Safia is speaking at Hay Festival’s Green Hay Forum – which we’re sponsoring – where she’ll be featured in a segment called ‘Are Vegetarians and Vegans the Planet Savers?’. Here, we speak to her about the importance of ethics in food, business and fashion.
Why is vegetarianism so important to you?
I became a vegetarian many years ago and for me it’s always been about land resource use and the question of social and environmental justice. The connection between climate change and food production is also so critical and it’s a clear reason to stop eating meat or to reduce our red meat consumption.
You’re most well known for your role in creating the leading ethical fashion brand People Tree. Can you tell us a bit about your mission and what People Tree stands for?
The whole point of starting People Tree was to create a fairer, more sustainable society. As a young woman I was based in Japan and trying to live an ethical lifestyle there. I became frustrated by not being able to find much that was organic or Fair Trade, so I started a voluntary group to look at ethical alternatives and this grew into People Tree.
We went on to become one of the first Fair Trade and organic-certified supply chains, working very closely with organic cotton farmers and artisans, and then building them up into products we could retail in some of the best department stores and eco concept stores in the world. I think we’ve done a really great job of proving that a different way of creating fashion is possible.
Have you got any tips for how people can shop more ethically?
I think the first thing to ask yourself is do you really need to buy something new? Second-hand fashion is going to be larger than fast fashion in a couple of years’ time. I think that’s partly because people are unhappy with being force fed disposable fashion and that we don’t trust it anymore. Many now understand that there are huge issues around it, from modern slavery and worker exploitation, to the huge emissions released by the industry. So, if you’re going to buy new make sure you seek out the ethical, Fair Trade, sustainable pioneers, like People Tree or Po-Zu.
It’s also worth decluttering your wardrobe. You can often find pieces you’ve forgotten about, that you can restyle, repurpose or repair. Then suddenly you’ve got something wonderful again. If you do want something different, the circular economy is really exciting, the idea that you can rent clothing from companies for a special occasion without buying it.
We’ve just had another Fashion Revolution Week. What stood out for you about this year’s campaign?
I was involved in the Extinction Rebellion protests around the time, which really brought the connection between fashion and its climate costs to the front of our minds. This year’s campaign was also the sixth anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse, which highlighted that although we’ve seen some factory safety standards improve, wages and gender equality haven’t really changed much.
Why did you choose to publicly get behind Extinction Rebellion?
I’m deeply frustrated that despite the many innovations and ideas out there, it’s political will or the lack of it, the lack of policy, the lack of legislation and the lack of enforced legislation that’s got us in this absolutely critical position of environmental and climate collapse. It was very exciting watching the school strikes and realising there’s a new energy that’s going to blow away the apathy we’ve lived with. I contacted the Extinction Rebellion team and got involved. I also helped to set up a group of business people who are committed to climate action and was delighted when Bevis Watts, chief executive of Triodos Bank UK, joined us.
Triodos Bank is committed to using money to address environmental issues. What do you think about the role of money and banking in tackling these issues?
I think an overhaul of the financial system is long overdue and that the system as a whole is only just beginning to turn the corner when it comes to ethical finance. The pressure is starting to come from the bottom up, for example with trade unions and individuals looking at where their pension funds are being invested.
You’ve recently launched a podcast, The Ethical Agenda. Can you tell us a bit more about what listeners can expect?
It’s very much about raising awareness and action around social enterprise and sustainability. There’s a lot that we can do around this and a lot that we need to learn. I had George Monbiot on the first podcast and am hoping that some of the people I’ve worked with closely over the years, people who’ve got different perspectives, will join me for future episodes.
Do you have any other exciting projects in the pipeline that you can tell us about?
I’m creating a sustainability centre, called the Real Sustainability Centre, in the Letchworth area. It’ll be a place where individuals and business people can learn about sustainability and pick up some practical skills. It’s very early days and I’m in the process of putting together the project and the team, but it’s exciting.