Can fashion be a force for good in the world? Toronto-based jewellery designer Jenny Bird thinks so, and she uses her brand’s resources to prove it at every opportunity. Aside from being transparent about the Chinese factory where her products are made, in 2017 she co-founded the Pin Project, which connected refugee artisans in Jordan with customers around the world. Following that initiative’s success, she launched the Artisan Project, a program that provides design direction to artisans in Afghanistan, and a retail outlet for their jewellery in Jenny Bird’s online store. Bird spoke with The Globe and Mail about fashion, sustainability and how capitalism and conscience can exist together in harmony.
Did you set out to start an ethical brand?
I always felt it should be part of all of the business decisions, but it wasn’t, “I’m going to be the eco-jewellery brand, and that’s how I’m going to distinguish myself.” It was more about just how to do it in a more human way.
Was that a challenging way to start a fashion brand?
I was faced with a really tough decision early on. I started out making handbags, and when I went to visit my production, when I saw how the people were being treated in the factory and the conditions that they were in, I had to pull out.
Where was that?
This was a very widely used bag factory in New York! Stigma blown. It is absolutely not true to say that just because it’s made in China it means it’s an unethically made product. It was a crazy moment where I thought, “Maybe we shouldn’t be proud if it’s made in Canada or made in America?” Maybe we should be proud that it’s made in a conscious, kind place.
When you decided to relaunch Jenny Bird as a jewellery brand, how did you go about finding suppliers you felt good about?
I sampled for two or three years around the world, and I eventually ended up in the fashion jewellery capital of China, Qingdao, at a family-run business. You can’t develop product without going to see where it’s made, so we went and spent three days there. It was great!
What kinds of things were you looking at?
We were observing all things that could be a concern, like the age of the workers, conditions of their work stations, fire-safety equipment and where the food is prepared for the workers, as most factories serve lunch every day. What food is provided and how it is served is a great indicator of the quality of the management and that of the ownership. A visit during production is also important to ensure your product is being made where you think it is, so we went during a production run and made sure to ask to see all of our production moulds.
What do you think makes a brand ethical?
I think sometimes “ethical” and “sustainable” get too narrowly defined. You can have brands that are built on these marketing platforms of being green and eco-friendly, but they may be an awful place to work. For me, it means being conscious of the impact on the environment and the communities you’re producing in, how you treat your employees and your suppliers, and just generally trying to lift others up with what you do.
Does thinking about this stuff for your business affect how you shop for yourself?
I think I’m not affected by marketing messaging at all. The way I shop, I may hear of a company and know they’re doing great things, but then I hear it’s a terrible work environment, or the owners are unkind to suppliers. So, I try to understand the business owners that I’m buying from. If I’m giving this company money what else are they doing with it? How are they balancing all of their choices ethically? Or are they just buying organic cotton to say organic on the label?
How should people who aren’t in the industry make those decisions?
Most companies that have a lot of positive things to share are very transparent. You can usually read through greenwashing once you really get into their website, or call and talk to somebody on the phone. I think you have to use your gut, but it’s a tough one.
Do ever think about whether the world really needs the things you make?
All the time! The reality of Jenny Bird is we make fashion jewellery. These are pieces that are arguably disposable. Hopefully they’re not – we plate them very well and we’re going to start a re-plating program so that they can be as enduring as possible, but it’s far from perfect. But the profitability of selling jewellery at Jenny Bird is supporting this positive impact we’re making. I’m not independently wealthy, so I do this other work with a percentage of the resources in the company. If I didn’t have Jenny Bird that wouldn’t happen.