With a £1 million growth fund, ethical fashion retailer People Tree is ready to make waves in the UK. But, as Lisa Berwin finds out, it’s making fair trade fairer that really interests founder Safia Minney

Last week, the UK was rocked by an earthquake that was small but powerful and felt across much of the country. Similarly, large parts of the retail industry are experiencing their own mini-tremors in the shape of ethical fashion retailer People Tree.

Founded by Safia Minney in Japan, People Tree became an early adopter as well as a voice for fair trade sourcing well before the concept took off in the UK.

“I was always an ethical consumer, but when I moved to Japan in 1991 I had to teach myself Japanese to search out ethical products,” recalls Minney. “There were so few that I ended up designing and marketing them myself.”

Her first foray into ethical trade came when she worked in the country’s first Body Shop store after she moved from the UK to Tokyo at the age of 25. Soon after, she set up Global Village, from which her first business – the Fair Trade Company – was born. It sold all things fairly traded, from food to fashion.

She established People Tree in the UK seven years ago, selling fashion online, by mail order and through a wholesale business that now supplies more than 70 stockists across Europe. Fifty of those are UK retailers, including Topshop, Timberland and Asos. It also started selling goods through lingerie e-tailer Figleaves this week.

In the UK, Minney hopes to double the business through more key partnerships with retailers and designers, as well as by developing its children’s and menswear ranges, which lag behind women’s fashion.

In the next 18 months she is also promising to launch the company’s first standalone store and is scouring east London for suitable premises.

People Tree secured a£1 million cash injection from financier Oikocredit last month to help fund its expansion. Despite recent hype about ethical ways of doing business, winning finance still took a great deal of time and effort.

“We were lucky to find investors that are mission-driven just like us,” says Minney. “They are not only interested in a financial return. They want to see a social return too and back People Tree as a catalyst for change – my kind of people. The problem today is that retailers have been forced to take a short-term view on everything.”

She has found fashion a particularly hard space to occupy. “Fashion is a nightmare,” she says. “Lead times keep getting shorter and the consumer hasn’t yet realised that fast fashion is guilty of exploiting people and polluting the environment because it takes short cuts, even though they might have the latest eco bag on their arm.”

She adds: “The high media profile of ethical and fair trade fashion is helping to educate the general public. People simply do not need 60 kilos of new fashion each year and are beginning to seek out fair trade, handcrafted and ethical goods more often.”

When asked if she felt comfortable selling goods to retailers not best known for ethical priorities, Minney admits she had been worried at first.

In the event, she found them easier to work with than she had feared. “Some of them have been very good at giving advance payments,” she points out. “The way we work, payments are made often nine to 10 months before we see the product, which in fashion terms is like being caught in a gale-force wind.”

Minney is also keen to see a benchmark established for ethically produced garments. At present, some can be labelled ethical simply because a proportion of the cotton used is organic.

All People Tree garments are fairly traded, and all organic cotton used carries the Soil Association mark, which guarantees at least 95 per cent usage of organic cotton in any item.

“The Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International and International Fair Trade Association are working towards a benchmark, because consumers are becoming more sophisticated about where they buy from,” she says.

Next year People Tree will break even for the first time, but this is of limited concern to Minney. More important is to fulfil her dream of making all of her international producers, who are often people from small villages in developing countries, shareholders in the business.

And is this the future of retail? Not immediately perhaps, but Minney is making waves that are being felt throughout the fashion world.

Ethics girl

Age: 43
Family: married, with two children
Interests: yoga, dance, walking in the mountains

1991: sets up Global Village from which the Fair Trade Company is born, selling fair-trade food and fashion
2001: launches People Tree in the UK