I’m definitely a dress person – I even have a ‘dress face’, which, according to my husband, I pull when I’m trying one on. With six beautiful People Tree dresses hanging in my wardrobe I was ecstatic to find I’d won their World Fair Trade Day, which offered the opportunity to acquire even more lovely pieces. However, it was the chance to meet with Safia Minney, Founder and CEO of People Tree, and her wonderful team that proved to be the real prize of the day for me.
As a fundraiser with more than 17 years of experience in the charity sector and a strong interest in environmental, sustainability and Fairtrade issues, I was excited about discovering more about how social enterprises such as People Tree approach the challenges of being fair and sustainable. I also wanted to pose the question, can charities and social enterprises learn from one another, taking the best from their respective business models, in order to bring about even more positive change in the world?
Having had my mind, and taste-buds, stimulated by a trip to Divine Chocolate’s offices with their Managing Director Sophi Tranchell I was starting to get a sense of the scale of the job involved in setting up a successful social enterprise and the distance still to be travelled. For example, only 21% of chocolate sold in the UK is Fairtrade. If I thought getting Fairtrade chocolate to market was complicated I wasn’t prepared for the journey that Safia and her business have had to undertake over the course of the last 23 years in order to achieve what they have in fashion and accessories.
I was particularly struck by the impact extreme weather and climate change can have on production and the supply of products. Safia told us about a recent cyclone in Bangladesh that had hit and destroyed the hand-looms used by artisans at Swallows, a Fairtrade group that hand-weave and embroider many of the fabrics used in People Tree garments. Faced with this difficulty many businesses would just switch supplier, but People Tree’s ethos is to build the long-term capacity of their partners and one of the ways they do this is by making long-term commitments to their producers.
Apart from their wonderful products, this to me is one of the reasons their business model is so successful. But I also think they might be missing an opportunity to deliver even more change for the communities they are working with.
When Safia recounted this story I couldn’t help but go into fundraiser mode and wonder if they could be scaling up their success by overlaying their business model with a fundraising strategy. One that not only reaches out to their customer base as fans and purchasers of their products but also as supporters of the social, economic and environmental change they are trying to bring about. I know through my own experience of buying items on-line that I rarely add a donation to the People Tree Foundation on my purchase,- I already feel like I’ve ‘done my bit’ in making the purchase. But if the People Tree Foundation were to send me an emergency appeal to get their hand-loom weavers back up and running I’m pretty sure I’d have been pulling my ‘what’s my PayPal password’ face.
This is of course just one example of how a social enterprise could borrow from charities to deliver greater change. When later mulling over these thoughts in the cocktail bar at the groovy Zetter Hotel, where People Tree were kindly putting us up for the night, I started to think that there must be other opportunities for social enterprises and charities to share what works best in their industries in order to deliver even more beautiful changes in the world. It would be great to be part of that process.