02 Feb 2015

Why we started Birdsong

By Jessica

This is a guest post by Birdsong co-founder Ruba Huleihel. Birdsong is one of the ten teams participating in our Winter 2015 BGV accelerator programme.

Birdsong is an online marketplace selling beautiful, unique clothing lovingly made by inspiring women’s groups (such as this beautiful scarf worn my the model pictured, which was made by knitters in an active age centre in London). Sophie, Sarah and I are three twenty somethings who love fashion but are tired of the way the industry treats women.  We decided to create Birdsong in August 2014 because in every sector of society and in every country, women are discriminated against. Over 90% of sweatshop laborers and the majority of the world’s poor are women. In the UK, a disproportionate amount of women’s charities have received recent funding cuts, with 50% of organisations losing all government funding. The fashion industry is also notoriously destructive, fuelling exploited labour, negative body image, and devastating environmental impact. We use fashion as a Trojan horse for engaging the public with women’s empowerment.

We provide a platform for women’s organizations to sell beautiful, handmade products and raise awareness about the work they are doing. We source great, ethical products from brilliant charities and give them the branding, marketing, photography and reach they need to sell. A large proportion of the charities we work with face significant barriers when it comes to selling online, e.g. skills, time, resources or confidence. We give women’s charities the opportunity to become social enterprises, and raise more funding to stand on their own two feet. We want to turn the buying power of women in a £26bn UK fashion industry into an opportunity to make social good. With 4th wave feminism on the rise and one in seven UK women now identifying as feminists and well as increasing concern about the impact our products have and where our clothes come from, we aim to target this segment of the fashion market first with plans to expand into the mainstream online shopping market. Our goal is to reach an entire young, fashion conscious generation with ideas about gender equality and the power of buying for good. A recent report carried out by the women’s resource centre showed that every £1 invested in women’s charities generates £5-£11 of social value. Our goal is to become self-sufficient within the first two years.

Our suppliers include an elderly women’s knitting circle at an active age centre in Kingston. Sarah volunteered there for four months last year, setting up an art exhibition, raising money for the centre and facilitating classes full-time every day. She noticed that the knitting group had lost direction since a leading member became ill, and so we went back to suggest that they became a supplier. The circle have since powered through all provided bags of wool, and regularly harangue us for more work. Indeed, research has suggested that having a greater sense of purpose actually increases the lifespan of elderly people.

Our seamstresses from immigrant communities at the Heba workshop have been making clothing for twenty five years. The centre provides a creche, English classes, and a safe space for women with often difficult home situations to come to in the week. They’ve been selling at markets, but we help their reach by putting clothes online. Our best piece of feedback so far was from a woman who was moved to tears when the first skirt she ever made sold instantly on our site.