The Ecologist meets… Safia Minney and Santo Haque

The Ecologist meets... Safia Minney
With Fairtrade Fortnight in full swing, Ruth Styles caught up with People Tree founder, Safia Minney, and Swallows director, Santo Haque, to find out why hand weaving is set to be fashion's next big scandal

The fashion industry has made huge strides towards becoming a greener and more ethical concern in recent years but there's plenty more to be done. From sweatshops where children as young as 11 work in squalid conditions for pay that barely covers the cost of a meal to emissions and pollution that has blighted entire villages, many high street garments come with a human cost that far exceeds the price tag. But while the issues surrounding child labour and sweatshops are widely known, according to Fairtrade fashion pioneer and People Tree founder, Safia Minney, some scandalous practices are still slipping under the radar.

‘There are 10 million hand weavers in India and Bangladesh; it's the second largest sector after agriculture in India. It’s huge. And these people are being displaced by really bad financial management where loans are being offered to middle class people to set up [automated] looms,’ she says, waving her hands angrily. ‘Every loom that’s put in place will take employment away from nine hand weavers. We have this economic policy [in Bangladesh and India] that promotes urban development which concentrates money into the hands of people who already have it. And now we’re taking away livelihoods of rural communities in countries like Bangladesh and India, which is just outrageous. We should be doing the opposite; we should be looking at rural development, we should be looking at how to bring [investment] back into rural areas and strengthen infrastructure so that people don’t have to migrate into urban areas for work.’

We’re sitting around a table at People Tree’s airy London HQ and today, Safia has been joined by Santo Haque. Haque runs the Swallows Handicrafts Centre in Thanapara – a village in rural northern Bangladesh. One of People Tree’s main producers, the Centre has proved a blessing for local women and provides them with jobs, childcare and domestic support. It’s also home to some of the few female hand weavers in Bangladesh, and the work they produce is incredible. Haque shows me one of the dresses created for People Tree at Swallows. Made from black organic cotton, it features intricate floral embroidery around the neckline and according to Haque, took between one and two days to finish by hand. ‘I had a plan to do more hand stitched garments and embroidery but I’ve been visiting some shops in London and haven’t seen so much [hand embroidery] in garments,’ laments Haque. ‘Mostly I have seen sequence work or something like that.’ Cost is certainly a factor in driving brands away from hand embroidery but as People Tree prove (their hand embroidered dress is a reasonable £75), it’s still affordable. So why isn't the fashion industry doing more to support it?

‘I think there’s a great story to be told here,’ says Minney. ‘The problem is all about economics isn’t it? For hand weaving to really flourish and be promoted, you’ve got to have input in terms of fabric development; you’ve got to have proper quality training so that fabrics are made to meet market expectation. It’s never going to look like a machine [made it] but it can be extremely high quality, which I think is what we’ve managed to achieve with Swallows. It meets environmental standards, it meets quality standards, and it makes beautiful garments.’ Despite the gorgeous output, hand embroidery involves a serious financial commitment and even more time (‘even the very experienced people that join People Tree take at least a year to really get a proper understanding of how handwork and fabrics work’, says Minney). But as both Haque and Minney are keen to point out, in Bangladesh at least, consumers are finally starting to see the light where hand weaving is concerned.

‘We’ve had TV programmes about [Swallows] that have been broadcast in the local language in Bangladesh and it’s been the beginning of a real interest that’s sort of countering the current model of fashion which, frankly, is politicians, brothers, friends owning a garment factory and maintaining the sort of quality that ensures garment workers don’t get paid a fair wage,’ continues Minney. ‘That’s why it took us 10 years to campaign on the minimum wage being set at 1660 taka (£12.80) a month. 10 years…it’s ridiculous! The whole industry has been sewn up based on an urban model, which is about getting labour unions banned, factories into export processing, and absolutely minimum pay for the labour. And I think if we can make Fairtrade fashion sexy with beautiful products, get fantastic people involved, just saying, “Look, look at this miracle in this village: you can make a product from the beginning until the end and it can look like it’s been made in Milan or Paris or whatever and actually it’s 100 per cent Fairtrade and 100 per cent handcrafted.” That would be such a cool, sexy story.’

Help the hand weavers: what you can do

Fired up by the plight of Bangladesh’s hand weavers? Minney and Haque have some suggestions

Buy Fairtrade fashion
‘Being attached to Swallows, of course I’d suggest that people buy Fairtrade clothes because it is an investment in people who need it - the producers from rural areas,’ says Haque. 'With Fairtrade, they [weavers] can make products that they can sell in the global market, through [brands like] People Tree.'

Encourage every brand to do the right thing
‘People could put pressure on their other favourite brands to have more Fairtrade products, or more product that’s hand crafted,’ says Safia. ‘Santo did some market research yesterday and was quite surprised by how little handwork is available.’

Campaign to give hand weavers carbon credits
‘These are the poorest people in the economy; they most deserve to benefit from any advantage and support,’ says Minney. ‘Apart from the fact that each handloom saves a ton of Co2 every year, [hand weavers] can’t go and negotiate the carbon credits - they’re too disenfranchised and disorganised. But there’s no reason why, when they become recognised for the huge task that they perform, that they shouldn’t be able to through the Bangladeshi Handloom Board. I think it represents somewhere between 80,000 and 150,000 hand weavers. There’s no reason why they all shouldn’t be getting carbon credits, even if it’s only 30 dollars a year. It’s enough to put your girl child through nursing college. How moving would that be?’

Need to know: Swallows Handicrafts Centre
Part development project, part Fairtrade workshop, Swallows projects have been rolled out across Bangladesh and include everything from education and awareness programmes to legal advice for women affected by domestic violence. Regular orders from Fairtrade companies like People Tree have made infrastructure projects such as a school and nursery for producer’s children possible, and have helped the Centre find high-level donors such as the Japanese Embassy in Dhaka. ‘One problem that Swallows had was a lack of space for new trainees,’ says Minney. ‘I think there were new trainees that could be trained and then taken on because it’s very, very easy in development to get money for training. But what do women do after that? They need a place to work they need regular orders so their skills develop, and so that they can really have a proper vocation and income two to three years later.’ Thanks to Fairtrade fashion, Swallows has been able to provide the long-term jobs rural Bangladesh so desperately needs.


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