Welcome to a monthly column within our broader sustainability section which focuses on what fashion is doing to address the issues in its industry brought to you by Retail Insider with Clipper and Give Back Box

This month an interview with People Tree managing director Melanie Traub on the challenges and joys of running a sustainable fashion business

Sitting in the basement of People Tree’s offices near Mornington Crescent, North London, surrounded by rails of clothing, Melanie Traub points out the poster on the wall detailing the 10 founding principles of the World Fair Trade Organisation’s (WFTO).

People Tree MD: Melanie Traub

These include respect for the environment, fair payment, no child labour and opportunities for disadvantaged producers. People Tree, founded 28 years ago in Japan by Safia Minney, is committed to adhering to all 10 principles, which enables it to be accorded Guaranteed Status by the WFTO.

But what really annoys Traub, who joined the retailer three years ago, is the amount of green-washing around. She notes ironically that if everyone who claims to be using organic cotton really was, there would need to be 50% more organic cotton grown in the world than actually is. As it stands People Tree is one of only a tiny number of fashion retailers who can authentically call themselves truly sustainable – possibly the only one.

However, as a fashion pro who has worked for a wide variety of retailers from M&S to LMVH and also done a stint at fast fashion with Kookai, she is not judgemental about the way other people choose to sell.

“We just want to provide an alternative. Yes, there is more competition now and some of it is greenwashing but it all opens up a conversation,” she says. And in reality although anyone using organic cotton could be deemed a competitor there is no-one doing exactly what People Tree do.

It comes down to consumers asking the right questions Traub says. And who are People Tree’s customers? There is a very loyal customer base who have grown with the brand “we have the yummy mummy and those who are concerned about the fabrics they put next to their body, we have the environmentalists – but yes, we also have ASOS shoppers who just think that’s a pretty dress and for whom everything else is secondary”.

She is adamant that you have to make the range as attractive as possible “we don’t people to wear it just because it’s worthy. Even ethical consumers don’t want to go out in a brown sack!” Customers are mainly metropolitan and suburban but cut across all ages. “Age is becoming less relevant,” finds Traub. “Before a 40-year old had to dress like 40-year old. Now it’s more about attitude.”

People Tree currently sells wholesale to 300 outlets in the UK including John Lewis and ASOS while within Europe Germany and Benelux are the biggest markets. The company also sells into ICONIC, which she describes as the Asos of Australia. They design for the whole spectrum of shoppers; the items which use the V&A’s archive of historical designs sells very well into John Lewis while ASOS majors on the jumpsuits, printed T-shirts, and hand-knitted ranges.

Pricing is mid-tier and “not outrageous”, according to Traub, dresses might be £130, trousers £99 and entry point for T-shirts around £30 and everything is designed in-house by a team of People Tree designers. But even this has to be tailored to the suppliers’ needs as patterns need to be the old-fashioned paper variety rather than electronic versions as the workers would not typically have access to computers.

Those workers are spread out globally, dress makers are mainly located in India and Bangladesh, jewellery comes from Kenya and some items are made in Turkey. Monitoring the factories is a constant job and audits are carried out all the time with the women workers and their supervisors including in some cases nuns who run the workplaces. In addition the work place typically has to be located near the home as these populations do not have access to transport. “What constitutes a fair wage changes in each area we work but they do all get a fair wage” she says.

A final challenge is that the workers cannot afford to buy the raw materials themselves so People Tree must buy the cloth etcetera for them in advance and the women then pay the company back. It is these extra supply chain hurdles which People Tree has to jump over in order to get its WFTO accreditation but it is vital as that certification by a third body is the only way to avoid greenwashing and to get the message across.

Respecting the environment is also a central tenet and one which leads People Tree to really push the boundaries on sustainable clothing. In the past using recycled materials has not really been big for the company mainly because it requires so many resources like water to do it. However, the company is now looking at using recycled cashmere as it is simply pulled apart by human hand and does not require re-production.

“We develop dyes that don’t pollute the water, we reuse the water, we do not use polyester at all and we use tencel (made from wood pulp), which is made in a closed loop water system,” she says.

As to the future, the company has just launched in the US, which according to Traub, is very much behind the UK and Europe in terms of interest in and attitudes to sustainable clothing. So far 50 stockists are on board. The V&A partnership is thriving and BBC Earth recently approached the company when looking for products. A new tie-in will involve the Moomins – a good fit for People Tree with its emphasis on planet Earth and friendship. And the good work never stops: People Tree is also one of the first companies to partner with Give Back Box which encourages the shipping of charity items using the the packaging from online orders which might normally go into landfill.

Although the Japanese iteration of People Tree does design children’s wear, Traub has no immediate plans to extend the UK range beyond womenswear. However, she would consider the idea of a high street pop-up. Given that these provide an ideal opportunity to get a brand message and provenance story directly out to consumers it would seem to make a lot of sense. As Traub points out: “It’s easy to cherry pick the simple bits of ethical production, which is what a lot of people do, but to do the whole thing – now that’s hard”.

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