Who made your pants? Whether your underwear has a M&S or an Agent Provocateur label, chances are, you have no idea where exactly it’s been made, who took care of the stitches and whether the company used the profits to give something back to the community rather than just to its shareholders. Don’t get me wrong, I am very much in favour of developing emerging economies and helping to raise the standard of living in poorer countries, but from now on I’m buying my underwear from a cooperative founded by Becky John. I hope to convince you to do the same by telling you a story.
Becky John has been an activist all her life. At 15, she organised a petition at school against animal testing by L’Oreal; a year later she collected signatures for banning Nestlé’s products sold at her school canteen to protest against their aggressive marketing of baby products. In addition to her passion for fairness and ethics in business, Becky has always been good at sales. Perhaps selling sweets at the Rugby Club at the age of eight had something to do with it.
In 2008 Becky realised that having a decent job in retail and a good social life just simply wasn’t enough. She wanted to make a difference, start a business, which would be fun, make the most of her skills and have a social purpose. Who Made Your Pants? is a lingerie company, with a core purpose of creating jobs for disadvantaged women. The cooperative, which was founded at the end of 2008 in Southampton, employs, trains and supports local refugee women.
Who Made Your Pants? makes gorgeous and comfortable undies for everyday wear buying surplus fabrics re-sold by large underwear companies at the end of each season. The quality of each item is exceptional (my pants have survived an industrial laundry treatment in Colombia!), the designs made from leftover fabrics are unique, but it’s the ethos of the company that really makes a difference.
“I love beautiful underwear”, says Becky “but the products we make are irrelevant. We could be making furniture or cakes, as long as it means creating jobs, investing in training, improving quality of life for the women involved.”
Who Made Your Pants? is still a very small brand, employing less than ten women. Each woman receives thorough training, counselling and general help. Some women are keen to improve their English, others are grateful for advice of how to register their children at school or how to manage utility bills. The profits are reinvested into supporting the staff. While Becky crowdfunded £110,000 last year from the existing fans and customers to help manage the company’s cashflows, she still needs to improve her sales to make the business sustainable.
“I hope that by spreading the word about Who Made Your Pants? I can build a loyal customer base, who would be happy to spend £15-£18 on a pair of high quality underwear, knowing that they are changing other women’s lives.”
Needless to say, I am in. I hope that you too can support Becky by treating yourself to a new pair of underwear online.
On resilience “I have never doubted my course, but of course being an entrepreneur isn’t easy. I do think it helps to have a purpose. I always remind myself that I have a responsibility towards the women who had trusted me to help them. It gives me resilience. A failure is not an option.”
On challenging yourself “If you want to pick a challenge, make sure it’s a big one. My challenge is to connect women who buy pants with women who make them.
Asma is from Afghanistan and has been with us from the very start. She’s a very talented seamstress. Batol is from Sudan. Batol did a lot of cutting for us, but she was keen to learn the sewing machines and now she is brilliant at fiddly jobs like finishing seams. Sacdiya is from Somalia and has seven children. She often has beaufitul henna on her hands. Every piece we make has a story. Every piece we sell supports a woman in need.”
Becky is an incredible woman who is remarkably resilient and has a uniquely strong sense of purpose. I asked her about her achievements, aspirations and advice.
What would you advise your 15-year-old self? Don’t be blown off course – you know who you are. Carry on.
What are you good at? I’m good at organising, planning, big picture thinking and looking at tiny details (not at the same time!). I’ve been told I’m good with people and it must be true since I’ve always worked in retail.
What is your greatest achievement? Getting here. It seems I like setting myself deliberately tough challenges but I’m OK with that. I am very proud of what I have achieved with Who Made Your Pants?
If you can do anything, knowing that you would not fail, what would you do? I’d launch Who Made Your Pants? in every country, providing jobs and and making ethical products.
Who inspires you? My team – phenomenal women who have been through so much and yet they appear happy and laugh all the time. I feel really privileged to be working with them.
For more details and to get your own ethical pair of underwear, visit www.whomadeyourpants.co.uk.