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Q&A with Safia Minney MBE on 'Slave to Fashion'

By Vivian Hendriksz


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London - Modern slavery is a subject most fashion businesses tend to shy away from. Although many deny its presences within the fashion industry, the fact remains that modern slavery is very much present in all areas of the industry. But what does modern slavery in fashion really look like? And what can be done to eradicate it once and for all? These are some of the questions being tackled by social entrepreneur and founder of fair trade fashion brand People Tree Safia Minney MBE, who seeks to end modern slavery through a new project launched on Kickstarter, 'Slave to Fashion.' FashionUnited spoke with Minney in order to learn more about her campaign, modern slavery and what she hopes to achieve with 'Slave to Fashion.'

How would you define modern slavery within the fashion industry?

“Through my work in fair trade over the past twenty-five years I have seen several different aspects of exploitation in the fashion industry at its worst. Modern slavery is forced and bonded labour. Sometimes it occurs as the consequence of human trafficking - people who were promised better lives are ending up in very vulnerable positions within the supply chains that are part of the fashion industry. It also includes child labour, which is anything from children picking cotton right the way through to them working in spinning mills and manufacturing. Modern day slavery is effectively the worst side of highly exploitative business practices in the industry. And exploitative conditions run right through the supply chain and are in every sector.”

“We need to starting looking at some of the structural changes we can make in order for this not to be an issue.”

Where did the idea for ‘Slave to Fashion’ come from?

“A lot of us in the community - social justice and environmental/human rights community - are very excited about the Modern Slavery Act and felt that this was an opportunity to really talk directly to the public about the questions they should be asking retailers and manufacturers to do. And the campaign really builds on the campaigning work we have done over the past few years through the Fashion Revolution, the True Cost and Greenpeace’s Green Detox, campaign. We really have an opportunity now to continue to raise awareness on modern slavery. Much of the campaigning and lobbying work has had an impact - although it is not significant enough in changing policy and we need to keep the debate and pressure up.”

Why the two parts - book and educational campaign?

“After the True Cost documentary, there were a lot of people who were incredibly moved. I had a lot people who reached out and wrote to me to tell me how shocked they were and how much it changed their relationship with clothing and with consumption. They really wanted to know more and they really wanted to know what they could do. I think this campaign can begin to really look at some of the stories and how to in terms of both profiling the enormous impact of bad business practice and how policy needs to change.”

“The campaign will give people an opportunity to really be a part of the change and give them some really concrete information on what they can do to put pressure on companies and what questions they can ask. It was clear that we also need a sort of informational package that people could download from an educational micro-site, which can then be taken into schools, colleges, fashion educational institutes, because so many people are passionate about this subject. At the same time people do want something that they can hold and acts a composite for the best information on the matter. So having the mini-documentaries running from the book the same way fashion shows are shown, amongst other things, the best campaigns over the past three years and the most beautiful sustainable and ethical lifestyle stores around the world, linking all that back to film just gives it another dimension. And hopefully it will inspire consumers, business, future social entrepreneurs and future brands."

What sets ‘Slave to Fashion’ apart from other campaigns against modern slavery?

“Apart from the two parts mentioned, our hope is to really lead a debate on how we can take the social and environmental externalities in the fashion system into costing, into price architecture, into policies that support it, and all areas of business. At some point we have to have an economic system that reflect the true cost and we don’t.”

”Of course there are extremely progressive brands within the fashion industry that have embraced different levels - such as upcycling or using organic and natural fibers and materials - and who are starting to look into the many initiatives and how they can make the needed improvements. But it is incredibly slow and we have some big battles to fight. Of course being ethical in the fashion industry is very price sensitive, time-consuming and risk sensitive. In the UK there is a big debate going on about local production which is very interesting, so we will looking at modern slavery within the UK and Europe context as well. So I think there is some progress in some areas but really it just is not going fast enough...we will be looking at what kind of reporting we should be asking companies to do at the same time.”

What do you hope to achieve with a ‘Slave to Fashion?’

“I think for me having come across incredibly vulnerable people, having met slaves within the fashion industry and having felt the frustration of not knowing their journey of how they ended up there and not being able to help them to escape from that situation has made me want to tell their stories. I want to tell the very personal stories of how these people ended up in these positions and I want to find of way of liberating them. It sounds incredibly ambitious, but if we can do it on a small scale then we can do it large scale, I do believe it is possible. Understanding how an 8 year old ended up in a factory floor sick for 4 days, 600 miles away from his family and what’s going to happen to him because he cannot work at the moment. I think we really need to meet these children and adults who have been forced into a situation of work. These very real, human stories of slaves will be very powerful and I am hoping will make the public angry enough to want to put their energy and rethink their consumption and put pressure on mainstream companies to change their practices.”

Do you think fashion companies should be accountable for modern slavery?

“I think that companies are fully responsible and to blame for this. I think local authorities and national governments can do their bits obviously, but we know that in some of the countries where modern slavery exists there are buyer cartels. They are very discreet, but they are forcing prices down and through that they are forcing the wages into something that is very far away from a minimum wage. The result is that there will be some form of bonded labour t, or forced labour or even child labour. I do not think anyone argues that the fashion businesses are not taking responsibility, but at the same time they are clearly not taking responsibility.”

So what are some key steps fashion companies can take to help eradicate modern slavery?

“First they have to do a proper audit to assess who the suppliers are that they are working with and what percentage of their turnover is from what company, what kind of conditions subcontractors are working in, what kind of policies they have in place in terms of safety and environmental standards. There is a lot they can do. Retail is incredibly dynamic and innovative field and they are able to deliver this in terms of product. So we are asking them to do it in terms of producers, the people who make the product. We know that it is very possible for them to do.”

“There are many opportunities for shared know how and expertise. We can see there are a lot of workshops and conferences to do just that. We have been setting up a programme to help fashion companies do just that and study ethical, fair-trade and sustainable concepts and put them into place. There is a lot of information out there but it’s really more the will that is lacking. So this is why the ethical fashion movement is so important, as one of the key raises of putting ‘Slave to Fashion’ together is to convey all this to consumers and show what is possible, within a fashion context. I think we can all see that we all have an important role to play in the different parts of the fashion industry - whether we are a consumer, or a designer or a merchandiser, or a shareholder in a company and there are many different ways we can push the debate forward.”

What can consumers do to fight against modern slavery?

“My experience is that consumers are starting to get bored with fast-fashion, so slowly down that whole process of buying. Buying less new, and when you buy new then buy vintage, second hand, ethical or fair-trade. Swapping clothes with friends, wearing more what you have, seeking out ethical brands and eco-concept stores like the ones featured in my book ‘Slow Fashion’ - there is a huge movement of these beautiful stores. Learning more about the issues, watching documentaries like the True Cost, setting up screens to show how our consumption and social justice and environmental issues are linked. And of course by supporting ‘Slave to Fashion’. There are many different initiatives out there, but you can also talk to your favorite brands and retailers. Although it is very easy to get duped by the ‘green-washing’ some companies use so we do need to be a little more conscious and more savvy when it comes to that.”

Why is this campaign so important to you?

“Having been going in and out of slums and conventional factories to really understand what fair trade is fairer than, whilst building up an alternative side, I feel as if the stories of the exploited and the vulnerable are not being told properly. I think with the Modern Slavery Act we have a very powerful opportunity to really galvanise a debate and to educate consumers and all of us alike to really look at the best practices and encourage it whilst making everyone a part of the solution. Personally for me, it’s wanting to bring those stories out and to really personalise them and not get side-tracked by tales of how it has trickled down and everyone has to suffer for a bit, or that these people would be worse off if they were in prostitution, wouldn’t they?”

Photos: Slave to Fashion cover, Safia-minney.com

Ethical Fashion
Modern Slavery
safia minney
slave to fashion
Sustainable Fashion