Birdsong works with low income, migrant women and knitting grannies – a collective of women with the ethos that clothes should empower women, worker and wearer. Having launched a Crowd Funder campaign for a new size-inclusive, eco-TENCEL™ line last week, co-founder Sophie Slater reflects on her journey navigating the world of sustainable fashion and shares what lies ahead for Birdsong.
What inspired you to launch Birdsong?
Me and my business partner Sarah met in 2014 while we were both working for charities. Sarah was working at an elderly people’s day centre, and the knitting circle there has scarves coming out of their ears! They had knitted stuff coming out of their ears because it’s so calming, meditative, helps with arthritis and helped the women there feel purposeful. But they were selling them at bring-and-buys for a fiver, while stressing about funding opportunities for the centre at the same time.
I was working for women’s charities and doing feminist activism, but every women’s group I worked with saw their funding get cut to shreds. So many older or migrant women have incredible sewing and making skills, but face huge barriers turning it into cash. We loved clothes and activism and the idea of making more women visible. So we decided to build a fashion brand as outsiders, using our friends and activists as models.
What are your sustainable priorities for the business?
We want to be able to make our clothing as circular as possible, and we’re not there yet, but around 18 months ago switched to all natural fibres, organic cotton for our t-shirts, and hand woven khadi for our cut and sew, which is near carbon neutral. Our newest collection is made from Tencel and on pre-order, which minimises waste. Eventually, we’d love a renewable powered workshop and fabric created in the UK, ideally from textiles waste but we’re a little far off that yet. We’re also quite close to offering repairs as a service through our makers, which we’ll do soon if our crowdfunder is successful.
How has your eco strategy developed as you have grown?
Keeping everything local and using recycled packaging is something that’s been baked in from the beginning, but we’ve definitely become way more sustainable since our design co-founder Susanna joined the team in 2017. She’s brilliant at sourcing sustainable fibres – even our buttons are made of nuts which is fantastic.
How challenging has it been to maintain your eco principles?
It’s definitely become more expensive. At first we were using a lot of reclaimed, but it was hard to scale with small amounts of each fabric. But it’s so important to us that we’ll shift the business model to accommodate larger minimums, for example bycrowdfunding or taking pre-orders. It takes a lot of research but we always want to grow and learn to create fashion in the way that we believe in.
What have been your biggest milestones and triumphs until now?
It can feel really incremental. We were at an awards ceremony last night and realised that we hadn’t been nominated for anything this time last year, and then suddenly we were nominated for half a dozen accolades and on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list within the space of 12 months. I’d been wishing for that Forbes validation for ages…but to be honest it feels better when we make enough money for one of our makers to go and see their family in Bangladesh for the first time in three years or buy a new washing machine or whatever. Those always feel like way more tangible triumphs.
What have been the main prohibitors to your progress in building a sustainable business?
Money! It’s really hard – we’re a small independent company that we started at 23 and 24 with no industry experience or savings, and yet we’ve built this brand that pays Living wages and is still going 5 years on. it’s taken a lot of personal sacrifice – crashing with mates, juggling freelance work to make ends meet over the years. We’ve had brilliant investors, funders and our network that have supported us, and we couldn’t have done it without them, but no big firms or venture capitalists swooping in to offer us the means for growth.
Do you feel pressure from your customers to be more eco?
I wouldn’t call it pressure – rather a fantastic, passionate, clued flock of followers who bounce ideas off us and point us in the right direction – which is all you can dream of for a business.
What advice would you give to anyone hoping to launch a sustainable business?
It’s really, really hard. I would advocate doing some research and seeing what other small businesses you can join forces with rather than reinventing the wheel. We came up with this idea because of our social purpose and work with women’s organisations, that no one else was doing, rather than to become sustainable fashion activists, but that was a nice side effect.
Which other sustainable businesses have inspired you?
We love the Soap Co – we visited their factory last year and were blown away by their team and their new eco formulas. Mother of Pearl is doing such exciting stuff. Slow Factory is run by Celine Semaan, who has to be the coolest, most informative person I follow in sustainability right now. Goldfinger factory are also brilliant – a social enterprise who upcycle furniture here in London too.
While some may be calling for a fashion boycott, that can’t always be a reality for many plus sized women. Birdsong is showing that fashion can be a force for good with their new sustainable, size-inclusive line, made by talented women facing barriers to work for a fair wage. Head to www.crowdfunder.co.uk to support their new size inclusive, eco-TENCEL™ line that truly celebrates all that women have to offer.
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