Small is Beautiful: But Can Its Rules be Applied to the Fashion Industry?

Contributing writer, Safia Minney,
Founder and Director of People Tree, argues that we must make and buy clothes while being conscious of their humanity and sustainability.

People Tree is working with small-scale organic farmer, artisan and tailor fair trade groups in eight countries. This year is People Tree’s 25th anniversary in Japan where I started the organization in my living room. I have been passionate about bringing fair trade to the people who need it most: the poorest of the poor, often women. As a human rights activist and environmentalist, I was determined that trade could bring a voice and economic power to persecuted communities while protecting their environments. In 2014, People Tree was the first international fashion and lifestyle brand to achieve the World Fair Trade Organisation (WFTO) label on its products, guaranteeing fair trade throughout its supply chain.

Fair World Project PublicationWith a good operational plan and a “critical path” that starts with the design process, incorporating traditional craft skills into product development allows enough time for hand production in the villages. This ensures that orders can be distributed to over 2,000 handknitters in Nepal and handweavers and embroidery artisans in rural Bangladesh and India. We check to see if fair wages are being paid with time and motion studies, to be sure that even the most vulnerable people in our supply chain, the yarn bobbiners, are properly compensated. This needs to be part of an ongoing partnership between us and our fair trade partners in the Global South in order to ensure that fair trade is in place. Quality control and design improvements allow us to produce beautiful clothing, fashion accessories, crafts for the home, and organic and fair trade foods in Japan.

We train small groups on tailoring, measuring garments, making patterns, making alterations, grading sizes, building teams and marketing in order to help support them in becoming internationally competitive. Certification can create a barrier for small groups, but we have learned that with long-term partnerships certification for organic and fair trade is not only possible but is increasingly required by our customers. We also run a Market Exposure Program in Japan and Europe that helps leaders from fair trade groups to learn about the markets where their products are selling. They meet large existing and potential buyers, the buyers who stock their products, and come to understand marketing and distribution from a “first world” perspective. When leaders hear customer feedback and directly meet the media, they understand the challenges and take responsibility to improve their products and business models. Leaders take their new knowledge back to their businesses, which helps them stay competitive, and they invest in infrastructure like waste dye effluent management plants and other initiatives to protect the environment. This interaction between fair trade groups and the People Tree team, sales agents, customers and media also has a motivational effect and builds brand loyalty, too.

The design process starts six months before conventional fashion companies to ensure that craft skills and traditional technology can be used for production and to promote livelihoods in rural areas. The collection, while continually utilizing new fabrics with organic and sustainable fibers, also needs to take into consideration the production capacity and skills of each group. My favorite product is fiber made from the banana tree trunk. Designers need to have excellent knowledge and experience working with fair trade craft groups, and institutionalizing this is part of the DNA of People Tree, which has been key to our success. We hope that other fair trade, ethical and even conventional fashion companies will follow in our footsteps.

Long-Term Planning and Partnering

We maximize the “value-added” of each product in terms of livelihood promotion for the 5,000 people who produce goods for People Tree. Investment in small groups training, innovation, infrastructure and marketing, often before profits are made, is essential to growing a fair trade fashion business. Whether it is improving the drape of a fabric, which means investing in drip irrigation (saving 60% of water) to grow longer cotton fibers, or making a fitted dress in hand-woven fabric, each product improvement or innovation requires a partnering approach to invest in new infrastructure and skills. It also requires mutual respect, creativity and good long-term planning.

Scaling Up Small-Scale Production

There are ten million handweavers in India and Bangladesh; after agriculture, handweaving is the second-largest employer. As it can save one ton of carbon dioxide per handloom per year, there is a moral and environmental imperative to bringing fair trade fashion to these communities and to building markets for their products.

People Tree also uses organic and fair trade fabrics that are machine produced and tailored in social businesses that work to fair trade standards. We designed two labels: a “CRAFT” label and an “ORGANIC” label, and customers enjoy the distinction and read the information behind the product. As we put organic cotton onto the handlooms, it becomes more complicated. In Europe, especially in Germany, Benelux and Scandinavia, we are finding very sophisticated customers who are demanding more social impact, less environmental impact and real transparency from retailers.

At People Tree, we use hand crafted skill symbols alongside the organic Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and fair trade marks to help customers identify how each garment has been made. I wish more people were motivated by handweaving and the huge social impact it has; paying handweavers double or often three times what they could earn elsewhere. There is a craft revival, with increased interest in traditional skills, but what makes a product ultimately sell is still good design, fit and quality.

Biggest Barrier to Mainstreaming Fair Trade Fashion is Fast Fashion

“Fast fashion” is synonymous with short lead times, synthetic fabrics and cheap labor, where the garment factory worker is under the minimum age and paid below the minimum wage. Directors of fashion companies should be held legally liable if garment workers are not paid at least the minimum wage and are forced to work in unsafe factories where environmental laws are broken. We need to change the future opportunities for small-scale farmers, artisans and tailors. Fair trade fashion companies can compete in the mid-market by making a truly unique product that will be treasured. In a multinational company, up to 6% of sales can typically be spent on research and development, often subsidized by government grants and tax breaks. Why is it then that fair trade research and development receives little or no funding? We should be demanding that our governments make fair trade fashion exempt from the Value Added Tax (VAT) in order to help create a level playing field and give small-scale producers a decent chance to build prosperity and vibrant communities.

Small is beautiful, and small is democratic – and it therefore holds enormous power and strength. Without any doubt, the one natural resource that we have in plentiful supply is peoples’ hands. We have run out of clean water, land and oil – we need urgently to rethink fashion.

Safia Minney launched her new book, Slow Fashion Aesthetics Meets Ethics, in March of 2016.


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