During our fantastic event at The Duke of Cambridge, London’s first and only organic pub. Safia Minney People Tree CEO; Guy Watson CEO of Riverford Organic and Geetie Singh owner of  The Duke of Cambridge spoke at length on a multitude of topics including the inception of WFTD, what it means to be Fair Trade and where they see Fair Trade heading in the future.
Safia: I started WFTD in 1999, we were in Japan and knew there were lots and lots of events happening at the same time in Fair Trade shops, there was a similar movement going on in America. We were really excited about making one unique day where in more than 60 countries there’d be 3000-4000 events all happening simultaneously.

Guy: I guess when we talk about Fair Trade we speaking generally about about fairness. Whether that’s a farmer in Devon or a pineapple grower in Togo, when we work with growers in Togo (who I have actually visited) there’s more chance for abuse, we know them less well and that’s why we support Fair Trade certification. I feel we can only go so far with certification to be honest. Iv’e been to visit pineapple growers in Ghana who we’ve used before and their crops were just rotting in the field there was just no market for it, they were so much cheaper coming out of central America. I think the relationship between free trade and Fair Trade needs to be teased out a little bit.

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Safia: Certification is really costly, the objectives of Fair Trade are to bring a livelihood and good prize to the most economically and marginalized people. The people who are most rurally based with the weakest infrastructure. So what we don’t want is a certification system that doesn’t allow for the poorest of the poor to participate in it and reap the benefits. So how do we do that? we need to create a system so that really allows these groups to earn enough money so they have an understanding of the market and can take control over pricing etc.

Geetie: and that’s what People Tree is all about isn’t it? You invest large amounts of money in your farmers so that they’re able to create a new market then essentially sell to someone else?

Safia: Exactly, I think that really is what fair trade is about, for People Tree it really does take 5-7 years for a small hand weaving or knitting group before the people you’ve invested in are able to produce something that customers will be willing to buy, you have to think of so many factors: technical training, structural investment….

Geetie: Could you tell us more about technical training?

Safia: So for example I’m wearing a collaboration between People Tree and Orla Kiely. We started this project with organic cotton farmers in Gujarat about 15 years ago and we found that not only did the fabric itself not drape well but also that when the women were getting the cotton their hair was getting caught when they were spinning it. The guys weren’t storing the cotton in places where rubbish wasn’t blowing into it and we had to go back and train them and teach them from scratch how to set up a quality management system.

After fashion I do believe that we should be eating every shape and form of organic veg, I think its ridiculous that they waste crop if it doesn’t comply with a certain shape but unfortunately with fashion if you order something, when it comes if it doesn’t fit your body you send it back.

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Guy: Yeah our customers are a lot more tolerant of variations but unfortunately our eyes are mainly trained by supermarket standards, going back on what Safia said about forming those relationships long-term, I think that really separates those interested in trading fairly and those that just want to buy well. When you commit to trading fairly you really do commit to those relationships and they often don’t work out first time. Whereas if youre supplying sainsburys and you get it wrong first time they’ll have a tantrum and it’s a very unforgiving relationship. Investing in the way Safia does, just actually visiting and talking to suppliers is very expensive and when things go wrong you have to find solutions as opposed to throwing them out.

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2 days ago I was in France with a guy who grows spinach for us, the packaging wasn’t working well and was damaging the spinach. I came home and worked out a way to sort that and got him some reusable plastic crates, when I was there about 4 inches of rain fell and the spinach was just dying in the field and you could see there was going to be problems ahead. We spoke about it and it was immediately evident he was a committed professional who was in it for the long haul.

Geetie: finding producers that can be really organised business people as well as great growers can be really difficult, we always get what we can in the pub but I always try to support small British farms, something I find equally as important in terms of Fair Trade, really its about flexibility. You know in terms of delivery sometimes they come at midnight and sometimes things arrive during the middle of a Sunday lunch. These are aspects which most businesses would say was completely unacceptable but its being lenient about these small differences which makes fair trade possible. As guy and Saf say they’ve got to be willing and responsible

Guy: that is so common with farmers, they dump the stuff and drive away. You almost have to bully them into sending you an invoice. You have to condition them into conducting business responsibly.

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Geetie: Do you find that with International Orders Safia?

Safia: Well with us its quite unique, we are doing the opposite of fast fashion. You need to develop the supply chain, slow fashion means we have to start everything at a minimum of 4 months earlier than fast fashion companies. What this means is we have to devote 50% to advanced payments and pay producers. Which is interesting in itself because we in a way have started our own ethical bank. Often I go with my producers to speak to bank managers and I say to them “this is such an amazing group! Because theyre selling in London and Berlin and Tokyo and Amsterdam!” that does help because these really are marginalized groups to a conventional capitalist model…they’re not sexy they live in typical village environments using appropriate technology like hand looms, they’re often female based. You know they don’t have flash cars and these bank managers can be quite snotty.

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I remember at the G8 summit, this was 8 years ago in Hong Kong and we had some of the ministers, one of which is now the minister of commerce in India and he watched these clothes down the catwalk looking fantastic and for him that was it. There wasn’t a compromise in terms of design or quality, in the environment that we trade in which is an incredibly corrupt and unjust system we have to make Fair Trading and Fair Trade practice sexy and we really have to overcome a lot of prejudice along the way.

Guy: In terms of prejudice, I’ve read a couple of articles in the papers recently really damning Fair Trade. I would just urge you to be really sceptical when you read those because they’re fashionable in the same way that anti-organic sentiment became trendy a few years ago. Take it with a pinch of salt, what you really need to remember is that global traders hate Fair Trade, they want a good deal not a fair one, that’s what they thrive on. I’ve met them all over the world and they hate Fair Trade. I was somewhat of that mindset myself originally until I started travelling and meeting producers and don’t get me wrong there are a lot of problems with Fair Trade the main one being that a lot of these producers just aren’t selling the stuff. 30% of Fair Trade certified coffee gets sold as Fair Trade but every producer I’ve asked if Fair Trade is helping their community has answered yes. I think that these people writing these articles really need to speak to producers.

Geetie: Well the suppliers say things like its fairer than Fair Trade but how on earth do they know what is actually go on in the countries where they’re buying those products. They’re rarely in the countries, it’s the same with organics.

Safia: I’d love you to have a look at the people tree pop-up shop, each item has a story and has been lovingly produced and has its own story and its been really lovingly produced. Its really easy to assume that this is niche and its tiny or irrelevant. Don’t get me wrong People Tree is small (currently) even though we’re trading in Japan and around Europe. But its proving that a business model based around human rights and sustainability and helping some of the most marginalized people and also environmental practice not only works but its holding other  business’ in the fashion industry accountable. I remember when I was 17 and I thought that politicians and teachers and the police only told the truth. Theyre not following environmental laws, you have cases where a label will put through an order with one factory who will then subcontract the labour to another factory where children are working and its absolutely appalling. Rana Plaza was 2 years ago and it wasn’t until last month that Beneton paid their compensation, there are still victims awaiting compensation its ridiculous. We really need to communicate a need for justice and responsibility within the fashion industry.

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