“I’ve always had this deep questioning: what’s it all about? Why are we spending so much resource and energy on things that don’t make the world a better place, or people happier or healthier? ”
These are the questions that have driven Safia Minney throughout her career. They led her to set up the ethical fashion brand People Tree in 1995; to write several books on sustainable systems of clothing production; to join direct action climate change group Extinction Rebellion; and this year to create Fashion Declares – a grassroots movement that aims to clean up the industry’s act.
This relentless drive to make the world a better place and transform the industry is also why it has been named Drapers Sustainable Fashion Champion in the Drapers Sustainable Fashion Awards 2022.
Minney has been campaigning to reduce the damaging effects of production and consumption – in fashion and other industries – for more than 30 years. She started work in 1982 aged 17 in a marketing role at Creative Review magazine, which covers communications, design and advertising – industries that, to her, seemed increasingly “dysfunctional”: “Huge amounts of talent and resources were being thrown at products and services that made little sense to me. ”
After four years, she left to start her own consultancy and began working with purpose-driven organizations such as feminist magazine Spare Riband environmental agency Friends of the Earth.
In 1990, her then husband James Minney’s job took them to Tokyo, where Minney learned Japanese at language school while working part-time at The Body Shop and as a volunteer for Amnesty International. She noticed how hard it was to find information on reducing waste, recycling and generally live more sustainably. This prompted her in 1991 to start citizens’ group Global Village, which launched a local guide sold in newsagents, Earth Magalogto do just that.
Global Village also imported fair trade products from India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Kenya and Zimbabwe to sell. However, Minney’s team turned to find products that were high enough quality for the discerning Japanese consumer. So Global Village began doing its own design in house – including fashion – and ethical womenswear brand People Tree was born.
“There were stories at the time [the 1990s] about sweatshop labor [in garment factories], so I started to research it, and then I tried to find organic cotton, ”says Minney. “I was very naïve, and I didn’t have a fashion background – I just spoke to people, and asked researchers in India and Bangladesh to set up meetings. I was lucky. People responded to my passion and trusted that if they invested in organic cotton, or if they produced in a way that protected the rights of workers, that we would place regular orders with them, which we did. ”
People Tree makes products using tradition skills using the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certified by the Soil Association, and was the first fashion brand to be awarded the World Fair Trade Organization product label. It has 400 stockists across Japan, Europe and the US.
A feature on eco-fashion brands in Vogue Japan in 2007 – the same year the Minneys returned to London with their two children – helped to raise People Tree’s international profile.
“At that point, we became much more confident that there was a global appetite [for sustainable fashion], ”Says Minney. This was cemented when actress Emma Watson collaborated on a collection with People Tree in 2010/11.
That same year, Minney was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honors for services to the fashion industry and fair trade industry.
Minney left People Tree in 2015 after separating from her husband, who was chief financial officer and with whom she still co-owns the business. The brand had an annual turnover of around £ 10m when she stepped down as CEO. Nevertheless, Minney’s sustainable fashion journey did not end there. As well as writing books on the subject – she is currently on her sixth – and working as an executive coach and business mentor, in 2019, Minney joined with friends to launch climate action non-profit organization Business Declares. The focus was on engaging business leaders across different industries, and encouraging them to share how they were operating in more ethically conscious ways.
In 2019, she joined her local Extinction Rebellion group, and also set up the Real Sustainability Center – a community interest company that aims to support business leaders to transition to carbon zero and sustainability by 2030.
In January 2022, she unveiled her latest venture: a fashion industry-focused spin-off of Business Declares. She describes Fashion Declares as a “radical” grassroots network for professionals to learn, share best practice, and explore how to transition to a more sustainable model of production.
It requires individuals and organizations that sign up to make five commitments: speaking out for urgent action to tackle the climate, ecological and social crisis; delivering decarbonisation, restoration of ecosystems and biodiversity; working for social justice; ensuring radical transparency and corporate governance; and adopting a regenerative fashion model.
It has attracted around 500 signatories since launch, and Minney is targeting 10,000 within a year. Among the founding signatories are: fashion designer Dame Zandra Rhodes; cross-bench parliamentary Baroness Lola Young; Patrick Grant, director, Community Clothing; and campaign group Fashion Revolution.
Alongside Minney, the campaign is led by Tom Berry, global director of sustainable business at Farfetch; Mike Barry, former director of sustainable business at Marks & Spencer; Debbie Luffman, former product director at Finisterre, founder of ThinkCircular consultancy, and a trustee of environmental behavior change charity Hubbub; Mariusz Stochaj, head of product and sustainability at London-based clothing manufacturer Continental Clothing; and Ben Tolhurst, director of Business Declares.
“A lot of fashion professionals have found that sustainability departments or the C-suite are not responding as quickly as they need to [to the climate crisis], and they feel they need the right knowledge to be able to ask questions that will lead to climate action, ”Minney tells Drapers. “It’s not just designers and merchandisers and marketing people: everyone [in fashion] wants to be part of the solution. ”
To be talking about that level of cutting production is like sticking your head in the stocks
The network is still largely staffed by volunteers, but it is in talks with a variety of possible investors, from foundations and trusts to corporations, to raise funds to accelerate its growth.
“Safia is the driving force behind Fashion Declares – combining her distinguished career in ethical fashion with a passion and knowledge to enable transformative change in the industry,” says Berry.
“In launching it, she’s focused on an idea that was previously missing in our sector: a bottom-up movement, open to everyone in the industry. Her vision for this collaborative approach is powerful. “
Looking to the future, Minney is excited about the growing popularity of second-hand and regeneratively produced clothing. However, she believes a much more radical conversation is needed to achieve real change, including cutting production across the industry by up to 75%.
“I do realize that, in this industry, to be talking about that level of cutting production is like sticking your head in the stocks and asking people to throw things at you,” she laughs. “But I’ve always been rather out on a limb.”
Find out who else won at the Drapers Sustainable Fashion Awards 2022