Over 30 people ‘Zoomed’ in for MHSG’s first-ever webinar last week to examine ‘The Future of Fashion’ , led by local resident and award-winning entrepreneur, Safia Minney MBE. Founder of the People Tree ethical clothing brand, Safia is author of ‘The Sustainable Fashion Revolution’ and other books addressing the links between the fashion industry, fair trade and sustainability. Safia runs a change agency advising companies on building responsible supply chains and is a sought-after speaker.
The human cost of fashion
Safia set the scene with a clip from the 2015 film she features in, ‘The True Cost’. It tells the story of the clothes we wear, the people who make them and the impact the industry has on our world. ‘I followed four people around for a year and a half – I wanted to show the worst in slavery in the global fashion industry.’ Made in the wake of the Rana Plaza building collapse tragedy in Bangladesh in 2013 which killed 1,134 garment industry workers, Safia pointed out that it is just as relevant today: 50% of Bangladeshi workers are not paid a minimum wage, and people are now at starvation’s door due to losing their jobs because of COVID-19.
Clothing production is responsible for 7 per cent of global carbon emissions and is the second largest polluter in the world.
Safia’s responded to these human and environmental concerns by setting up People Tree in 1991, buying organic cotton from growers and introducing them to hand weavers. Cotton can be rotated with other crops like aubergines and tomatoes, bringing in more cash for farmers and reducing the need for expensive artificial fertilisers.
‘We need to understand what fashion looks like from within the system. Fashion is not only exploitative within the industry but also to the environment, eg northern Bangladesh is prone to flooding.’
Fashion and the climate emergency
Global heating affects people disproportionately in the global South. I’m a diver and I’ve seen how it’s causing coral bleaching. But there’s now a shift in language in the business community , eg ‘climate change’ being called the ‘climate emergency or crisis’.’
Safia was involved in the 2019 climate protests and says the ‘Greta [Thunberg] effect’ has helped influence business. ‘ We need to move the 17 sustainable development goals (predated by the Millennial development goals) forward – a corporation will touch on all of them.’
Influencing the supply chain
Safia wanted to talk to wholesalers about the products they sold, and brought producers to trade shows in Japan where People Tree was founded. ‘I felt passionately that producers should be involved in the supply chain – business shouldn’t be for the benefit of the shareholders alone, with the fallout pushed down the supply chain to the most vulnerable’.
She explained how distinctive marks were used to denote hand woven, hand knitted, hand embroidered and hand block printed garments. ‘In my book ‘Slave To Fashion’ I wanted to give people a real sense of how violent fashion is and how 40 million people are trapped in slavery today, and how we can be part of the change.’
Call to action
Safia’s formula for a more just world includes:
- A living wage
- Freedom of association; ‘workers currently have no rights whatsoever’
- Upcycling and repair of clothes
- Protest – Stockholm Fashion Week cancelled itself in the name of sustainability. Safia took part in protests aiming to cancel London Fashion Week too.
There is cause for hope – two-thirds of Britons agree there is a climate emergency, and over one-third of employees say they want their employer to do more to tackle it. Consumers are avoiding products because of their impact, and a ‘doughnut’ economic system is emerging with social foundation at centre with negative impacts pushed to the outside, and a move to the circular economy.
‘We need to reduce 75% of the clothing we use, and produce the other 25% in a very different way.’
What you can do..
- See an edited version of Safia’s presentation here.
- Watch ‘The True Cost’ (2015) – it’s available to view free on Amazon Prime.
- Visit Real Sustainability, a website Safia co-founded at the end of 2019. Writers are invited to contribute on 10 topics including activism, beauty, fashion, energy and food and drink.
- Write to CEOs of fashion companies as a customer to urge more sustainable production.
- Take part in Fashion Revolution Week – starts 24th April, the anniversary of the Rana Plaza building collapse.