Holly Dutton is the buyer and business development manager of Exclusive Roots, a small independent shop which specializes in fairly traded African gifts. I spoke to her about her work and the role of ethical fashion and independent traders in Oxford.
Inside this elegant and bright shop, located on the Woodstock Road, is an abundance of beautiful items from handmade brass jewelry, to alpaca scarves. Exclusive Roots is the trading arm of the registered charity Tabeisa, which has its 20th birthday this year. The charitable objective of Tabeisa is to support economic and social development of poor communities in Africa and the main method used is to support people to create small businesses. Exclusive Roots has supported the development and creation of over 2800 small businesses in poor Sub-Saharan African communities with an estimated 5000 direct jobs created through its projects. What makes Exclusive Roots unique is that “all profits are re-invested into the charity and the work we do in Africa.”
In Holly’s opinion, Exclusive Root’s greatest success is “leading the way in what is seen as ‘fair trade’ and ‘ethical.’ We may be a little ahead of our time in this but it’s where the movement is going.” She suggests that it is important not to compromise on design and aesthetics but equally show that fair trade can be just as design led, innovative and beautiful as other fashion enterprises. And this is something that is clear to see for anyone who pops inside the shop.
Explaining her own attraction to working with Exclusive Roots, Holly describes her “passion for ethical fashion and fair trade” which was prominent in her approach to a degree in fashion studies. “I discovered a whole new area of design and sourced alternative, more sustainable fabrics for use in my final collection. As well as this, a trip to Africa inspired my dissertation subject on globalisation and its effects on the African garment and textile industry.”
She advises students who are seeking to get involved with ethical fashion and trading to “go out there and get to know the ethical fashion labels and businesses. Volunteer, read blogs, keep up to date with what is going on in the industry through medias such as the Ethical Fashion Forum.” As well as this, Holly recommends starting a fair trade group in your college, holding events or catwalk shows, “anything to get the message across to your peers!”
In this respect, Exclusive Roots plays a vital role in the city of Oxford for promoting and raising awareness for ethical fashion, encouraging others to get involved. “Exclusive Roots is here to support and promote both ethical, fair trade and local products within the city. We like to shout about other independents, collaborate on projects and make sure we do all we can to make a positive impression.”
Uniqueness and individuality is clearly amiss in the fashion world. Holly argues that “these days you’re more likely to find an exceptional and interesting piece in a charity or vintage shop than on the high street” (which is largely dominated by the big chains). “Oxford now has some fantastic independents and small businesses which offer a great alternative to the mainstream shops, but there needs to be more support for such ventures: places like The Covered Market need to be protected and supported by the local council, for example. Running a business with bricks and mortar is hard in these times, everyone loves a hidden boutique with interesting and quirky designs but these won’t survive if consumers, and the government, don’t support them. If we’re not careful the streets will be lined with cafes, coffee shops and convenience stores.”
This means that there isn’t a lot of competition for Exclusive Roots at the moment. “Ethical fashion is still a niche on the high street so there is not too much unhealthy competition! However, Exclusive Roots and other independent shops are “still up against the big brands who may offer a leather bag for less money.” The crucial difference between the two is “our approach, which is to be transparent in our sourcing and supply; showing the names and faces of the artisans on each product where possible, and paying a fair price and re-investing in the producers.”
The most important message Holly wants consumers in Oxford to take away from Exclusive Roots is their emphasis on supporting artisans: “not only present artisans, but the future ones too, keeping tradition, culture, and craft alive. It is also important to remember not to give over to mass production and consumerism.” At Exclusive Roots, every single purchase has a positive, direct impact on not only a community but also the person responsible for each product and their family as well. “The bottom line is that we, as consumers, are able to make a conscious decision to support the poorest in the world, so who can actually say it’s not their responsibility?”
Exclusive Roots is located at 8 Woodstock Rd, OX2 6HT.