Freelance writer & energy regulation analyst
Sophie Slater, 30, is the co-founder of Birdsong, an award-winning fashion brand and social enterprise for those who wish to–as she puts it–“dress in protest”. She created Birdsong in 2014 as a statement against pervasive problems in the fashion industry: unlivable wages, widespread sexism, unethical production methods and environmental irresponsibility. Here, Slater talks about the link between her activism and her work, the experience of launching a social enterprise in her twenties, and how she’s developed–and maintained–ethical policies.
Your engagement with social issues, especially women’s issues, started early. What drove you to link your activism with your professional life?
When I was growing up, my mum worked with people with disabilities and both my parents did a lot of work for the local community. It wasn’t really activism, but they were constantly trying to make things better for our community in North Tyneside. When I went to university in Manchester, I got involved with women’s organisations myself.
I’ve always loved fashion, too, but I didn’t like the way it was done. It’s not inclusive and it’s polluting. As a teenager, I briefly did some modelling and worked at American Apparel, which, at the time, was focused on ethical production and decent wages but was also very sexist in its portrayal of women and in the company culture. I knew early on that I wanted to do things differently.
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Birdsong is a fashion brand that reflects feminist values, economic inclusivity, sustainability and protest. How did the idea come about?
In my early twenties, I moved to London for Year Here’s postgraduate course in social innovation. My Birdsong co-founder, Sarah Neville, and I had six weeks to come up with a creative project that could be the start of a social business [today, Sophie runs Birdsong with Susanna Wen, who joined her in 2017]. I was still involved in women’s organisations, at a time when funding was being cut for many of them. Our aims were definitely political. We were deliberately trying to build a fashion company that didn’t already exist. We wanted it to be a form of protest.
That’s when the idea for Birdsong came up: handmade clothing produced by women in London for fair pay.
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You were only 23 when you founded Birdsong. What made you feel ready to take on that challenge?
I absolutely didn’t feel like I knew what I was doing! If I’d known then that I would be running Birdsong seven years later, I’d be shocked. I always thought business wasn’t for me. I didn’t have the confidence and didn’t think I really had good ideas. But as we started working on it, I realized it was everything I was passionate about. Birdsong felt like a nice way to project the values that were important to me while also being creative. I never thought I’d have a creative career.
We could never have done it without the funding and months of free office space from Year Here, though. It takes time to get a business off the ground, especially if you want to do things properly and make sure you treat people well.
How do you ensure you “do things properly”?
Honestly, it’s hard work. Susanna and I are very hands-on about the ethics of our brand.
We think about the ethics of our copy, imagery, materials and how we design things so it’s not too stressful for our makers. We are involved in every step of the process and the supply chain.
How do you decide what is ethical?
We never say we’re perfect or 100% ethical. I’m sure there are some things we did or wrote in the past that would make me cringe now. It’s more about constant improvement. We do have some guidelines–for instance, on how we write about the women we work with–but we mostly just talk things out with the team and the board.
Some of our board members have lived experiences as refugees or migrants, and one is an expert in sustainability. Our team is quite diverse, too. We’re all in a constant learning process, which includes everything we do outside of work. For example, whenever a white team member joins Birdsong, we make sure they read Layla F Saad’s Me and White Supremacy within six weeks of starting.
We know we will never get it fully right, but we try to be as fair as we can and to make sure everyone has a holistic view of what we do.
The working conditions of your team and makers are a central point of concern for you. How do you keep track of them?
It is easy with our London partners and makers. We have lots of contact with them and very human relationships. I know everyone who makes our stuff by their first name. Every year, we send out impact surveys to learn how we can improve things for them. We ask questions about how they feel at work, the last time they were stressed out and whether they’re happy with their income.
We also work with one T-shirt factory in India–the only part of our production not based in London–which we haven’t yet been able to visit. But we did switch suppliers several times based on who could provide us with the most detailed reporting on their practices. The factory we work with pays good wages and is powered on renewable energy–overall it’s exemplary.
As the company has grown and the staff expanded, has it become more challenging to live up to the responsibilities you feel as an employer?
We don’t want to become very big, because we’d like to stay close to the people we work with. We’ve known most of our supply chain for years–we prefer human relationships over shopping around based on how much they charge.
That said, we did recently apply to become a B Corp, which means we now have more detailed documentation on how we source and what we expect from our suppliers. It was actually the first time we wrote down all the rules that we had already been applying. It’s helped make things a bit easier.
Do you think Birdsong has had an impact on other companies in the fashion industry?
When we started, ethics and sustainability were not as cool and were much less talked about. It’s funny–we got loads of press coverage in the beginning, because we didn’t Photoshop our models. It wouldn’t even have occurred to me to do that. Then we started seeing places like Asos and Boohoo stop Photoshopping and it became mainstream not to. Similarly, many companies now use recycled materials and packaging, which we have always done.
How are other fashion brands lagging behind?
The one thing other companies in the industry don’t do–and I wish they would follow our lead here–is pay livable wages. That’s still a big problem in fashion, and it doesn’t have to be.
Bigger companies are in a much better position than we are to pay livable wages. It is a conscious choice for us. If I have a job, I want to be paid fairly so it doesn’t become a source of stress. I wouldn’t want anyone else to work somewhere that destroys their quality of life.
At Birdsong, everyone is in the same pay band. There’s a silly hierarchy in the fashion industry, but everyone is integral to the process. This shouldn’t be a radical idea but unfortunately, in fashion, it is.
All in all, what are you proudest of about Birdsong?
I’m very proud of how we’ve persisted over time. I think that’s the key to our success. It’s not easy, because fashion is demanding–it makes you feel quite panicked. There’s this culture of constantly creating, constantly putting out new products. That is antithetical to what we try to do: something slower, more considerate, more focused on wellbeing.
People in the industry will say we are wrong, some won’t understand it, potential customers may think we are too expensive. So we have to resist pressure all the time, saying: “OK, we’re only going to do two collections a year, it will be made to order, and it’s going to take a while.”
It’s a scary way of doing things. But we’ve not backed down, even though we’ve had plenty of opportunities to make things simpler for ourselves, seemingly without compromising too much. For example, we could have had our items produced ethically but more cheaply by moving production away from London.
London is very expensive, especially for a young person starting a fashion business. You have to work really hard just to be able to afford to stay here. But having most of our production done outside London is not what we set out to do, so we stuck to our guns. It takes bravery!
Photos by Betty Laura Zapata for Welcome to the Jungle
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