The People Tree founder recognises that ethical fashion must have trend credentials as well as principles to truly win over UK shoppers, and with its design-led collections she is determined that her brand will lead the way.
Even in Shoreditch in east London, where a pair of neon yellow hotpants teamed with pink fishnet stockings and a leather jacket would not attract a second glance, Safia Minney manages to catch the eye of every passer-by as she prepares for her Drapers photo shoot.
If ever the ethical fashion industry needed to prove its credentials as a trend-led sector, it could do a lot worse than recruit the People Tree founder as its ambassador. Wearing a black dress with heavy, bib-fronted ruffles and deep pockets to accentuate the hips, Minney is showing off one of People Tree’s spring 09 designs and looks every inch the style queen.
She admits that People Tree’s fair trade credentials alone would not have been enough to take the brand to its current position of 130 stockists and a 30% year-on-year sales increase. Those that buy into fashion – particularly fashion that is priced above the high street – buy into a certain aesthetic and whatever a brand’s ethical stance may be, it must deliver on the design front too.
“The turning point for People Tree came last summer when we collaborated with [London Fashion Week] designers Richard Nicoll and Bora Aksu,” Minney explains. “It was a pivotal time in terms of the acknowledgement that fair trade fashion can be design-led and that we have the high skill level to produce these collections. It was quite visionary of these designers and the tie-ups helped us to find new stockists too. It’s not enough to just have a fair trade or organic offer. It’s got to be desirable too.”
Some of today’s most successful “ethical” brands – to use the term generically – are best known for other attributes. Organic cotton pioneer and outerwear brand Patagonia, which has a turnover of £140 million, is recognised for its heritage in the climbing and outdoor arena, while Howies, which has annual sales of £4m, is predominantly an ethical lifestyle brand.
As for People Tree, Minney launched the brand in Japan in 1995 and opened a standalone store in Tokyo in 1998. Three years later she brought People Tree to the UK and in 2006 bagged a concession in Topshop’s flagship London Oxford Street store.
Last year, Minney lured Jane Shepherdson, chief executive of womenswear chain Whistles, onto the People Tree board and earlier this year appointed Tracy Mulligan, former creative director for womenswear brand Xterity London and consultant for shirt retailer Thomas Pink, as head of design.
“What I’ve wanted to do for years is to move much more in the direction of fashion, great design and style. I’ve always wanted to develop something really beautiful and Tracy helps to do that,” says Minney. “I love her handwriting, which we will see in the spring 09 collection.”
But Minney’s commitment to bolstering People Tree’s design qualities is not at the expense of promoting its fair trade and ecological credentials, and the broader merits of the ethical fashion industry as a whole.
During London Fashion Week last month, where People Tree showed its collection at ethical design exhibition Estethica, Minney launched a book about the brand, called By Hand, bringing together aesthetics and politics. “The idea is that it’s a coffee table book – it’s nice and big,” she smiles, leafing through the beautifully photographed tome. “But I wrote it to make clearer what the fair trade fashion agenda is, with its implications on the environment and poverty alleviation.”
Etailer Asos, which stocks People Tree, is supporting the venture by taking 5,000 copies of the book, which retails at £5, to distribute free with every People Tree, ethical or
The support of a big player like Asos provides precisely the sort of endorsement that the ethical fashion industry needs, particularly in a year that has arguably seen a waning of media interest, save for the BBC’s Panorama expos鬠which found that some of Primark’s Indian factories had sub-contracted work to children.
Last year, by contrast, the topic was at the forefront of the news agenda, with The Guardian newspaper dedicating its front page to a story about Primark, Mothercare, Gap, Matalan and H&M using an Indian supplier that allegedly paid workers as little as £1.13 for a nine-hour day. The Sunday Times alleged that Sir Philip Green’s Kate Moss for Topshop range was made by suppliers that used slave labour, while designer Katharine Hamnett questioned Tesco’s dedication to her organic range that she produced for the supermarket.
But Minney insists that plenty is still happening behind the scenes. “We did see more media coverage last year but what’s clear is that there are people who are looking very seriously now at what they can do in their supply chains,” she says. “What’s exciting is that we’ve got to the point where having a fair trade, organic or ethical offer is important and it is now trickling down to informing the whole supply chain and sourcing issues.”
While she admits that some firms may be “having their corporate social responsibility [CSR] moments”, Minney believes the policing of ethical sourcing and supply chains is being driven from the top rather than just by PR teams. “It all comes down to margins, to prices, to lead times, to doing business in a different way, so it’s not something that a communications team can decide on,” she argues.
“It’s something that genuinely has to be driven from the top and we’re increasingly seeing this. These people are clearly uncomfortable with what is going on and are starting to talk like ecologists. They feel as though they are disconnected from what is happening in the world.”
So strong is the desire by “people at the top” to implement changes, that this motivation, Minney suggests, is filtering down to buyer level too. “There is also a drive at middle management, at buying and design level,” she says. “I call them cultural creators – people who create and represent about a third of a business. But most importantly, consumers are becoming more aware of the issues.”
According to research firm TNS Worldpanel Fashion, the importance of ethical clothing to consumers increased last year, with 59% saying it is now “quite” or “very” important, up from 55% in 2006. The final factor driving interest in the ethical fashion industry, says Minney, is the work of “social businesses” such as People Tree. “People Tree is both mission-driven and a fashion company, so we’re creating a catalyst that brings all these elements together. Unlike NGOs, we can show how the model can work commercially. It’s an amalgamation of a business and a charity,” she explains.
Although the organic food industry has been hit by a downturn in consumer spending, the ethical fashion market appears to be faring better, for now at least. A lack of research on the ethical fashion industry as a whole means that it is difficult to gauge its financial performance and market size, but according to the Fairtrade Foundation, items made with fair trade cotton increased by 323% to six million units between April and June this year and total sales of fair trade products over the three month period were up 55% to an estimated retail value of £176m against the same period in 2007. The Fairtrade Foundation is hoping to quadruple the total sales of fair trade goods to £2 billion by 2012.
Meanwhile, membership to the Ethical Trading Initiative is up 20% year-on-year, with more and more suppliers joining the trade body in response to pressure from retailers to tighten up their CSR policies.
Even so, People Tree is yet to make a profit. The brand made a pre-tax loss of £246,325 on sales of just over £1m for the year to December 31 2006. The loss has narrowed – it was £374,574 the year before – and Minney expects to break even next year.She is unconcerned by the loss and says it is in line with expectations. “It took eight years to break even in Japan,” she says, highlighting that People Tree will be eight years old in the UK next year. “Because you’re having to develop the supply chain and build the market [from scratch], it’s incredibly expensive. Look at fair trade coffee – a lot of money went into developing that and creating the fair trade coffee supply chain. We did the same with fair trade and organic cotton farmers. We pay 50% advance payments to producers and spend a significant amount of time helping them to set up a production line. It’s very expensive.”
This view is echoed by one ethical fashion retailer, who says it is not uncommon for ethical brands to be making a loss, even a few years after launch. “I’m approached by so many labels that are running their businesses from their kitchen tables and disappear very quickly,” he says. “These brands need investment to survive.”
Which is precisely what People Tree secured earlier this year thanks to financier Oikocredit, which injected £1m into the business for a 20% share. Minney said it took her three years to find a suitable investor, claiming that venture capitalists wanted an unrealistic return on investment.
With the investment we’ve been able to expand the design and production here in London, and in January People Tree Limited [the UK business] and the Japanese company joined together under the People Tree Group,” she explains.
Minney’s next venture is to find a franchise partner to open People Tree standalone stores in the UK. She is looking for sites in London’s East End and would like to open next year. But Minney’s plans go beyond 2009 and she has a clear vision of where she wants the industry to go – or not to go. “Over the next five years I’d like to see an increase in the price of clothing. It can’t keep going down,” she says. “When retailers like Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury’s sell fair trade T-shirts for £3 next to their £2 chickens, it sends enormously confusing signals in the marketplace. Fair trade is being put out there as a value offer as opposed to a value-addition offer.”
The key to the success of ethical fashion in the mainstream is long-term investment, according to Minney, who says high street retailers have “dipped their toe in the water” with their organic or fair trade collections to date. “They will have to offer [a stronger] fashion proposition and for that we need investment in the supply chain,” she says. “We have to spend money on it. It’s not all about margins, margins, margins.”
2008 Oikocredit invests £1m in the brand
2006 People Tree opens concession in Topshop on London Oxford Street
2004 People Tree UK starts wholesaling to Europe
2001 People Tree launches in UK
1998 People Tree opens flagship store in Tokyo
1995 People Tree launches in Japan
1991 Safia Minney launches Global Village, an environmental campaigning NGO in Japan
Who is your fashion mentor?
In fashion and business I like pioneers.
I have so much respect for Body Shop founder Anita Roddick.
Which is your favourite retailer?
Whistles. I liked it before but even more so now with its clean, stylish pieces. Jane Shepherdson has brought the buzz back.
What has been the best-selling product you have worked on?
Linking designers like Bora Aksu, Richard Nicoll and Sam Ubhi with our artisans and farmers has been really successful. It is fantastic to see these international designers excited about working with these crafts and supporting fair trade. I am keen to see how our new collaborations with Japanese designers Taishi Nobukuni, Chisato Tsumori and Mihara Yasuhiro will be received.
What has been your proudest achievement?
Opening our own shops in Japan. We would love to bring a People Tree shop to Europe and are looking for a financial partner for this. We pay 50% advance payments to producers which are a strain on cash flow but one of the prerequisites of fair trade.
What would be your dream job (apart from your current position)?
Sometimes I fantasise about doing something a little easier like having an ice cream van – organic and fair trade of course.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
Spare time can be a rarity, but spending time with my husband and two children is always top of my agenda.
Which designers do you admire?
I have great admiration for the designers with whom People Tree collaborates. Their support in helping us promote fair trade fashion had been tremendous. I am also excited about the new wave of designers currently at college. You can see a growing interest in organic and fair trade principles.