In the second of our ‘voices from the sector’ series, SEUK’s content manager, Shehan Perera spoke to Sophie Slater, co-founder of Birdsong, about how the social enterprise is transforming the fashion industry, the impact of COVID and the murky world of global supply chains.

Tell us a bit about Birdsong and how you work as a social enterprise?

So we are a fashion brand which mainly trades online and we work with small community groups, charities and businesses, mostly in the Tower Hamlets area to manufacture all our stock. We use as many sustainable materials as possible and we pay London living wages. I think the main difference between us and a typical fashion brand is that we don’t just like, order out from factories, we work with really small charities, communities and individuals, so it’s very tailored to their needs and they get holistic support from the community around them as well. 

What inspired you to set up Birdsong? You started through Year Here, right?

Me and my initial business partner, who’s now a full time mum, met on Year Here, which is like a free alternative to a master’s course in social innovation. I’d always worked across women’s organisations in areas including homelessness and sexual violence, and saw that a lot of women’s organisations across the country were getting massive funding cuts. At the same time, they were supporting women, mostly from migrant backgrounds or older women who had incredible making skills.

A lot of charities wanted to become a social enterprises but when you think about being a fashion brand and manufacturer, you can’t do everything in one – the fashion industry is a really complicated and diverse kind of industry in terms of all the roles that are needed. So a lot of these women’s charities really wanted to be able to sell online but didn’t have the time or skills or confidence to do that. So we spoke to women’s organisations that we were working with like the knitting group that Sarah (co-founder) was placed with through Year Here, and who still knit for us at an Age UK centre in Kingston, and we shaped our social enterprise around their needs. At first, we were kind of a marketplace, selling bits and bobs from women’s organisations –  some of the scarves all the women were making were like two feet long, some of them were 10 feet long and they were using wool from like Wilkinson’s, so it wasn’t really sustainable either!  But then we hired my now co-founder Susanna Wen who had a background in the fashion industry and was really into sustainability and now she sources really amazing sustainable materials and designs everything in-house and works as a production manager really closely with each individual to get the quality right.

Birdsong’s Resist and Persist T-shirt

Talking a bit about the fashion industry, like you said, it’s very complicated.  We know about the revelations from the factories in Leicester (where workers were made to go into work during the pandemic and paid far below the minimum wage) but for many people who care about ethical fashion, we knew practices like this were very much part of how the fashion industry works. It’s not one bad thing rather it shines a spotlight on practices that are rife across the industry. What are your thoughts on how we begin to transform such a large industry that’s so secretive and so global and how do you go about trying to transform fashion, which is your mission at Birdsong?

I guess like from the beginning, I read a book called the ‘Anti Capitalist Book of Fashion’ by Tansy Hoskins and that was a big inspiration.

I used to work as a shop assistant at American Apparel, which was horrendous in its treatment of women in terms of sexism and harassment and company culture. But the way they operated which was from one factory where every employee was directly employed, got fair wages, and everything was done on-site, that was kind of like a good blueprint. And when I was working as a teenager, I actually emailed  Dov Charney (former CEO)  and was like, why don’t you set up a factory in the North of England because there’s all these people who need jobs, there’s a rich textile making history and also you’ll cut out your air miles. So, even when I was working on the shop floor when I was 20, I was thinking about this stuff.

For me, fashion is so interesting because it’s kind of like a microcosm for how capitalism operates. I think it’s just really symbolic of how most things are manufactured and how wealth is distributed, and the after-effects of colonialism. When we look at the countries we’re sourcing from, it’s mostly countries that the British have colonized and taken resources from and we’re, you know, still exploiting cheap labor from these countries. So, I think seeing fashion as a lens for everything that’s kind of wrong with the system in general and then how we can do it differently is really exciting to me. And I think I’ve been going on about it for years now but E.F Schumacher’s ‘Small is Beautiful: Economics, as if People Mattered’ is really important and integral to the model that Birdsong uses, which is that you have these small localized units of people, so you work with local communities, you’re giving back to the local economy, and you pay fairly and things are done on a smaller scale. If every town had a Birdsong I think we wouldn’t need these massive like, global fashion companies with all the secrecy and exploitation and the carbon footprint as well.

So I’ve just being doing a bit of  research and there’s that 4.1 million people employed in the textile industry in Bangladesh and I guess lots of lots of people in the fashion industry will be arguing that “actually, we’re creating jobs”. It’s a massive part of a country’s GDP and because the majority of garment workers are women as well there’s an argument linked to female empowerment, which I don’t really buy.  What do you say to that? Is it even possible to transform the textile industry which is so linked to bad environmental practices as well?

H&M is the biggest indirect employer in Bangladesh, but they don’t employ anyone directly. They play factories off against each other for competition. And as we can see now with the fact that loads of global brands haven’t paid for their orders, that’s just plummeted millions of those people into poverty and what we’re seeing now is just kind of a foretelling of what’s going to come because as more Bangladeshi garment workers have been fighting for their rights and unionizing and making amazing progress against these huge titans of industry, these brands have just been preparing to move their factories and their business to other countries with weaker unions.

We’ve already seen a lot of fashion brands now moving to Ethiopia and different countries who don’t have the union representation that garment workers in Bangladesh are now getting and I’ve read a couple of really in-depth reports, for example about garment workers in Cambodia where a lot of NGOs would swoop in and “save” in a white savior way, these sex working women in Cambodia and then get them to work in garment factories. And actually, a lot of the testimonies from these women were like, “Well, when I was a sex worker, I made more money, I was more autonomous. I get more abuse on the factory line, I get more sexual harassment, or like the same amount.” And so I think it’s this idea of, we know best.  I think, actually, we should be listening to garment workers. And if you read the Garment Workers Diaries, for example, from Fashion Revolution, you hear about the poverty pay –  a lot of women are having to put their kids into care with their grandparents, not seeing them for months at a time because you have to leave and go to a big city. I think it’s really complicated, but I don’t think that it’s empowering and I think, Western white billionaire men’s owned brands, is not the way to empower people of color in the Global South,

There was another study I read as well, where agricultural workers in Ethiopia were brought into work in these new factories and they reported lower levels of life satisfaction than when they were working in agriculture, even though it was a bit more temperamental.

And it’s linked to that false idea of what development looks like?

Exactly. And companies and governments are so tied up in racism, and like colonialism and white saviorism anyway. And so yeah, I think, we’ve got enough problems with poverty and development in this country. I think we don’t need to go like stomping through countries that we’ve colonised saying what’s best and that’s my opinion anyway.

Can we talk about the people you work with at Birdsong?

Yeah, so the person who we’ve been most in contact with during lockdown is Mona, who is a teacher in Tower Hamlets who embroids our t-shirts. She has been teaching and living in Tower Hamlets for 20 years  and she’s got her own sewing room and sewing business. She usually does classes for local women in the community and people with learning disabilities, teaching them to sew and her other main source of income was doing school uniform logos like embroidered school uniform logos. She now does our T-shirts and masks and has been doing so for a couple of years. She knows the community really well and works from her sewing room on one of the estates.

How many groups do you work with?

There’s Mona in the Bow Sewing Centre and that group and then we work with two groups of knitters –  one in an Age UK centre and one in Enfield who’ve been knitting from home during the pandemic. And, and then we work with Stitches in Time, which is a garment workshop in Limehouse, which is about half a dozen women. And then that we’ve got a group of women screen printers, but they had their funding cut, so we’re kind of looking for space for them to operate at the minute. We also work with Mailout, who are another social enterprise, who do all our posting and packaging who work with adults with learning disabilities

Mona and Suse Birdsong social enterprise uk
Mona with Birdsong co-founder Susanna Wen

Could you tell us a bit about the impact that COVID has had on the business?

It was tough –  March was our best ever month and we were doing really well, we launched a new collection and we’re like ready to take on the world. And then obviously the pandemic happened and all of our workshops shut. Tower Hamlets, has got a 45%, Bangladeshi population and many of the women’s groups we work with are from this community and the death rates from COVID are twice as high for Bangladeshi people. A lot of our screen printers also do casual work as carers so we know they were super at risk. Again with Mailout, the adults with learning disabilities that we work with, a lot of them have underlying health complications. So basically, it just wasn’t safe anywhere and it was scary and we kind of had to remind ourselves, it’s beyond our control

We’re a social enterprise. The point of us is to keep people safe and supported and also, we’re not making essential items – with our face masks, seamstresses can make those from home so they can keep on earning a wage.

We just had to postpone everything. It’s funny because we just went into made to order. So in March for the first proper time, we were like, “you’re going to have to wait a week or two or three for your dress” and now people are having to wait six months for their dress and now they’re getting really patient. So I guess it’s proved to us that made to order does work. It was really lucky actually, though, because we’ve not got loads of inventory that we’re sat on.

So we have still been taking orders – the shop’s still been open, but myself and my business partner have been furloughed for three months so it’s just been kind of a skeleton service.  I think for us the main struggle is going to be getting back in the Autumn and seeing if there’s another wave and seeing what additional support our seamstresses might need or the charities that we work with might need such as support with their rent. We just need to kind of weather them through this because obviously the third sector and charities are going to be really badly hit. And the communities that they support are going to be really badly hurt. So I think at the minute it’s not the easy bit, because it’s been really hard, but I feel we haven’t felt the worst of it yet.

Let’s talk about sustainability. So I only found out the other day that the fashion industry’s more polluting than aviation and shipping combined..

It creates more CO2 than all current EU member states.

Incredible. How do you go about addressing that and putting sustainability at the heart of what you do and making sure that Birdsong’s environmental impact is a positive one, as far as it’s possible to have a positive impact?

We are not 100% sustainable and anyone that does make this claim is automatically a bit dodgy! 

We’re always learning because the science is always moving quite fast. So we’re just really open to changing supplies and changing materials. Everything’s got a plus and a minus with sustainability. So, for example, we use tensile, which is regenerative wood pulp, and it’s biodegradable  but the tensile itself is made in a couple of different countries, which is obviously bad for air miles. But it’s biodegradable, which is great, because it will return back to the earth and that means no waste.

But then on the other hand, you know, trash is our biggest resource at the minute as we’ve got billions and billions of clothes in circulation, so we use a lot of repurposed and recycled fabric as well. We use deadstock from Traid, which is a textiles recycling charity and that’s got a  plus and minus because some of it might contain synthetic fibers which then shed into the oceans every time you wash them and create microplastics. We try and use natural fibers that are either biodegradable or recycled, and organic cotton, because that’s much kinder on the earth and the farmers. But we’re just always open to learning more and researching and using the best technologies that are available to us as a tiny brand with small minimums

navy floral skirt birdsong social enterprise uk
Navy Blue Printed Midi Skirt