Safia Minney is the very first of my Inspirational Women who I had never met before before I photographed. It has been a very good experience. She is the founder of the ethical and sustainable fashion brand People Tree and was CEO for 24 years. She has been working to save the planet and help its people since she was 25, or as you will see from the interview all her life. She is one of the worlds leading social entrepreneurs and is a leading inflencer in sustainability, creating the first organic Fair Trade supply chain. She has be showing us the way now its time for us all to follow her lead. We can still love fashion and love and take care of the planet and those who live on it.
D: Safia you are an amazing woman and have done a lot with your life. I feel there is a lot of information about you since she was 17 I would love a glimpse of what life was like before then and what the formative years were like for you. Did you go up in the UK?
S: Yes I grew up in Berkshire near Ascot and then Bracknell. My father was a scientist originally from Mauritius, but he died of cancer when I was seven, we had just moved house from Ascot to Bracknell. My mother was Swiss and neither of them really understood the UK system that, depending on where you live the schools are of very different in quality. The move meant I went from a really great school in Ascot where we had been very academic to a really, really poor quality school. It took me from highly academic approach to learning to basically playing in the sandpit. About three months after that move my father died. It was difficult in so many ways.
The shots you took just now surrounded by flowers, - actually I felt incredibly emotional. As there is a picture of me as very little girl surrounded by flowers at the age of seven, a few weeks after father passed away.
It was very, very hard for Mum as a foreigner in the UK at the time, you didn’t talk about death. There was no support in terms of the grieving process and she says that her friends were often cold, they would cross over to the other side of the road and wouldn’t talk to her or include her. She was a young woman in her mid to late 30s. Mum was absolutely great, she was looking after three of us my brother was two, and my sister was probably about 5 ½. She was also doing voluntary work and we would be working with her doing these voluntary social work activities. She would help Ugandan refugees who were coming to our towns, help them settle into their homes, find doctors and schools and we would find ourselves trying to find secondhand furniture for them to make a home. I think for me this was very, very powerful. To understand that people could be forced from their families, their homes, some of these people where very professional, very well-to-do and had to travel with a couple of suitcases and absolutely nothing other than that. The sense of loss but also resilience. Learning the importance of welcoming and being there. That was lovely to be part of.
My childhood went from kind of being really quite picture perfect and having two very loving international and curious progressive parents to this.
My great grandmother was a sugar cane plantation worker in Mauritius and her family had come over as indentured slaves. My grandmother, my father’s mother, was also widowed when he was a very young boy. She worked very hard on the land she was allowed to buy it from the government she was very enterprising. Dad was very academic and quite clever so was encouraged to go to Mauritius University. For him and the family this was a big thing. Throughout his childhood he really felt that he wasn’t allowed to play or go riding his bicycle. It was really expected that he would be the one that helped the family. With us he had a very strong attitude that his children should be allowed to play, be free and have the things he didn’t have. My Mother’s family are from Switzerland. Her grandfather had been a minister and her parents social workers. They lived in France, the Alsace for a while and ran a center for what they called at the time ‘delinquent boys’. A kind of youth center for carpentry skills and that kind of thing. They returned to Switzerland before the war and started a publishing company and a bookshop. My great-grandfather because he was a minister, a vicar, was very socially minded, I guess he was also very, very political. Very progressive. He was he was an environmentalist. This was all stuff I only found out after I started the journey with People Tree and realized that probably I had a pro social gene and was very much made that way, can’t stop doing it.
D: Your life after 17 is very well documented. It’s an amazing career, Ethical fashion, Fair Trade, setting up Fair Trade Day, working with Friends of the Earth and Body Shop and setting up Global Village and People Tree. I love the global village idea and of course People Tree. I think the global village is a much nicer place to be in the global economy.
S: Yes, yes well maybe now it’s become clear that the economic system is totally dysfunctional when we start redefining what economics should be and putting the planet central, we’ll come up with a sense of Global Village and then decent and fair relationships with other people. Because we all thrive on respect, dignity and solidarity that connection is very, human and instinctive.
D: You are one of the fore runners in the world of sustainable and ethical fashion how does it feel now that everyone else at last seems to be wakening up? Sustainability seems to be on everyone’s lips.
S: When I set up Global Village I had people that I was very much learning from and was inspired by. People like JonathonPorritt director of Friends of The Earth (until 1990), George Monbiot whose books I read, Poisoned Arrows is really deeply moving. I see myself as being from another generation (although George is my age ho hum). It’s great to see more awareness and urgency. I think, I still feel very much a maverick. A lot of the thinking behind People Trees product development, the design, the supply chain innovation, was all very new and felt intuitively the right thing to do. For example using only natural materials, using, buttons and interfacings as far as possible using only natural materials, not using plastic buttons and things that wouldn’t bio degrade. That was really quite a difficult thing to do because you know, we were setting up the first relationships with those kinds of suppliers. It is also a very expensive and time consuming thing to do. Now, when we look at the micro fiber debate and see that 80% of drinking water is polluted with micro fibers, you know it feels, it is shocking, it’s absolutely shocking. So micro fibers are the most urgent environmental issue we must address. It’s entering the food chain through fish and all life forms.
It is very exciting to see this new generation of young students and children behind the school strikes. I became a member of Extinction Rebellion in March this year, feeling absolutely that we don’t need it to be a new something and I really enjoyed the approach. Not only the political approach but also the regenerative cultural approach that Extinction Rebellion are so good at.
So yes, I feel its very exciting that we are gradually joining forces into an intergenerational movement the movement of movements. The UK is ahead of many other countries, I was in New York with some leading thinkers and movers but there was nothing really like Extinction Rebellion on the same level in the US. I think the new green deal is our best hope, there were a lot of exciting initiatives at the beginning. Yes it is a very exciting time and it is a time were I have felt certainly in the last 3 or 4 months that finally we have a chance to create the kind of society that we want. And that brings with it great open optimism.
D: 28 years after you founded People Tree and working with Po Zu How do we accelerate what you have started?
S: That’s a really good question, its absolutely critical because we have to bring everything to scale. What we have been doing is tinkering around the edges. We need legislative reform and without laws in place and then being enforced it is really difficult to get the kind of reduction in carbon emissions we need, to get really sustainable practice in place and to meet the minimum laws, in terms of workers rights and wages. I am hopeful. I think with the ESGs (The environment social and governance) standards that the financial markets are beginning to act, it is having an impact. What we are, finding is that actually companies are increasingly under pressure to deliver reports that prove that they are doing something and that’s what we’ve longed for, for the past 20 years. So I think the pressure from above which is legislative, and is very slow in coming but also the financial markets are beginning to put some pressure on in terms of risk management and from below, because really, citizens are demanding that what they are buying from their favourite corporations and brands are transparent. They want human rights, and to know that environmental legislation is in place. There is a lot of Shell reaction now. People are buying a share so they can vote at the AGM, so there is also a lot of shareholder activism. I think people are really aware that we need urgent large scale change and I think the protests that have happened this year have been really powerful in moving peoples consciousness to understanding that the economic system is defunct. When I would talk about it 25 years ago, I did feel like a maverick, I wasn’t a trained economist, but when I studied economics at A’level it became clear that the things that mattered were not being considered. I think now there is real wholesale understanding that the neoliberalist system is simply dysfunctioning that it is a race to the bottom and if we continue in the way that we have, humanity won’t survive.
D: I was listening online and was struck by what you said about the skills of women, how we think holistically and are ‘born to be social entrepreneurs, born to deliver the shift the economic system needs’. Women and the environment has been central to your mission since you were 25. Do you still feel women are leading the way?
S: I absolutely do and I think women are extremely good at thinking holistically, thinking with a multi stakeholder approach. We are extremely creative, we are constantly thinking of the consequences of our decisions and the impact of those decisions on other parts of our social network and often on our communities and the world. I think one reason that we’ve got ourselves into the mess that we have is because women are not equally represented in the decision making and strategy, the high level execution work that needs to happen. Whilst its great that we have a law that insists that companies of a certain size have women represented on all levels, there is still a lot of tokenistic gestures. Men are also changing, they understand that they need to take a more holistic approach and with that comes the acknowledgement of the skills that women have and perhaps happen more naturally than them.
D: If we all work together and use all our strengths together it makes us all strong.
S: Yes exactly. I think that women are naturally collaborative, I think that we are empathetic, that we are good communicators, we tend to be more peace making, I think we are less egocentric and all of those skills are very, very necessary for the challenge we have ahead of us. But of course there are men that have those skills too, but they aren’t unfortunately on as large a scale as we need. We have to really rethink business, politics and finance.
D: Along with everything you have done, you have published, is it 9 books you have written? Is it 4 that you have written completely on your own and some are co-written?
S: I have put my Japanese books in there as well.
D: Wow, Japanese, I mean you learned Japanese.
S: There is a difference between being able to speak it and being able to read/write it and although I learnt the minimum 2300 kanji I don’t think I could write even a quarter of them I could read them probably but yes unless you keep using your Japanese writing skills you just forget. But I think learning Japanese was great. I understood the historic culture of Japan because its really wrapped up in the different kanji and the different strokes that are used, represent things like the rice plant, the tree, rock or fire so there is very much animalistic elements that are about agricultural life, which of course is what Japan living was all about 100s of years ago.
D: Your latest book ‘Slave to Fashion’ message is so strong for today, when you think of children who are not a school because they are making clothes to feed the fast fashion of the west, or out picking cotton. That this is still happening today. How does it feel to write and research all of this or is it all knowledge you have accumulated over the years?
S: Gosh yes, exploitation really very much depends on the hours of work and the pay because working is not a bad thing. I started working in a market when I was 13 years old selling denims and jackets and I did that before school for about 20 hours a week which I think today would be illegal. I actually think that it would be very, very helpful if children were allowed to work at the age of 13 maybe not 20 hours a week but I certainly enjoyed it. British education is a bit warped currently there should be more vocational opportunities for children and teens. Setting up People Tree and working with Fair Trade groups in countries like Bangladesh, Nepal, India, Kenya, you see things and you are constantly asking yourself questions. I remember seeing a 13 year old girl about 10 years ago working on one of our craft projects and hand making string, we would take the string and make bags, we did natural dye workshops there, the Body Shop came in and they made their scrub mix. It was a really successful project, when I asked why is this young person was making string and they said ‘Well her Father died and her Mother is an invalid she has 2 younger brothers and sisters and she is working part-time to be able to support the family but she goes to school.’ I visited the school and that was the case. The Fair Trade Organisation is fantastic at really looking after people. But that unfortunately is the exception. If the social welfare of the child isn’t being considered, if the welfare of the family isn’t being considered, you find children trapped in slavery and modern day slavery, often living in the same premises where they are working. When my son was about 7-8 years old I travelled to India to do some research on where accessories were being made, the kind of accessories you would buy on the British high street. I did this trip alongside my Fair Trade work and was absolutely shocked. I found rooms in the slums in Delhi in the red light district, 100’s of rooms with between 10 and 20 child workers in each. If they were sick they would tell them to go sleep against the wall. They would feed them in these rooms, have them work there, they would watch television there, they would go to bed there, and they were barely allowed to get up and leave the immediate surroundings, no play, nothing. The story of slavery, the story of bonded labour is utterly shocking it is a visceral thing for me you don’t have to see it with your own eyes, but you can go onto my website or YouTube site and you can see children making accessories at the age of 4 and 6 and 8. It’s a different thing learning a skill from your parents because that is an artisanal livelihood, to being pretty much kidnapped and put into a room where you are unable to play, unable to have any kind of access to the outside world, education is absolutely unheard of.
So I think this is the reality of a dysfunctional system where we don’t have laws that are implemented. Companies signed to minimum wages but they don’t vet their supply chains. I came back to the UK and I knew exactly where the trinkets were being sold. I went to the CEO of the company with photographs and said ‘look your companies products are being made by these children’ and the CEO who was also the owner of the company said OK well I am very shocked. He started a foundation for deaf and mute people in Calcutta. Did he actually look at his supply chain? Did he tell the buyers they needed to check for modern day slavery? I don’t think he did at all. So the modern slavery act is absolutely critical. Companies with a 36million turnover or more are obliged to report what they are doing to eradicate modern slavery, but sadly even though the British government is working to strengthen that law and its implementation its still something that the companies can cut and paste into their report and side step. We need legislation, what’s shocking is there are progressive companies that are working very, very hard they are not just The Fair Trade movement pioneers there are others like the ETI – Ethical Trade Initiative which are working on a very strict base code that would deliver ethical business. Without laws being enforced, the progressive companies are at a disadvantage. We need a level playing field and the laws to create that level playing field. People are becoming increasingly fed up with this government’s inactivity. They realize that business will have to set the way. In the same way that business is very much setting the way for working towards declaring a climate emergency, working towards zero carbon by 2030 because we know that in accordance with the Paris accord agreement this is way too late. So businesses realize that they have to show leadership but its not enough, the government does need to act.
D: There has been of talk of ‘change one thing’, I think we urgently need to change more than one thing. How do we influence our governments to join in globally?
S: I have spent 20 or 30 years promoting a different way of doing business and reducing environmental impact I just don’t think its enough anymore we need to get political we need to take to the streets. When I was in Parliament Square protesting with Extinction Rebellion I was really overwhelmed by how may people were supportive out of 100 people that we spoke to about 80 were so glad we are doing this, so glad that we are campaigning, an overwhelming positive response. So I feel we just have to get out there and be political. It will take different forms. If you are an introvert you might write letters or you might talk to your child’s school about supporting the protests. So may local authorities have joined the climate emergency now, so many businesses are beginning to. I have been part of a group setting up Business Declares which you can find on twitter and we have a big event planned for the 20th of September in time for the global strike. The Institute of Chartered Accounts has given us a space for the meeting which is great, it makes it clear that risk management and climate is a business prerogative. All the movers and shakers will be there, people really sticking their head out. We want it to be a network were business can feel they can come into even if they can’t make 2030.
D: What gave you the impetus to set up your podcast and who would love to interview?
S: I think the podcast is a lovely way to bring some of the conversations about actions and the positive things that are going on in the sustainability space, because a lot of us actually are deeply concerned and there are an increasing number of people who are suffering from climate anxiety. I think we all want to know that there is the chance for change, that we do have the solutions. That we have to get behind those solutions and demand action from government. So The Ethical Agenda podcast is hopefully not talking to the converted I am hoping that fashion people are interested in learning a little bit about sustainable fashion and of the deeper thinking around sustainability. Interviews for example with Rob Hopkins, delving into the power of imagination and creativity. I think a designer can really relate to this, its that kind of deeper thinking I think, that creates a kind of personal motivation and actually a sense of how we all need to move forward together and in our in our own different ways. They give me a great sense of ‘what if’. I think on your commute, if you listen to something for 20, 30mins, hopefully it’s a bit of a shot in the arm, you know ‘yes we can’ we can change our fate.
Last year I did an executive coaching qualification and I wondered if the podcast and interviewing people might give me an opportunity to hold the space and speak to some of my peers and people whose work I admire. To also give a voice to younger people to people who are suppliers, producers and people who make.
We were all talking about climate change 20/30 years ago and we are now being asked by children and teens to ‘Get a move on’. ‘Get real ‘ - its not enough to say, when they grow up they will sort it out middle aged people absolutely have to act now, as do all the people.
D: Extinction Rebellion and LFW – I know the protesters outside LFW managed to get fur off the catwalk. How do Extinction Rebellion plan to disrupt LFW?
S: I am not sure (as we speak) of all of the details. What is clear that since the cancelling of Stockholm Fashion Week when you start thinking about fashion and the way that we have done it in the past, its not sustainable it needs to change and it needs radical change.
I certainly think the BFC could take the initiative. Running a citizens assembly style fashion industry debate about how fashion could be sustainable.
D: They could put the issue in the heart of LFW.
S: There have been initiatives like Esthetica run by Orsola de Castro but they always sat rather on the fringe and it feels like its been a rather a tokenistic gesture. The reason fashion people have come together behind Extinction Rebellion and said isn’t it time to pause LFW is because we don’t have any time to waste. 7% of carbon emissions being textile and clothing production is set to be more than 25% if we keep heading in the direction that we are. Our waterways are completely congested with microfibers so we can’t drink safe water, we have to stop. We have our foot on this fast fashion pedal, more fashion, more fashion, without really thinking about what it means, there are some fantastic initiative’s around in terms of the circular economy and rental and ways of reducing consumption. Looking through a climate lens and saying what are we doing? How are producing, how are we treating the people that make it and unfortunately we are many, many miles away from that. Of course Britain had been incredibly brave, its been a pioneer of the Fair Trade Movement, of Ethical consumerism whilst London is one of the key fashion centers for the world I think we have to take a stand. In the same way that the Tate and the other institutions came behind Culture Declares the BFC could too. Questioning the brands at LFW and their legitimacy. It needs leadership now. Everybody in the sector really needs to show leadership.
D: What’s next for you and your work at the center we met at this morning? Can you tell me about that?
S: The course will probably be launched in September. We are running some pilot courses for citizens and business leaders. The aim is to facilitate a learning process to understand better practice to really help fashion retail leaders go through a mind shift that will allow them also to make transformation happen in their businesses. We will be going to fashion companies to look for founding partners. We will have a very interesting curator set of programs to form an academy. People will come in for a period of 6 months to do
one-off days that will be held for 5 days over 6 months. It’s a blended learning experience where you will also be supported online. The idea is that, we need to work together as an industry and there needs to be a safe space where people can understand. Senior execs can understand different peoples perspectives but also relax in a place where they are connected to nature. They are not in the assault of the everyday world of work with hundreds of emails coming in. So, I am hoping that the InternationalGarden City Institute in Letchworth will provide this and the 28 minutes outside London will give them a chance to vacate and it wont be quite business as usual. It will actually allow them a personal space to reconnect their values and the values of their company.