action and solutions. Her latest venture, REAL Sustainability (www.REALsustainability.org) is designed to help individuals and business leaders make more sustainable choices across many aspects of life: energy, food and drink, money, beauty, technology, home, travel, wellbeing, as well as fashion. The website is a platform which helps people navigate the complex issues and take action. Safia has a special project launching for Christmas, so would love readers to sign up to the REAL newsletter if interested.
“A good place to start is living more ethically and sustainably,” Safia says. She acknowledges that “people come to sustainability from different perspectives. Many will be organic food consumers who haven’t thought about fashion or money.” REAL Sustainability curates information in a digestible form for large numbers of people to access. “It’s about making that information accessible, so people aren’t overwhelmed by the climate crisis. We cannot afford not to act now. Every month of inaction will matter to us and future generations.”
The website is intended to enable people to “work through their anxiety into action”. Safia describes how “the climate crisis, and the ecological and social breakdown that has been evident for years, came into focus in 2019 through the Extinction Rebellion protests and the student climate strikes.” There are businesses that want to transition to a more sustainable way of operating. “REAL Sustainability runs leadership workshops and webinars through which business leaders can learn about how to use systems change to deliver social impact and sustainability. Why are CEOs less educated on sustainability issues than their 20-year-old children? Why is it OK for them to be expected to leave their humanity at home? It’s about leaders thinking systemically about how to stay on the 1.5 degrees pathway, which means radically cutting greenhouse gas emissions, and feeling that they can take their whole selves into their organisations and leading as a human being. It’s beginning to happen, but there is an urgent need to share best practice, to encourage and to inspire leaders about what’s possible, so that people don’t feel depressed, isolated and alone – our futures depend on each one of us engaging on sustainability, ecological breakdown and social issues.”
Safia also talks about how the Black Lives Matter movement has shaken up the fashion industry, by giving focus to systemic racism within it, “from modern slavery to marketing imagery.” She says, “There is a glass ceiling for people of colour in all industries, but it is evident across the supply chains of the fashion industry. We need to make sure people earn a living wage, have freedom of association, and that people of colour are represented in the management and on the boards of companies. There is a big movement to encourage white people to become ‘White Allies’ and call out systemic-racism and promote debate where possible. We need to look at what we can do to promote dialogue, equality and wellbeing in business.”
By being conscious consumers, Safia believes everyone can be part of the solution. There are questions we can ask when we’re looking to buy clothes that can help us make better, more sustainable choices, that reduce the harm done to people and planet: Is the brand producing sustainably? Is it GOTS, WFTO/Fair Trade or B Corp certified? Do they have a modern slavery policy? Do I need to buy new – why not swap with friends, rent, repair or buy second hand? Today, with charity shops, eBay and Depop and lots of retailers offering ‘pre-loved’, there are many options. “We are all powerful individuals. Whether we’re running a household, leading an organisation, teaching in a school, working in a charity or in media, each one of us has a really important role to play”.
“Citizen power is the ultimate lever of change.”
Safia Minney is an award-winning international social entrepreneur, speaker and advisor. She is the founder of the Fair Trade fashion brand People Tree and is seen as a thought leader in sustainable fashion and an influencer in sustainability and modern slavery. She founded REAL Sustainability to promote sustainable living and leading, and she offers leadership and career coaching.
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This feature was originally published in JUNO Autumn 2020.
Photograph by Odi Caspi.