Safia Minney on ‘Slave to Fashion’: ‘I want to give people an opportunity to be part of the solution’


Yesterday afternoon I conducted an interview with Safia Minney, the founder of People Tree, the pioneering Fair Trade and sustainable fashion brand. Safia is also the author of ‘Naked Fashion -The Sustainable Fashion Revolution’ and ‘Slow Fashion – Aesthetics meets Ethics’. She is an icon of fair trade and sustainability within the fashion world.

She is launching the ‘Slave To Fashion’ book and campaign to raise awareness of modern slavery in the fashion world and to eradicate slavery from fashion supply chains.

Despite the fact that she is not a vegan (only a vegetarian) I backed her crowd funding campaign ‘Slave To Fashion’ because I share her commitment to sustainability and human rights.

For your record, People Tree’s collections are mostly made from organic cotton. There is never fur, leather or synthetic fabrics. However, some garments are made of wool, sourced in New Zealand where admittedly surgical mulesing is banned. But, even with that, wool is not ours; it belongs to sheep.

So I asked her:

What is fashion for you? How do you position yourself in regard to fashion?

Firstly I think we buy too much fashion, we should be buying less new fashion, we should slow down fashion, it should not be synthetic, it should not be made with the exploitation of workers, and it should not be made with the destruction of the environment.

I encourage people to buy second hand vintage and if they buy new they should buy fair trade and organic, and more conscientiously.

My anxiety is that the capitalist system is out of control. We don’t have any real transparency or accountability; we don’t count the true cost of labour rates, violation of the environment, pain for product. So when we collaborated with ‘The true cost – who pays the price for our clothing’ movie, it was very helpful because it introduced people to responsible fashion, both in terms of the human cost and the environmental cost.


Your supply chain is located in India, Bangladesh and Nepal. Whenever I meet with a designer or a brand founder caring about sustainability, like you, their supply chains are also in these countries. How do you explain that?

We do have supply chains in Latina America and also in Africa. But for garment and textile, the infrastructure and also the tradition of textile production is very evolved in South Asia. There have been huge investments in the conventional supply chains.

In many countries like Bangladesh, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam the labour cost is cheap. Fashion companies are going there to make their product. We went because we love the traditional skills of the hand weavers and the hand makers. We wanted to support this very old history of organic farming in India.


Is your interest in these countries related to your origins?

My father is Mauritian and my mum is from Switzerland but I grew up in the UK. These countries have been a discovery for me as well. It’s a kind of cultural root for myself and my family and also the history of colonialism and the need for people to survive and find their income. My family historically were probably hand weavers in India or more precisely in Bangladesh when Bangladesh was still in India. It is interesting to look at the historical and political context of what has happened in the last 200 years.


Do you work sometimes with developed countries like the US, Canada or Australia?

We’ve recently collaborated with Lee, the denim company, where we brought organic cotton from India and we produced really high quality organic cotton denim in Japan. This was the first time I worked with a manufacturer set in Japan. It’s a very small-scale business, passionate about textile and running the best practices of environmental standards for denim. Because there are many problems with denim in terms of the finishing of the product, for me it was interesting. But mostly, I’m working with the developing world.


Which other fashion brands are committed to sustainability according to you?

There are an increasing number of ethical brands, designers and productions. And media people are looking at this area, ethical fashion and how it must grow.

There are a lot of beautiful and ethical boutiques around the world, in Germany, in Holland, in Japan, in the UK that in my book ‘Slow fashion’ I tried to feature. Some brands are doing a better job than others but still we don’t have enough transparency in fashion supply chains.

So when senior management were questioned it was found that more than 70% couldn’t guarantee that there is no slavery in their supply chains. This is one reason why we are launching Slave to Fashion, an educational campaign and a book to bring the story of modern day slaves to the people so they can understand what an issue it is.

We need to hold companies accountable and bring this information to the public and then to really build awareness and pressure for companies.


Do you have any partnerships beyond your own team?

We are working with a lot of different organisations from the producers of ‘The true cost’ movie to many NGOs and trade unionists who are active in this area and we’re also talking to different media makers and initiatives on transparency.

So we will be working with about 20 to 30 organisations worldwide to bring the best ideas together and provide the right kind of information to the public and inspire them to get involved.

I want to give people an opportunity to be part of the solution and not only be frustrated or shocked by the issues.


What does modern slavery look like in fashion?

There are a variety of different things: child labour, bonded labour, forced labour, sometimes it’s the result of infrastructures or poverty systems. It could be a consequence of human trafficking.

What we want to do is, at the same time, look at the worst cases of modern day slavery and also look at the structural causes of poverty and hunger and how we can really see and understand what needs to change in the fashion industry.

We also want to understand what examples already exist as best practices in the fashion industry.


Why do Western countries and consumers turn a blind eye to slavery?

It’s like for many issues. We are ignorant, we lack the political will to make the change and if we look at what has happened with climate change for example in the coral reefs in Australia we can see that this is a consequence of delayed engagement with the issues.


Do you really think that there is an audience for that kind of fight in fashion?

Fashion means clothing. Yes it can come from a fashionista who has never thought about what a cotton plant looks like, to someone who understands the issue in a very deep and holistic way. Everyone can engage and this is what ‘The true cost” movie did.

Fashion revolution and the green detox campaign have been so powerful in moving consumers forward. My book “Slow fashion” profiles the best campaigns and ethical concept stores, that are all helping to build momentum for a new way of doing fashion. The OECD is promoting new policies for transparency in the apparel and footwear industry, and the modern slavery act was passed in the UK last year. So we have some really good initiatives that we have to promote.

And the great thing is you don’t have to compromise. Ethical fashion looks great, it’s good quality, there are a lot of choices, and buying online means it’s very accessible.

What would you like to say as a final word for this interview?

We have a really remarkable campaign and this is an opportunity to look at how we can eradicate slavery in the fashion industry and I’m hoping a lot of people will pledge to the campaign. We have three days left to make the difference.


Thank you Safia for introducing us to your initiative!

Slave to fashion is a good cause for Human Rights and sustainability and I think that Safia Minney is definitively the best person to front this campaign.

Click here to pledge to the “Slave to Fashion” campaign. Hurry up, at the time of publishing this post, there are only two days left and £5,000 to collect.