Going the extra mile for fair-trade fashion


On Christmas Day, Dean Newcombe and fellow Tokyo fashion model Sofi Bevan swapped the comfort of the catwalk for something considerably less glamorous: a weeklong 391-km trek across often-mountainous terrain in freezing weather. Newcombe trekked 14 to 16 hours a day, starting at sunrise from the beaches of Choshi in Chiba and ending up on New Year’s Eve by the shores of Niigata. Bevan kept pace, with a few days off to heal severe blisters and boot rash.

Why did they do it? “I started feeling like I would rather be giving to a charity than wrapping a gift under a tree. I would rather dedicate my holiday season to support a cause I believed in,” says Newcombe.

While the Briton has applied to register his trek as a new Guinness world record, the real motivation for the journey was to raise awareness of appalling garment factory conditions in Bangladesh, an issue that briefly captured the world’s attention after the devastating Rana Plaza building collapse in 2013, which claimed the lives of more than 1,100 garment workers. Walk4Work, as the models’ project was called, was intended to send a strong message about the need to change the way clothing is manufactured around the world.

“This walk wasn’t an abstract idea. It was very close to my heart,” says Newcombe, who has been to Bangladesh, where he visited schools and met with workers at a local fair-trade NGO called Thanapara Swallows Development Society. Newcombe decided that more had to be done to raise awareness that where we buy our clothes has real consequences — an idea that the heart of a movement toward “conscious consumerism” that has been gathering momentum for the last 20 years, largely under the banner of “fair trade.”

“Fair-trade collectives produce everything by hand or by sewing machines — not automated machinery,” explains Newcombe. “I fund-raised for the Swallows foundation on this walk because they’re a perfect example of optimal conditions for garment workers: a small village where the workers all know each other; they live nearby; they work for a reasonable eight hours a day, five days a week; they earn wages that are substantially higher than the average Bangladesh garment factory worker; and they live at home with their families, not in urban slums — and, they make beautiful garments that are handwoven and hand-embroidered.”

To raise awareness of fair trade as an ethical alternative to sweat shops, Newcombe decided he would try to endure what millions of sweat-shop workers in the developing world endure every day: exhausting, relentless hard work.

“I think it’s amazing that he has the tenacity and physical stamina to do what he did,” says Safia Minney, CEO and founder of the People Tree brand, a pioneer in fair trade. “A lot of people don’t know about the suffering of garment workers.”

Most of the world’s clothes are the product of a system that relies on the exploitation of garment workers in developing countries, says Minney, whose book “Naked Fashion” tells the tragic yet ultimately hopeful tales of some of these garment workers. “It’s women 16-25 years of age who are exploited in factories in the developing world, and it’s the same age group buying the most from ‘fast fashion’ franchises.”

This issue made headlines in Japan last month after a Hong Kong-based human rights group called out Uniqlo — arguably the poster child for cheap-and-cheerful fast fashion — for sourcing garments from “unsafe” factories in mainland China.

In “Naked Fashion,” Minney writes as both an insider and pioneer of the “sustainable fashion revolution,” an informal international community of fashion designers, media professionals and retailers who want to use their experience and skills to change the fashion industry for the better.

When Minney asked Newcombe to be an ambassador for her company in 2013, he joined a select group of celebrities that include actress Emma Watson, voice actress Laura Bailey and model Jo Wood, who share an enthusiasm for raising awareness about fair trade and ethical living. Yet despite the celebrity endorsements, fair-trade clothing makes up only a minuscule 1 percent of the global clothing market, a fact Naoko Tanemori, general manager of People Tree Japan, sees as a reflection of the lack of awareness among consumers about the concept.

“We did a survey two years ago. We found out that while 50 percent knew of the words ‘fair trade,’ only 26 percent knew what it stood for,” she explains. “In England, more than 80 percent know that is a movement of responsibility.

“Fair trade works through the labels. It gives the consumer enough information attached to a garment they are considering buying to make ethical choices. On People Tree garments, the labels provide the name of the collective, its location and explanation about craftsmanship and organic materials that went into production.”

The People Tree store in Tokyo’s Jiyugaoka neighborhood is a beautiful light-filled space with classic high ceilings tucked away on a quiet backstreet. Where there’s embroidery, its handmade. Where there’s a print, it’s often silk-screened by hand and made with organic cotton, silk or wool. The designers are graduates of Japan’s elite fashion colleges, and it shows in the exquisite details and attention to quality.

But there is a rub. Fair-trade garments tend to cost more, and not only because the wages of the workers are higher: Being made of high-quality natural fibers and not synthetics adds to the cost, as does the fact that the garments are made in small batches, as opposed to being mass-produced.

Minney established Global Village, the forerunner of the People Tree shop, in 1991 based on the belief that given enough information, people would opt for fair trade. Guided by that conviction, she began educating her target audience here in Japan through newsletters and lectures.

“Since 1991, when we began, I’ve seen changes,” she says. “People are really prepared now to buy organic food and produce as a way of supporting social change. In Europe you have the younger consumers who are going vegan; their parents were vegetarian and they are going one step further.”

People Tree fashions can also be purchased online, with sales marking the end of each season.

There are many other options for conscious and ethical fashion consumption, Minney also suggests. These include buying less, buying at second-hand shops, swapping clothes with your friends, or even sewing your own. She also recommends putting pressure on your favorite brands by asking them for details about their ethical standards and sustainability.

While it’s People Tree’s mission to change the style-conscious fashion world from the bottom up — and in particular to change corporate practices completely — Patagonia, a U.S.-based outdoor clothing company, focuses on sustainability, choosing fabrics and recyclable materials that draw attention to saving the Earth’s resources. Patagonia provided the tough snow-proof clothing that got Newcombe and Bevan across the Japan Alps.

The total amount of money raised from Newcombe and Bevan’s walk — more than ¥700,000 — came from small donations by avid followers of Walk4Work, who logged on to Facebook, Twitter and the People Tree websites to catch the latest news and views from the couple’s trek.

The grand sum will enable around 25 women to enter the fair-trade fashion business, and continue to live with their families.

Newcombe, while pleased with the outcome, is not about to rest on his laurels. On Feb. 26, Newcombe will set off on his next challenge, Tokyo 2 Tohoku, a run, bike or walk challenge open to everyone and organized by Newcombe’s nonprofit organization Intrepid Model Adventures and Ribelie Media.

Newcombe will set off with a team from Tokyo, running an average of 30 km a day for two weeks. They are scheduled to arrive in Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, on March 11. Funds raised will go toward projects organized by Katariba, an NPO working in the children’s education sector in tsunami-hit Onagawa.

Tokyo 2 Tohoku: www.facebook.com/events/294815024040751 and www.theheroesof.com. People Tree has stores in Jiyugaoka, Mosaic Mall Kohoku in Yokohama, and a new branch in the Tobu department store in Ikebukuro, Tokyo. For online orders and more information about 400 stores nationwide that carry People Tree products, see www.peopletree.co.jp/shop_jiyugaoka. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • saxophone

    Thank you for the article. People Tree is a great resource to have in Tokyo, and clothes and coffee are only the beginning for fair trade.

  • Kelsey May

    Thank you for reporting on such an important issue. There is SO little awareness, and my college club is attempting to source one third of our Grand Valley State University apparel from living wage factories, a huge step from the exploitative measures our college currently supports. #sweatfreeGV