I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Beckett, co-founder of Birdsong, a London-based ethical fashion brand. Birdsong’s mantra of ‘no sweatshops, no photoshop’ is one I’m definitely on board with. The team works with a range of women’s groups and young designers to create sustainable, socially impactful pieces. I’ll let Sarah share the rest.
Molly: What led you, Sophie and Ruba to set up Birdsong?
Sarah: We all did the Year Here programme in 2014. Year Here is a postgraduate programme for young people who are interested in social change. It gives you a range of experiences in the social sector and you have to build solutions to problems along the way. We all had different experiences, but shared interests. Sophie had already been involved with lots of women’s activism.
Through the programme and our connections, we found that women’s organisations were struggling with funding cuts. Organisations like domestic violence shelters do essential work, but they often rely on traditional forms of funding. They aren’t particularly enterprising, which can be an issue with charities more widely.
During the programme, I worked at a day centre for older people, where I spent time with a women’s knitting group. It was really cool, but they weren’t doing much with what they made. It was a shame because a lot of work goes into handcrafted items. We also came across a centre supporting migrant women through IT classes, a crèche, a sewing group and other activities. The sewing group was part of the enterprising arm of the charity. They sold items one day a week at Spitalfields Market, but they weren’t covering costs.
We knew that all of these women had amazing skills and that lots of other women were interested in ethical fashion. So we thought that we could develop high quality items, photograph them and present them online, opening up a new revenue stream for these groups.
As well as issues in the supply chain, we recognised problems with the fashion industry at a consumer level. The narrow beauty standards presented by mainstream fashion can be damaging to women. We decided to adopt a ‘no photoshop’ approach and to represent more women in our marketing than most brands.
Molly: It’s so interesting to hear how those different ideas came together. How did your experience with Year Here shape your thinking?
Sarah: Year Here was fundamental for us. Soph and I, in particular, had never been the kind of people who wanted to start a business. Soph thought she might work for local government and I wanted to do something social, but I wasn’t sure what that would be. Year Here focuses on starting with the problems – you see something you want to fix and they help you to develop a solid solution.
We went through quite a rigorous process, which involved pitching the idea to a new panel of experts each week. It was ripped to shreds! By the time we finished the programme, we had a model we were excited about. On the last night, we held a mini crowdfunding evening and talked for hours. We managed to get some more funding, which pushed us to go for it. I’m really grateful for that.
Molly: That sounds like a great way to learn and refine your ideas. Now, what might a typical working day look like for you and your team?
Sarah: There are four of us now. We recently hired Susanna, a designer. We found that groups who had more established designers in house were doing better than grassroots ones. We really wanted to support local women, so we’ve started our own line thanks to Susanna’s skills. We’re also being supported by a woman from the Civil Service. Startup life is varied for all of us. I spend a fair amount of time visiting women’s organisations, managing the finances and even photographing our collection. We’ve ended up doing so many things we didn’t think we would, like running a pop-up shop. That was a great experience.
Molly: What has (or hasn’t) surprised you about running a social enterprise?
Sarah: It can feel like it takes ages to make progress. At the beginning we were quite naive about how long things would take. Now, though, it’s great to look back and see how far we’ve come. I suppose we were happily surprised by how supportive people have been. It’s amazing that so many people have come on board with the idea. Another nice surprise has been not working crazy hours. Whenever I tell people I work in a startup, they imagine I don’t have a life. We do have some intense periods and long days, but I usually leave my laptop at work and go home at the end of the day.
Molly: That’s good to hear. What’s the most important lesson or skill you’ve learned since starting Birdsong?
Sarah: I’ve learned that it’s important not to do too much at once. It’s tempting to start with a massive vision, get really excited and try to make it happen. This can be dangerous because you might not be working on the right idea. Changing course can be difficult if you have your heart set on something. It’s better to test a small part of what you do as soon as you can. If that doesn’t work, change it. Don’t be flexible about the problem you want to solve, but do be flexible about how you work towards that. We changed our idea quite a lot at the beginning. People helped us to see that what we had in mind was not going to be the most sustainable or impactful solution.
Molly: Yes, that’s a key lesson. I received similar training and advice during the Worthwhile graduate scheme. Social and environmental issues are complex and sometimes overwhelming. We’ve touched on this already, but what advice would you give to people who want to develop solutions and don’t know where to begin?
Sarah: I think you’re right. It can feel really daunting. The chances are, no matter what you do, it’s going to be a bit of a drop in the ocean. As I said before, it’s important to start small. You can’t make everything better for everyone. We’re working with a few women’s organisations to increase their revenue. I suggest starting with a group or partner you already know and building a solution around them.
Molly: That’s useful advice. Do you have any role models or people whose approaches to work and life you admire? If so, why do you admire them?
Sarah: We’re really into a brand called Hiut Denim. They make jeans. They’re located in Cardigan, a Welsh town that used to be a big jean manufacturer. Hiut decided to bring that back. They employ lots of local people in ethical factories and pay them fairly. They focus on doing one thing – producing a high quality product. They believe that you only need 1000 customers to make your business work, if you treat them really well. So they offer lifetime free repairs and other little extras to look after their key customers. It’s a nice way of doing things – focusing on quality, rather than mass market, and growing naturally.
Molly: I’ll definitely look them up. What’s your favourite product in Birdsong’s current range? I have the Support Your Sisters Tee and I love the Kofi Playsuit.
Sarah: Oh, cool. I love the Zadie shirt. It’s made of bamboo, so it’s really silky, and it’s one of the first products by our new designer. It’s great for work events.
Molly: It sounds lovely. What’s inspiring you at the moment?
Sarah: We recently had a meeting and became even more excited about our long-term goals. We love the idea of doing one thing well and focusing on quality. We’re inspired by niche medium-sized businesses that deliver, like Hiut Denim. That’s the direction we want to go in.
Creating well-made, beautiful things is important for our customers and our makers. The women take pride in their work and the materials they use. We’ve got a great group of migrant mums who hand paint items in a school hall in Tower Hamlets. They made your t-shirt, actually! I once accidentally ordered them the wrong kind of sweatshirt and they corrected me. They’re really invested in their reputation.
We’re also excited to release some new products this month, including slider sandals.
Molly: That’s brilliant. I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next.
End of interview.