Top of the fair trade fashion tree

Clothing with a conscience defies the downturn

It has become commonplace for famous actresses to be associated with fashion labels, but when the Harry Potter star Emma Watson launches her own collection with People Tree this month, it will be something of a departure. |People Tree is an ethical business that promotes fair trade – indeed, the launch helps to kick off Fairtrade Fortnight on 22 February – and the fashion industry is widely seen as dependent on sweatshop labour.

This is changing, though. And it would not be unreasonable to say that People Tree has played a significant part in that shift in perception. Founded by Safia Minney in Japan in the early 1990s, the company has been trading in the UK for 10 years. In that time, the business has grown from a mail-order operation selling to the converted into a familiar name in such high-street chains as Topshop. This year, the profile will rise still further through a link with John Lewis as well as pushes into North America, New Zealand, Australia and Brazil.

Minney acknowledges the tie-up with Topshop was controversial. But she insists it has been a positive move that has opened her business to new markets and helped to educate Topshop’s staff and customers. Vital to the success of the venture has been the commitment of Jane Shepherdson,

previously brand director at Topshop, who has moved on to become the chief executive of the Whistles fashion chain and is among a clutch of highly qualified non-executive directors on the People Tree board.

The more outlets there are, the better it is for the producers Minney has formed relationships with in 15 developing countries. But she is wary of who she deals with, saying: “What we’re unhappy about is if a retailer does fair trade on one side and continues to squeeze margins on the other side.”

She is also conscious that, while People Tree is growing, traditional “fast-fashion” companies selling at budget prices are also thriving amid the tough times. As a result, the business works hard to deliver products that are made to the highest ethical standards and are also competitively priced and fashionable.

As the company enters its second decade in the UK, it is developing to reflect a business that has grown to the point where UK sales for the current year are expected to pass £2m and are forecast to be more than 50 per cent higher next year. With Japanese turnover included, sales for the current year are predicted to be close to £7m, and nearly £9m next year.

The structure has been streamlined so that the previously separate UK and Japanese businesses have been combined into a single holding company based on the edge of the City of London, and the design and sales and marketing teams have been brought together. Husband and co-founder James, who previously helped while working as a banker in Japan, has joined full-time as chief financial officer. Among his tasks is raising around £1.2m to help fund the next stage in the company’s development, with plans including a London shop to stand alongside those that have been operating in Japan.

Having pioneered fair-trade fashion, Minney and her team want to benefit from the interest in it. Hence the Watson connection – the more Harry Potter fans she brings in, the better.

As the epitome of the English “country look”, Joules would appear to be worlds away from People Tree. However, the East Midlands-based clothing company has also defied the downturn, increasing sales by 61 per cent in the past year. At the same time, it has seen the workforce grow by 168 to 486. Managing director Tom Joule believes a large part of its success is that it is seen as standing for something.

Although the business has moved on in terms of the breadth of range and is becoming increasingly fashionable and available through a combination of its own quirky shops and space in such retailers as John Lewis, it remains in touch with its roots in an operation that involved Joule selling to horsey folk and other country people at events around the shires.

“It still is, and feels like, a family-run business. I started buying good products for a discerning customer and taking it to them and their environment,” he says, adding that his sister Martine is head of brand, while brand communications is headed by Julie Buchanan, who started with him when he began doing events in 1989.

Like People Tree, too, Joules has ventured into publishing to push its message. Joules is at the forefront of the “catazine” trend, where companies combine their catalogue with articles that reinforce the image – in its case, chic country living. “I really do live the Joules life,” says Joule listing his chickens, ponies, cats, dogs and rabbits.

Fundamentally, though, Joule believes success in tough times is down to beating expectations. “The purchaser in the recession was becoming more savvy and, with Joules core values and great styling, it was the perfect combination for the mood of the consumer,” he says.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Ashdown Group: Business Analyst - Financial Services - City, London

£50000 - £55000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Business Analyst - Financial Service...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: At SThree, we like to be differe...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + competitive: SThree: Did you know? SThree is the o...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions