An interview with Sarah Beckett, co-founder of Birdsong London. The ethical clothing company with principles of transparency, enterprise and social change.
Birdsong sources clothing and accessories from womens’ organisations and charities. The company has recently raised over £85,000 in capital in a Crowdcube investment campaign. Sarah and I talk through the complexities of H&M’s new feminist campaign, jumpers knitted by local grannies and design workshops for migrant women run by fashion designer, Clio Peppiatt.
Hattie Bottom: Birdsong’s message ‘No sweatshops, no Photoshop’ is refreshing and influential. Has it been a hard battle to stand against the porcelain aesthetics of fast-fashion industries?
Sarah Beckett: We feel like people are so ready for what we’re doing and the vast majority welcome it with open arms, which has been great. It seems like women have grown really tired of brands marketing to them in the same way, so there’s fertile ground for trying something new. What started as an obvious part of our mission for us has actually become one of the biggest selling points for our brand.
What is hard, though, is trying to represent the widest spectrum of women in a way that is representative, respectful and non-tokenistic. We’re still a very small brand and don’t yet have the opportunity to do as many photoshoots or use as many models as we would like to.
HB: Birdsong started whilst you were on Year Here programme, a postgraduate course in social innovation, how has this influenced your business model?
SB: Birdsong definitely would not exist if it hadn’t been for Year Here. It’s an amazing program. Sophie and I were given the space to test and run with our ideas, and the feedback we received played a vital role in shaping Birdsong.
We were thinking of working with female offenders to offer them employment of some sort. When we looked into it, however, we quickly realised that these women needed holistic support that we were far from qualified to offer. There were several amazing organisations already offering this support, but almost without fail they struggled for funding. Many of them were producing high quality clothing and jewellery, but struggling to reach the right customers.
We saw our role shift from working on the ground- to supporting these organisations- to becoming more sustainable by helping them reach customers who cared. It was an obvious step from there to extend out to the entire women’s sector, 92% of which have had funding cuts in the last three years.
Appearing to champion women from a consumer perspective could be seen as misleading. 80% of sweatshop workers are women and many of the [fashion] brands claiming to be on board with the feminist movement are still getting their clothes produced by these same women in very poor working conditions, with cripplingly low pay.
HB: Online retail sales were £52 billion last year in the UK; more and more shopping is now happening online. Do you think people pay more attention to where their clothes have come from when they shop online?
SB: I think they do. In general, it is easier to find out information about where your clothes come from online, compared to in store. There’s definitely a growing percentage of people who really care. It’s these incredible people who are leading the change, which will hopefully become mainstream.
There is still a huge online market for very cheap, sweatshop produced, clothes. I don’t this will change in the near future but I do think the tide is slowly turning.
HB: You’ve previously written about the unfair portrayal of women and girls in stereotypical marketing. Is feminism forcing companies in the fashion and beauty industry to change, or would you say that H&M and other big brands are hiding behind a feminist guise?
SB: If you take ethical advertising and ethical production as separate issues, campaigns like this can only be a positive shift in terms of the way brands advertise to women. I think it’s important to celebrate the fact that a brand like H&M is beginning to represent a wider range of women as the monumental step that it is, despite how we feel about the motives. I think marketing campaigns are always consumer led, which means this is what women are asking for and brands are recognising that. From that perspective, it’s great news.
However, this really is only half the battle. We know that the [fashion] industry, as a whole, is damaging to women both on a consumer and a supplier level. I think it’s fair to say that appearing to champion women from a consumer perspective could be seen as misleading. 80% of sweatshop workers are women and many of the brands claiming to be on board with the feminist movement are still getting their clothes produced by these same women in very poor working conditions, with cripplingly low pay.
This is actually one of the main philosophies behind the Birdsong ethos of ‘no sweatshops and no photoshop’. We recognise that the fashion industry is often damaging to women on both ends of the spectrum. Both [advertising and ethical production] are equally important issues and we didn’t see the point in going half the distance.
HB: Congratulations on surpassing your fundraising target by £11,000! How will your Crowdcube funding transform Birdsong?
SB: This is such a huge deal for us! We have spent the last two years steadily growing our supplier base and our audience. One of the things we have learned is that we can serve our customers better by taking the design in house and creating products specifically tailored to the tastes of the women who buy from us. This is something we have already experimented with a bit (see Birdsong’s hand-painted Mohila t-shirts and hand-knitted Bradbury jumpers) but we’re really excited to be forming new designer partnerships and making this a central part of what we do. It also means we’ll expanding the base of women who make our clothes, particularly with a focus on UK-based groups.
Finally, it means we are taking on 350 new shareholders. With equity crowdfunding anyone can invest as little as £10 so we’ve had the opportunity to offer our customers a real stake in our business.
HB: You currently stock beautiful products from Tanzania, to Thailand, USA, Cambodia, Israel and Malawi, as well as local London organisations. Can you reveal some of the new products to launch after Birdsong’s renovation?
SB: With the own-brand line we will be looking to focus much more on our UK based groups, and developing our base of makers closer to home. This helps us ensure quality and an intimate relationship with our makers. Although we will be keeping on the brilliant overseas groups we already have strong partnerships with.
We will have a big focus on our seamstress groups and will be working with designers to develop some really great, wearable clothes. Coming up soon we’re releasing an emerald green satin blouse (which I can’t wait to wear), a ribbed bodysuit, a great little Chanel-style jacket and the ultimate basic tee that we have tested with women of a variety of shapes to get the most flattering fit. All these are being produced by our migrant seamstresses on Brick Lane and should be launching late October.
We’ll also have a big focus on knitwear. Traditionally our elderly knitters have only made jumpers and scarves but now we’re working on designs for a really good, solid cardigan which will be released in a range of colours, as well as a dress and a skirt. Oh, and look out for the pomegranate print hand-painted t-shirt as well. We’re really excited.
HB: How do you go about setting up links with your suppliers?
SB: We tend to find that the best groups are not usually online. These hidden gems harder to find, we get referrals by building strong relationships with community leaders who know what’s going on in the local area. This way we find the really small, on the ground groups who end up being really valuable to us and with whom we can have real impact.
About 50% of our maker groups are London based and we’re now expanding out to several new groups in the North East, where Sophie [co-founder] is from. As we work with a wide range of makers, often at very different stages of development, we have different relationships with them. We have an incredible group of Israeli and Palestinian women who make beautiful dresses and coats and who pretty much run themselves without support. Whereas the UK based groups tend to be more grass-roots and it’s with them that we have the closest relationships.
HB: Do you have any personal stories from working with so many humbling women’s organisations?
SB: So many! I’m constantly in awe of our elderly knitters. They’ve been meeting once a week for 15 years to knit together and this is the first time they’ve sold anything commercially. They’re not interested in keeping the income for themselves and instead they donate it to their day centre, which is an amazing place and a real lifeline to hundreds of potentially isolated older people in London. The Heather Hand Knitted Jumper they make is one of our best sellers in the winter months and, as a result, they’ve been able to completely do up the kitchen with the money they’ve received from sales.
The ones particularly tugging on my heart strings at the moment is our group on hand-painting migrant mums in Tower Hamlets. When we started working with them a year ago they were painting cards to sell at the local school their children attend. We sourced some organic sweatshirts and t-shirts for them and gave them a design workshop with up-and-coming designer, Clio Peppiatt. Now they’re making the cutest hand-painted emoji-style t-shirts that have become some of our best-sellers.
It’s so cool to see them grow so much in confidence. Their English and organisational skills have improved dramatically. They’re also so on top of orders and payments and they’re really running like a business now which is great to see. When we first went to visit they barely spoke and now you can’t stop them talking.
HB: How big do you envision Birdsong to be at its peak?
SB: We want to become a major player on the UK ethical fashion scene. While the sector is growing, we still feel like there is a gap for design led, reasonably priced clothes that are supportive rather than damaging to women’s self-esteem and rights. We have ambitions to become the UK’s most design led ethical brand.
On a deeper level, we really want to see a new kind of economy develop where women’s organisations become self-sufficient through the skills of their beneficiaries and the spending power of consumers. We hope that, through this, vital services will no longer be vulnerable to changing funding climates. That’s the dream.