Meeting your makers
In any clothing business the creation of the clothes is – of course – key. But to Birdsong, the makers are even more important because the business is built around them and their individual skills. Birdsong’s Head of Product, Susanna Wen designs the pieces with the makers in mind, so the products play to their skillsets and strengths. Expertly designed and beautifully finished products can then be ensured. Sophie Slater, Birdsong’s cofounder summarises this mission:
“We create clothing for women who increasingly want to dress in protest – against the fast nature of the fashion industry, the obsessive pursuit of trends and the systematic abuse of women in the production line. We dream up designs in-house, and then work with expert makers who face barriers to employment in the UK – from artists and printmakers, to seamstresses and painters – and pay them London living wage to bring our creations to life.”
The team have always been really proud of the fact that they know their makers by name. Vitally, they know the people who make the clothes and the companies managing each stage of clothing creation. This level of transparency in the production chain ensures that their products are free from exploitation and sweated labour.
The large majority of Birdsong’s clothing comes from 6 charities or groups within London: four in Tower Hamlets (London’s poorest borough), and two groups of older women at day centres. Their Tower Hamlets-based sewing groups are across two community groups and two women’s charities. They pay the charities £15 per hour, which covers their work, sewing training and provides child care. Of this, £10.20 goes to each woman on the clothing line. Sophie expands:
“These communities are safe spaces for socially isolated women who have often experienced domestic abuse, mental health issues or trafficking. We provide part time work for around 13 women across these four groups and employ people with learning difficulties to do all our postage, packing and warehousing ethically through The Camden Society charity.”
We’re taking a closer look at some of the key groups in their supply chain in London, though their network does extend out to the US, Swaziland, Kenya, Ghana, and Malawi.
Mohila hand-paint Birdsong’s organic sweatshirts and t-shirts and tote bags, like the one pictured above. They are a group of migrant mothers based in Tower Hamlets. The job is designed to fit in with their lives, as they are able to earn a living wage painting for Birdsong, while their children are at the local school. The organic fabric coupled with the beautifully painted designs makes for really attractive, high quality pieces of clothing.
The Bradbury in Kingston is where lots of Birdsong’s knitwear comes from. It’s a day centre where older people can build friendships and learn new skills. It’s also not just a social exercise. There have also been lots of studies to say that knitting is really beneficial to health, such as slowing the onset of dementia and relieving arthritic pain.
In order to make the clothes, a group of knitters meet weekly, and knit clothing over cakes and tea. The women at The Bradbury choose to use the money they make through knitting to improve the centre’s facilities for the whole community. So far, they have bought chairs for their summer house and refurbished the centre’s treatment room.
In Brick Lane, Heba – a group of incredibly skilled seamstresses – make most of Birdsong’s clothes. It was established by a group of migrant women over 25 years ago, and it continues to be a safe space for migrant and refugee women today.
Two Neighbors employ both Israeli and Palestinian women from rural and low-income backgrounds. Birdsong stocks their tencel jackets and the profits from these go towards fresh water and food for families both sides of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. The embroidery done in Palestine is incredibly meticulous, and then Israeli seamstresses over the border who were originally trained in the Soviet Union sew the clothing together.
Relevee’s jewellery is made by survivors of slavery and human trafficking in India. In the country, metalsmithing is traditionally a male-only profession, but the charity gives women valuable skills. The metalsmiths are breaking gender barriers and are able to earn a college graduate wage which impacts their families and communities hugely.
Clothing with an impact
It’s clear that Birdsong’s ethical business model works: they support and empower women across the world, and they sell handmade, high quality clothing. Birdsong has made £100,000 directly for women’s organisations, which has been used to fund living wage employment, IT and English classes, counselling, new furniture, facilities and volunteer expenses. The figures speak for themselves: 100% of their makers agree that they are proud of the work they do and 83% say their quality of life is directly improved by working with Birdsong.
At Zipcar, we’re certain that businesses with a core focus on social responsibility will continue to be successful and grow. Increasingly businesses are tapping into their ‘humanity’ and looking outside profits, and we believe that this is what successful businesses of the future will have to do. We have other pieces on businesses doing that bit more for the world, from a company trying to set up one of the UK’s most sustainable breweries, to a vegan street food retailer.