Roughly three years have passed since I first had a spark of an idea which would become Little Yellow Bird. We’ve achieved a lot in this time and last week we released an impact report detailing all of the positive things our business has achieved.
What wasn’t included though, were the things that didn’t go so well. I can’t help but think that sharing these learnings are perhaps the most crucial part in achieving our vision: a world where all garments and textiles are sustainably and ethically sourced. Building a business isn’t easy and sometimes you have to make tough choices or decisions, inevitably some mistakes are made.
The following are some of the things that have not gone 100% according to plan. I’m sharing these to give better insight into our daily struggles and to serve and inspire others on a similar journey to us. It turns out that things worth changing are not always easy.
Ensure impact projects are community led:
For the last couple of years Little Yellow Bird has provided educational support to young girls within our supply chain. Gender equality is an important aspect to what we are trying to promote throughout our work, but we now recognise that we did this without fully understanding the cultural context that we were operating in.
In a meeting with the family of one of the girls we have been supporting I noted that their biggest concern now is that their daughter may be too educated to find a suitable husband and their ability to pay an appropriate dowry would be limited. Such notions are so far removed from my own personal identity that it never dawned on me that education could cause such problems. This has really taught us that, despite best intentions, unintended consequences are absolutely real. When working in the social impact space we need to put measures in place that ensure that our own bias does not negatively impact the work we are doing.
On reflection I don’t think we would have done things differently in this scenario, but we learnt that we need to work more closely with local organisations and have projects be 100% community led. Now when exploring projects worth investing in we actively refrain from making suggestions and instead create an environment in which community groups are supported to propose suggestions that they feel will make the biggest impact for their community. This approach has helped us to embark on a project to construct a bathroom facility for the female students at a school we’ve been supporting.
Think carefully about the selection of imagery and content you use when telling your story:
One of the early versions of our website featured a banner image of an Indian man picking cotton. The photo was one we took on a supply chain visit and we wanted to show a real person working in the Little Yellow Bird supply chain. The photo was a stylised picture that showed only the persons hands picking the cotton. We had never considered that this image could be offensive to others, but it was. In hindsight, given the historical connection between cotton and slavery this image was inappropriate.
We removed this image from our website and social media accounts and are now much more aware about the wider impact our decisions can have. We are more conscious about how we go about taking our imagery and are working to ensure that the people being photographed understand exactly what the images are being used for. We are also exploring how those in our images can receive further benefits from us sharing their stories.
Try to focus on solutions rather than the problems:
In the past I’ve called out charities and organisations that aren’t being transparent about their sourcing. At times, these were charities trying to do a good thing. I’ve learnt that this isn't the best approach and now focus my efforts on the positives, rather than focusing on what others could be doing differently. In an effort to focus more on solutions rather than the problems, we’ve made our supply chain more accessible to charities and social impact projects. We endeavour to be as accommodating and flexible as possible to help those doing good and our aim is that all organisations can easily use an ethical supply chain.
Sticking to our own standards in all that you do:
We’ve had a multitude of supply chain issues, some stemming from our own inexperience and others that we simply could never have predicted. Personally one of the most heartbreaking was the discovery that a product sold to us was not the exact composition as we had been led to believe. This was devastating for our team, and demonstrated exactly what we are trying to prevent from happening in other organisations.
We’ve subsequently changed our internal process and implemented an expensive testing program to guarantee both for ourselves and our customers the authenticity of all Little Yellow Bird products. This issue was isolated to a single batch of shirting fabric, and all affected customers have been notified about the breach and our changed processes.
Never forget your why:
Working in the fashion and social impact space has been a steep learning curve for us and the past 12 months have been extremely difficult. Starting a business isn’t easy and a shiny impact report that shows all that we have achieved without acknowledging what's been difficult only tells half that story.
Everything I have is invested into this business including literal blood, sweat and tears. Last November I nearly died on a sourcing trip to India when the bathroom of my accommodation caught fire in the middle of the night. I believe I’m still here because I have more work to do and I know that the only way we can achieve real change is by being honest about our mistakes, focusing on the solutions and collaborating with others. It's also now why I always travel with a smoke alarm.
Slavery is closely linked to the fashion industry and the majority of the people that make clothing are paid and treated poorly for the work they do. Ensuring people are paid a living wage in the garment sector is crucial to eliminating this. Slavery is not a thing of the past, today more people are living as slaves than at any other time in human history, current estimates are at 40.3 million people.* This is 10 million more than what was predicted when I first started this business three years ago.
Slavery has not been condemned to the history books as most marketing campaigns would like you to believe. It’s legacy endures, mostly hidden from sight. We all, myself included, have played a role in this human rights atrocity, and we also all have a role to play in undoing it by being clear for ourselves about where and how we choose to spend our money.
For those starting out on their social impact journey or considering starting their own project I hope you can accelerate your own growth from our learnings. The world needs more businesses that are both efficient and effective and that care about more than just profits. I’m certain that Little Yellow Bird will continue to make mistakes, learn and grow, but we are committed to being transparent in all that we do and live by our values of being honest, fair, and transparent. Together I think we can make the change we want to see in the world and that is the legacy that I’m hoping Little Yellow Bird will leave behind.
Samantha is the CEO and Founder of Little Yellow Bird, a uniform company challenging the way the fashion industry operates