People Tree products pioneering fair trade in Japan


The hand-knit sweaters and scarves and hand-woven bags with an ethnic look are nothing like the products sold to the masses of consumers in most big shopping malls.

They are part of the lineup of fair-trade products under the People Tree brand of Fair Trade Co., the pioneer in fair trade in Japan.

Fair trade, which as an organized movement is more established in Europe, advocates paying a fair price on goods made by developing countries by limiting excessive intermediary margins, supporting good working conditions for workers in emerging economies by direct audits and preventing the destruction of the environment.

London-born Safia Minney, 44, started Fair Trade Co. 13 years ago, after she came to Japan with her husband, who at the time worked for an investment management firm.

Although she was at first disappointed with the Western-style mass consumerism she experienced in Tokyo amid the economic bubble that continued until the early 1990s, she was gradually drawn to Japan’s traditional culture and way of life, according to her recently published book, “Oshare Na Eco Ga Sekai Wo Sukuu” (“Stylish Ecology Saves The World”).

Minney, whose family background is Indian-Mauritian and Swiss, said Japan has the potential to develop into an environment-conscious country. But at present, efforts to raise the low awareness level of people are too slow, she said.

“People want to support Fair Trade but they don’t know how,” Minney told The Japan Times in a recent interview, noting that was one reason that prompted her to set up a fair-trade firm in Japan.

“Japan has the potential to be one of the greenest countries,” she continued. “Japan has a highly educated population, good public transport, and people are much more self-disciplined than Westerners, so following community recycling programs, etc., is much more possible,” she said.

Minney opened the company’s first outlet in 1998 on the outskirts of Tokyo’s Jiyugaoka shopping district. In 2005, she opened another shop in the stylish Omote-sando district in central Tokyo.

Fair Trade also sells its goods via mail order and retailers that agree to sell People Tree products, while it has tied up with 50 groups of producers in 15 developing countries, including India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Peru and Kenya.

Its sales grew more than 22 times to ¥756.92 million in fiscal 2006 from just ¥34 million in fiscal 1995.

Minney also founded People Tree Ltd. in London to sell the firm’s products abroad.

Highlights of Safia Minney’s career

1982-1990 — Works for publishing and marketing business in London.

January 1990 — Moves to Japan with her husband, James.

November 1991 — Sets up Global Village, an NGO devoted to environmental protection and global cooperation.

1993 — Begins developing fair-trade products with workers in Bangladesh. Also starts mail-order business.

January 1995 — Founds and becomes president of Fair Trade Co.

March 2001 — Establishes People Tree Ltd. in London and starts mail-order business.

September 2004 — Selected as one of the world’s most outstanding social entrepreneurs by Schwab Foundation.

July 2007 — Among the 100 social entrepreneurs changing the world selected by the Japanese edition of Newsweek.

To attract fashion-conscious Japanese consumers, People Tree has tied up with British designers. The brand’s profile was raised in London and Tokyo when British actress Sienna Miller agreed to appear in a British fashion magazine with People Tree clothes in 2003. The brand’s image was further boosted when Vogue’s Japanese edition featured People Tree and fair-trade fashion in 2007.

Minney’s idea of producing stylish fair-trade products comes from her experience in London when she first visited a fair-trade shop when she was 18, she said.

Very much aware of the trend of consumerism in Britain, Minney was attracted to fair-trade accessories and handicrafts, but not satisfied with the designs.

“I bought fair-trade products at a shop in London because I wanted to support fair trade. But then after a while, I thought the products could be better,” Minney said.

“I was working for a design magazine at that time. So I felt the products could be more attractive and better designed,” she said.

Her idea became reality after she moved to Japan in 1990 amid the country’s bubble economy of booming land and stock prices.

Her idea of running fair-trade stores and supporting producers in Asia and Africa originated during a two-month backpacking trip to those areas when she was 22 and was shocked to find that big-name companies were taking land away from fishermen and small-scale farmers to build tourist resorts and power plants.

However, Minney soon realized that managing the fair-trade shops was more difficult than she had expected. Indeed, her company’s profit has been less than 1 percent of sales for the last five years.

“Running People Tree, I understand that it is very difficult to work with people in very rural areas of the developing world. To make well-designed good-quality products, you need a team of dedicated design and technical people,” Minney said, adding that her company has 20 such experts in Tokyo and London. “So Fair Trade is a very expensive process.”

Yet, Minney thinks selling handmade clothes, instead of food, is important because it involves various layers in the manufacturing process and creates more jobs for local-level workers.

For example, coffee is imported into the country as green beans, and all the roasting and packaging is done in Japan. But when it comes to clothing, the process employs workers ranging from organic cotton farmers to hand weavers and printers.

Minney flies to farming villages and jointly develops handicrafts with local producers. On average, as much as 20 percent of the proceeds on People Tree products go to producers.

Minney said a big problem in Japan is that there is too little mass media focusing on environmental and social issues.

She also pointed out a lack of government support for fair trade in Japan. One of the reasons Britain has the biggest fair-trade market in the world has been the government’s support, she said.

“The Japanese government needs to support fair trade with more development education for the public and grants to support technical assistance to small-scale producers,” she said.

In this occasional series, we interview entrepreneurs whose spirit may hold the key to a more competitive Japan.