Fashion is finally waking up to sustainability – but the lexicon surrounding eco-friendly and ethical fashion is fraught with inaccuracies. In ‘Get Your Greens’, an ongoing series launched to coincide with Earth Day 2019, Vogue explores how the industry is advancing towards a greener future.
At Birdsong, it’s our belief that women throughout history have always found creative ways to make a statement with what they wear. From the berets of the Black Panthers in the Sixties to the quiet resolution to only wear clothes made in the UK, fashion is an important ally in times of change. Fashion has the power to lift up, inspire and engage, and that’s why we saw it as the perfect conduit for the work we were doing with charities.
When my business partner encountered an expert knitting circle in an older person’s day centre, I was working in women’s charities and hostels. These knitters were churning out scarves at an industrial rate for gift and car boot sales, and we saw their potential as a fundraising force. Everywhere we looked, we saw talented women with expert craft skills that acted as a release from their challenging circumstances.
Spurred on by their talent, we sought out the very best knitters, painters and seamstresses in women’s organisations across London. The shockwaves of Fashion Revolution and the feminist movement rippled through 2014. It was then we began life as a feminist brand, making slogan tees, shouting about photoshop and became hell-bent on paying our local women workers a fair wage. Today the knitters have paid for near total renovations of their centre, and we’ve generated close to £150,000 for local charities that were struggling for funding.
Many people are overwhelmed with choice, and fashion is no exception. 2019 is an age where you can order any kind of food to your desk within the hour and, click to shop the latest runway looks a week after their debut from dozens of high street imitators. As shopping becomes ever more instant and we navigate the balancing act between ethics and convenience, it’s important to note what we leave behind when we trade pace for these very human connections.
For every piece of clothing in the world, all the hundreds of billions of garments, many have been made with patient, human hands. Early on, we decided that our clothes should come packaged with the signature and portrait of the women who created it, to remind us that clothes are made by real women, with aspirations and families and rich lives.
It was during my summer job at 17, finding myself in the city with money burning a hole in my pocket for the first time, that I became overwhelmed by the choice, and lack of ethics, on the high street. From the gnawing feelings of not being able to keep up, or fit in, and a push-pull for expression of identity, fast fashion was both exciting and terrifying.
News of sweatshops and polluting microplastics posed such a diametrically opposed vision of everything romantic that I wanted fashion to be. A late night viewing of Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth was enough to eventually send me running to the sustainable hills, as True Cost has done for many people this side of the decade. As I got older, and I started looking into the origins of our clothes, I found less choice a relief. Dressing became my means of protest.
Five years on from our inception, we continue to create clothing for women who 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 our expert makers who are facing barriers to employment in the UK – from artists and printmakers to seamstresses and painters – paying them London living wage to bring our creations to life.
We see it as our job as a smaller, braver brand to create an alternative industry. Using natural, sustainable fibres and respectful labour practices, strengthens not only our connection to one another, but to the Earth. While brands pump out slogan T-shirts with feminist slogans made for terrible wages, we always intend for ours to make statements that last longer than the time it takes to read them.
I’d encourage anyone looking to shop more sustainably this Fashion Revolution Week to enjoy the constraints of less choice, and to fall in love with the story behind their clothes. Dressing becomes more fun when thought is involved, and the same should apply to the provenance of our items. Whether that’s a well loved hand me down, a second hand purchase that conjures up joyful clues of its last owner, or perhaps a piece of our knitwear made by practised, elderly hands.
The truth is, with the power of the internet and the world at our fingertips, we no longer have to make the choice between, aesthetics, ethics, or convenience. This is a golden age for sustainability, with brands like ours flourishing, the Fashion Revolution campaign gaining momentum and apps like Good on You informing better choices. So we encourage you to dress your own protest. Go out, get curious, and dress for the world you want.