​catching up with slow fashion: safia minney's ethical fashion revolution

i-D speaks with the People Tree founder as she celebrates 25 years at the forefront of the ethical fashion industry in a new book, Slow Fashion, collecting industry wisdom from Caryn Frankin, Zandra Rhodes, Lily Cole, Livia Firth and many more.

by Charlotte Gush
29 March 2016, 2:20pm

Photography Akio Nakamura

Safia Minney is a force of nature: a relentless campaigner for positive change in an industry that has been so resistant to ethical improvement that it took the deaths of over 1,000 people in the devastating Rana Plaza factory collapse for many companies to even make promises of improvement for garment workers -- promises that in some cases still haven't been fulfilled. The disaster in Bangladesh three years ago was a shocking and galvanizing moment that sparked the Fashion Revolution movement, but Minney has been working on solutions for this broken industry for far, far longer than that.

This year Safia is celebrating 25 years as a leader of the ethical fashion movement with her Fair Trade and sustainable fashion label People Tree. To mark the anniversary, she has compiled an ethical fashion bible, Slow Fashion: Aesthetics Meets Ethics, comprised of essays by a wide range of experts, from former i-D fashion editor Caryn Franklin, to model, activist and social entrepreneur Lily Cole, Green Carpet Challenge creator Livia Firth and designers Zandra Rhodes, Bora Aksu and Peter Jensen, as well as journalists, a human rights lawyer, a Greenpeace campaigner and even a representative of the soil association, among many, many more. i-D caught up with Safia to find out more about her remarkable ethical fashion journey.

Safia with cotton farmers in India. Photography Miki Alcalde

How did it first occur to you, 25 years ago, to start thinking about the ethics of fashion production?
It was very straightforward. In my mid-twenties, I was reading about sportswear and denim street wear brands and realizing that there was huge amounts of exploitation in south east Asian factories, and I really didn't want to be a part of it at all. I thought: 'God, if there are any other clothes out there that I can trust -- in terms of due diligence down the supply chain, that really respected people's human rights and the environment -- all I need to do is just buy them, right?' But they didn't exist, I had to go out and actually develop those supply chains to put those products into being.

What has changed during your 25 years of creating and campaigning for ethical fashion?
The area that has changed, that we've had a lot of success in, is mainstreaming the idea that we should be concerned about the clothes that we wear. Since the Rana Plaza factory building collapsed, there's been a huge awareness firstly through the campaign that I ran, Rag Rage, and then Fashion Revolution Day, which I think has galvanized the world and it's pulled together lots of different parts of the community from fashion to activists, which is really powerful. When the True Cost film launched last year, I think it was the most popular Netflix documentary. It means that a lot of people are now thinking and are very conscious of the fact that their choices in fashion really matter.

What effect is the fast fashion industry having on garment workers?
Well, the first thing to say is that the garment workers for the fast fashion high street brands don't want [us] to boycott. What they want is the living wage paid, they want to be treated with a level of decency. They want their factories to be safe, and the sad truth is that isn't the case. Very rarely are they paid the living wage, they're often treated with both verbal violence and physical assault. And because they're living on an absolute pittance they're unable to see their children more than once or twice a year, if they're lucky. So it's a very, very difficult situation. I think human rights within the supply chain will come more with the Modern Slavery Act as medium size companies with $45 million turnover a year or more are required to report on slavery throughout the supply chain; but we really need to keep consumer pressure up to make that effectual.

The majority of workers in the fashion supply chain are women. Do you think that consumers' understanding of the issues affecting these women has improved with an understanding of intersectional feminism -- an understanding that your 'empowerment' might actually be crushing another woman's liberty?
God, I absolutely hope so because my whole purpose and the DNA of People Tree was to work with groups that put women essential to the decision-making and the production of any group and it's no good just having 80% of your workers women; they've got to be in management, they've got to be represented more than men, and that's what we've done within the Fair Trade movement and that's how I set up People Tree. For me, it's always been the case that, as a woman that wants to consume fashion that suits me, it should be empowering of another woman, who made it -- whether it's picking the cotton or it's weaving the fabric or embroidering it or tailoring it -- that it really generates a huge level of added value for that community. I think the newer feminism that we've got now is about a more holistic thinking about not only our consumer power but that it is creating this conduit and creating this channel. So I think there a huge argument for helping women who don't have a voice or who are less empowered to speak up through the whole Fair Trade fashion story. I think it's very, very powerful.

A Swallows producer, Bangladesh. Photography Miki Alcalde

What impact is the fashion industry having on the environment?
Most people don't realize that fashion is the most polluting industry after oil. It has a colossal environmental impact. We are in a place now where the pollution and its impact -- whether it be through pesticide used on cotton or through the tanneries that make even the high-end luxury brands -- we understand now that we are putting incredibly lethal toxins into the environment. Greenpeace's campaign over the last 3 years has been phenomenal, it's really helped fashion companies, or it's forced fashion companies to take the lead in taking a lot of very, very dangerous toxins out of their production. But still we've got huge areas that need to be improved upon. One could argue also that fashion marketing and advertising is responsible for a whole form of capitalism that is utterly unsustainable and actually a very unhealthy psychological mindset for most people.

It's shocking to discover that it takes a swimming pool of water to make a t-shirt. How is that possible?
Of course some of it's in growing and irrigating the [cotton] crop, but a lot of it is in the ginning, the spinning, the processing of the fiber, finishing of the product, its dying, its printing, all of the different chemicals used to then further finish and soften the fabrics. Water is the currency of production, and it's an external resource that we don't value. When we take it away from farming communities or we pollute their water so profoundly that they can't even drink it or, as True Cost so nicely shows, in Punjab where you've got villages with very large numbers of children that have very serious mental and physical disabilities because of water pollution -- that's a cost that fashion is not paying for.

Zandra Rhodes with Safia Minney in Bangladesh. Photography Miki Alcalde

What do you mean by "slow fashion" -- what has to slow down?
Well the first thing is that we have to start managing our operations and our supply chains better, to know that we don't have slavery within our supply chains. To know that we're not polluting or using cruel methods of manufacture or highly toxic methods of manufacture in using different chemicals with finishes right the way from the pesticides to the methods we use for transportation. We need to slow the process down. As consumers, it offers us a chance to actually think about: What do we really want to wear? What makes us feel good? It unlocks a huge power within ourselves, but it also gives us a huge opportunity to add value to [the producing] communities. To grow cotton without pesticides, insecticides and herbicides means we're going to save farmers between 9% and 12% on their production costs; it means that we can use indigenous seeds that are GMO free; it means we're going to put fertility back in the soil, so rather than being 0.3% of live matter -- in a conventional field it will be as hard as tarmac -- if you go into an organic cotton field it's very spongy and fantastic because it's got 3% live matter in it.

There's so many different levels that by slowing it down, by paying a little bit more attention to the provenance of the product that we're buying, asking the questions in store, maybe choosing not to buy new; buying vintage or second hand or asking your mom or a best friend if they'll lend you a dress. There's a real opportunity here to look at how we do fashion and living differently. And I think if we look [ethical fashion] concept stores, they're a beautiful celebration of real texture and fantastic fibers and things that actually make us feel a lot better, not just about the environment.

So slow fashion means slowing it down for the consumer, slowing down our consumption?
It also means being more thoughtful about what's going on, and I think for the workers and the artisans, what's clear is that it is utterly unsustainable to be working a 14 or 16 hour day. It's utterly unsustainable to have two days off a month to do your laundry. We're consuming close to 1.5 or 2 times -- depending on the economist -- our planet's worth of resources and we're only 6.6 billion people? And we heading for 7, some say 8 billion in the next 30 to 40 years. Clearly, in the same way that we're thinking about what is a sustainable diet, we have to think about what's sustainable in the fashion industry. We need to think very, very quickly about a whole different set of gears, and shifts.

With fast fashion we're talking mostly about the high street, but recently a lot of the high fashion design houses have moved to a 'see-it-now, buy-it-now' model on the catwalk where the product is available immediately. Is it worrying that high fashion seems to be trying to emulate the speed of fast fashion?
Yes, I think it's really worrying. The only light at the end of the tunnel is that there are luxury fashion companies that are beginning to take sustainability very seriously. So we will see change, but again it does come down to keeping our focus on: What does a clean fashion industry look like? Whether it's a shirt selling for $15 or a t-shirt selling for $150. Very often, when I've visited factories in the last 20 years, you see a designer -- high-end or a diffusion line -- two lines down from a fast fashion brand, so there's clearly no difference in the manufacturing itself and in terms of the workers being the same workers -- it's the same place, the same environment, and often not that dissimilar fibers and fabrics. We definitely need to not think that luxury fashion is clean just because we pay more for it. They just spend more on their image making and branding.

Lily Cole. Photography James Robinson

And what are some of the things that People Tree does to slow the process?
Well the first thing is that we produce most of the garments in certified organic cotton. We set up the first organic cotton certified supply chain about 20 years ago. And that was basically guaranteeing that it was organic right the way from the field through all the different stages, the spinning and printing and manufacture right through to getting into our warehouse. Also, adding as much value [to producing communities] as possible; so, making products in fair trade groups where the people that make them are earning a fair price, they're very much involved in how the business is run, they get great training, the premiums are used to run day care centers, schools, clean water projects, health camps or programs promoting awareness of domestic violence. So really it goes beyond just good [conditions for] the workers and transparency in knowing who's produced what; it goes into the community in terms of development. And we're passionate here about craft skills and textiles, so there's a lot of hand-woven fabrics, hand embroideries, hand knitting. Whilst some people might argue that that's a bit luddite to hand knit a sweater -- and spend five days hand knitting a sweater -- for our knitters in Nepal, that's what allows them to put their children through school. It's a traditional skill they're really good at, they can do it at home whilst looking after their children, and it also helps to support the KTS school [in Nepal], which is for about 260 kids.

It would be great for consumers to go into a high street shop and find a hand knitted sweater, but how will companies be persuaded to do that when it does cost more?
I think it's how we spend our money. You only have to ask your parents and you realize that fashion has just got cheaper and cheaper. And clearly the social and environmental externalities of those costs, as True Cost so perfectly makes clear, are not covered in the price we pay for our fashion. I think we need to be persuasive, we need to ask questions of the brands that we love. We need to reduce how much we buy new; if we buy something new it should be organic, it should be fair trade, it should be vegan -- if you're a passionate vegan you will want to buy something with vegan buttons and all the rest of it. But I do think it's very possible now to buy ethically, whether it's online or to put pressure on mainstream companies to change, and really the campaigns that have happened over the last five years have been phenomenal, so it's now a matter of backing those up and really increasing the momentum. And why shouldn't we be talking about a slave free fashion industry? Why do we think it's okay to have slavery throughout every single part of the manufacture process of most of the products that we consume?

So it's about changing public perception, and their demands of the companies that provide the products?
I think it's happening -- of course not as fast as we'd like! I don't think it's happening very, very quickly. Legislation is the beginning of the process after consumer pressure is there, but legislation doesn't happen without pressure. When you look at the abolishment of slavery or women's votes, everything has taken enormous amounts of public pressure and campaigning till legislators put things in place.

In many ways, the Slow Fashion book is a practical guide for how you can embed these principles into your lifestyle.
It starts as a very personal engagement: the relationship between Joe Wood and Leah Wood and how they swap clothes and inspire each other; right the way through to, for example, Caryn Franklin looking at the gender issue and the whole karma issue between women, in terms of how we make choices that do or don't support the women who make our clothes. At the same time it's very visual, you've got Zandra Rhodes out in Bangladesh with me next to the handweavers, looking at these shuttles that are moving at incredible speed. For me, it's a personal story about our relationships with clothes and how we get that from our mothers and our grandmothers and, well, sometimes from the men in our family too!

A lot of people are concerned about these issues but they don't really know what they can do, and the book covers a lot of things that people already are doing...
Yeah, I think it's pretty scary when we start talking about slavery in the supply chain or female rights violations or child labor. But to see that there are so many practical solutions around us, and it's not that difficult to get involved in to promote change in the opposite direction. I hope people will be really excited, and I think we'll see in the next few years more and more courses that are aimed at and geared towards getting sustainable brands and designers off the ground.

Can fashion ever become fully ethical and sustainable?
I don't think we have any choice not to make it sustainable. I mean, the planet can survive without us!

Slow Fashion: Aesthetics Meets Ethics by Safia Minney is out now, published by New Internationalist.


Text Charlotte Gush
Photography courtesy Safia Minney / People Tree

Ethical fashion
Fair Trade
sustainable fashion
slow fashion
Caryn Franklin
charlotte gush
people tree
safia minney
true cost