Safia L. Minney

People Tree
Year founded: 
United Kingdom

People Tree works with producer groups across Asia, Africa and Latin America, improving the lives of marginalized communities through fair trade.

Focus: Environment, Trade
Geographic Area of Impact: Africa, Asia, Latin America
Model: Social Business
Number of Direct Beneficiaries: 2,000 (2009)
Annual Budget: US$ 9 million (2009)
Percentage Earned Revenue: 100%
Recognition: Schwab Fellow of the World Economic Forum

Fair trade began in Europe in the 1960s with handicrafts, but largely switched to foods in the 1980s, specifically coffee, tea, chocolate, bananas and honey. While these items have sold well and consistently gained market share, fair trade clothing has been a very hard sell. This is especially the case for small-scale producers who are challenged by short production times required by large fashion companies. The textile industry also has a heavy ecological footprint. Cotton farming, for example, uses large amounts of pesticides and cotton producers are often put out of business by unfair subsidies. To compete, People Tree works closely with producers at the grassroots level, giving design and technical assistance based on traditional skills. The company places a strong emphasis on ecological production methods, initiating organic cotton projects, and introducing innovations in low-carbon, handmade production as well as the use of natural biodegradable materials.

Innovation and Activities
Based in the UK and Japan, People Tree has successfully demonstrated that even in the fast-moving, highly volatile fashion and garment industry, fair trade can succeed; it pioneered the first and only fair trade fashion supply chain in the world.

People Tree works with more than 60 fashion and handicraft producer groups in India, Bangladesh, Nepal and 16 other countries across Africa and Latin America. These producer organizations provide work for some 2,000 people, while 10,000 benefit from People Tree programmes. Studies suggest that these fair trade producers can on average double their income compared to the local market.

People Tree has been an advocate for best practice initiatives and is recognized as an authority on instilling ethics in the fashion industry. Thanks to its mail order catalogue, stores in central Tokyo and designer collaborations, the label has expanded to a far wider market. In 2000, the company was launched in the UK to establish fair trade fashion in Europe. Today, there are 130 shops that carry People Tree products throughout the continent, in addition to 400 shops in Japan. It is currently looking for finance to scale up its activities, including the launch of a London flagship store. In addition, founder Safia Minney works to convince conventional companies to sell fair trade products and reviews their sourcing strategies.

The company also collaborates with designers such as Bora Aksu, Jessica Ogden and Richard Nicoll to develop new high-end markets for cotton farmers and artisans, and showcase fair trade fashion at its best. Through its Market Exposure programme, representatives of producer groups are invited to meet customers in the UK and Japan to learn about the market and build an understanding of the importance of design, quality and raise the fair trade profile.

The Entrepreneur
Safia Minney, a British citizen of Indian-Mauritian and Swiss origin, moved to Japan at age 25 with her husband. Finding Tokyo to be a high-tech city with low environmental awareness, she decided that her first task would be to compile a directory of organic and vegetarian food shops and recycling facilities. This effort spawned Global Village, an NGO she founded in 1991. In 1995, Minney incorporated The Fair Trade Company (trading as People Tree) as a for-profit organization in Japan to take over the trading activities of Global Village. Before dedicating her career to fair trade, Minney worked in the publishing and advertising industry in the UK. During this time, she advised NGOs and publishers of trade and general interest magazines on marketing and distribution. She was frustrated to see so much creative talent in advertising wasted. Preferring social marketing, she decided to put her skills to use promoting environmental and social justice. In 2009, Minney received an MBE for services to fair trade and the fashion industry.