Our 'Building Better Business' series features brilliant leaders helping to make business better - and building a better world.
Previously we've interviewed Saasha Celestial-One from OLIO, Amy Kean, co-founder of DICE (Diversity and Inclusion in Conferences and Events), Ben Brooks-Dutton from The Unmistakables, James Timpson OBE, CEO of Timpson, and Sarah Brown, founder and CEO of Pai Skincare. You can read them all in our Building Better Business archive.
Sarah is a huge enthusiast for kind, human behaviour in business - she tells us why she thinks that's just how business should be done, the hidden costs of manufacturing, and how small sustainability steps can make a big difference in business.
Sarah, tell us about Y.O.U. Underwear's story - when was it founded, why, what's different about your business model?
"Y.O.U. Underwear is an ethical underwear business. It's sustainably sourced organic cotton underwear, for men, women, and girls, with a “giving back” ethos.
One part of this is a “buy one gift two” business model where we donate two pairs of underwear for every pair we sell. It’s 'positive pants' – we’re basically trying to make a difference with underwear.
The original idea came about when I was volunteering in Uganda. I saw the impact on local communities of women and girls who didn't have access to underwear. I was supporting female entrepreneurs who were making sanitary towels and nappies, for themselves, for their community, and to sell.
They were struggling, and we couldn't work out why – the product-market fit was perfect, they were great products that made complete sense. It turned out that the women in their target market simply didn't have any underwear to put them in. Something we take for granted - the first thing you put on in the morning – and if you don't have it, you can't go to school, you can't go to work, you can't be integrated and live a full life in your community.
The girls in this community were missing a week of school and community life every month – from age nine or ten, they were missing a quarter of their education just because they didn't have underwear. And it really pissed me off and really stuck with me.
I’d worked for Oxfam for years, and knew all the standard issues around poverty alleviation and empowering women but had never come across this problem. I didn't even think about it, and yet it was having such a fundamental impact."
How did you decide that you could tackle this issue through business and not solely charity?
"I came back wanting to tackle what I’d seen. I started looking in to how we could provide underwear sustainably and on a scale that would have a long-term impact. We quickly came up against a new set of problems.
Cotton underwear is better for you than synthetic fabrics, but conventional cotton is the world's most polluting crop. There are huge problems with pesticides, insecticides, water pollution et cetera. We didn’t want to empower on one end and exploit on the other.
Organic cotton is better for people and the planet, and much of it is grown in India. Indian cotton farmers commit suicide at a rate equivalent to one every 30 minutes. Again, it’s something you think of as natural that actually causes huge problems.
So, we had to join those dots and tackle both issues – we found a sustainable supply chain where we knew farmers and manufacturers were getting paid fairly. We chose organic cotton specifically to tackle some of those sustainability problems and put those pieces together.
We wanted to partner with a charity through a giving back model.
We found Smalls for All, which is who most of our donations now support. They do amazing work in the UK and across Africa to provide underwear to people who need it, primarily for women and girls, mostly rural communities or refugee and IDP camps."
Fashion has many sustainability issues in its supply chain – what other problems are you trying to solve as an ethical underwear business?
"When you unpick sustainability in the broadest sense, it comes into everything.
Wanting to be a good business affects everything you do – printing, packaging, banking, making a positive impact where you can and avoiding a negative impact where that’s the best you can do.
That feeling of just trying to do something good inspired us to take the business to where we are now. So, we take each of those pillars and just try to do the best that we can in each area.
We’ve got the organic cotton, sustainable manufacturing, giving back, and we work with other charities too – for example, we support Future Dreams, a breast cancer charity, with our pink collection.
I’m in a truly fortunate position to be able to do something, so we look at what’s close to our hearts and think about how every area of the business can do things better.
That’s included initiatives like minimising our waste by not using single-use plastics, recycling packaging, providing reusable packaging. Our reusable fabric bags can be used again and again by customers, and they can return our mailing bags, and we transform them into earrings.
It’s all about small steps in the journey of sustainability.
We started with recycled, then recyclable; we've now got biodegradable packaging. We want to go to compostable and paper packaging, but we have to solve issues with cost and logistics.
One other key area is body positivity. The images that we see in the fashion and underwear business are mostly incredibly fake and unrealistic. There are enormous social pressures, especially with social media and media coverage, for men as well as for women and young girls, leading to problems around body confidence and mental health.
So, we’re committed to only using real people – us – in our marketing. That means all ages, all sizes; being as inclusive as we can be in the product as well as in the images and marketing – and not airbrushing anything."
Why does it make a difference to vote with your wallet and buy sustainable fashion?
"This comes back again to the power of learning - if your underwear or your T-shirt or anything else costs less than your coffee, then something is wrong. It isn't possible to make things at that cost and not exploit somebody somewhere.
I think people are surprised that people make our clothes, not machines. It's about making that connection and seeing the humanity of stuff.
We just don't think or realise that someone is sitting at a sewing machine – most likely a woman, statistically, in the clothes manufacturing chain. And that woman is probably not there by choice but because of financial or other pressures.
And once you know that and picture it, it's very, very difficult to then say: “Yes, I'm okay with that and I'm not going to pay a bit more for it.”
It’s a privilege to be able to afford to choose nice underwear, or jeans or T-shirts, or anything else. But you can use that privilege for good, consuming less and understanding the value of the products and the people who make them.
In the UK, we throw a rubbish truck full of clothes in to landfill every minute, and it's the same with food and food waste – the issues are in every area of society, and we need to make a systemic change.
If buying your underwear from somewhere else changes somebody’s life, then it’s one small step towards that bigger change. You buy a little bit less and buy a little better, and you’re changing the world a little bit too."
Would you say you have a “powered by kindness” philosophy, similar to leaders like James Timpson? Do you have a name for the way you work?
"We definitely share that philosophy, but it’s hard to put a name on it. It’s partly because of the way we started, wanting to tackle a problem rather than planning to create a business. I never even thought I would own or run a business - it just happened.
Looking at the previous Building Better Business interviews, I almost think that “better business” shouldn’t be a concept. I think it should just be business.
It should be about just being human, being nice, treating people like you want to be treated - the values that we were taught as a kid. You don't need to exploit people or trash the planet to be successful."
We need to redefine our measures of success in a business context because that relentless pursuit of profit and growth clearly doesn't work. We need to do something different.
How are you applying this human approach to business day to day?
"We do have key pillars and business values – inclusivity, positivity, empowerment, making a difference, fun.
I'm trying to create a business that has evolved from empowering women and giving them access to education/ employment to showing that business can be a force for good.
I've got a bit of a bugbear about demonstrating that you can be a profitable, successful business but also not exploit people or destroy the planet.
I don't think people set out to do that, but that's what we've ended up with. There are businesses that are exploiting people, people aren’t treated or paid fairly across all sectors, we’ve clearly destroyed the planet and now we need to do something different."
What does sustainable business mean to you?
"I think when you unpack sustainability, it means something ... and everything ... and definitely something different to everyone. For me, it's about trying to maximise your positive impact (and certainly not have a negative impact) across everything that you do.
It's tough because there's a massive amount of pressure with the focus now around zero-waste living, which just isn’t possible. Consumption itself is a huge problem - you can't be truly sustainable where you're selling and manufacturing anything, so it's about trying to do that in the best way possible.
So, for me, it's about incremental steps - trying to improve at every level and bringing our customers with us. Our supporters, staff and team are on the same journey with us - telling us where we should be going and what steps we need to take to improve.
As we grow, we'll be able to take more of those positive steps. We've just become a certified B Corp, with an amazing score of 160.5, which I'm thrilled about. The assessment and verification process is incredibly tough, but really valuable. The rigour and the thoroughness go into every area of your business and what you're doing, and it really makes you think about the impact you have across everything you do.
And I really value that. We obviously focus on the manufacturing and supply chain elements, and our team. We're an Accredited Living Wage employer because I believe you should treat people well across everything you do. But the B Corp process makes you measure and track all of this, which makes you more aware and keep improving. It’s about trying to do good in everything that we do."
Have any communities been important to you, either as an entrepreneur or before starting Y.O.U. Underwear?
"What’s quite interesting is that my communities have shifted massively since starting a business. I used to be in the marketing, digital and charity spaces, and certainly belonged to networks and communities there. I still belong to communities like Digital / Marketing Pioneers on Guild.
As a business owner, I’ve discovered start-up communities, women in business communities, ethical communities, and I’ve built a sort of patchwork of different connections.
The London start-up space helped me get thinking about side projects. There's a group in Brighton called the Happy Start-up School that is really about people trying to do something different, either as start-up businesses or employed intrapreneurs trying to shift businesses from within. When I first came across them, I felt “this is my tribe.”
There’s also Ethical Hour which started with a Twitter hour on a Monday evening and has grown into this vast network of people trying to do something ethical for the broader world – whether that’s in business or their day-to-day lives.
And the Delivering Sustainability in Your Business community on Guild is another supportive group that the team and I belong to.
Learning is one of Y.O.U. Underwear’s business values - growing, giving back, and trying to be an active part of those communities.
It’s about spreading the word – we have to do something different, and we have to raise awareness. You can change everything by sharing your challenges and sharing what you've learned."
Would you say that you're a community-led business, and do you think there’s any other way to do business?
"My first response would be no, but my sense check would say that yes, we are.
I think I’ve got a bit of imposter syndrome from working at the MS Society, where we had a forum that really changed people’s lives day to day.
A business can’t compare with that kind of connection, of course. Some of the other networks I've been in are genuinely transformational. So, I look at myself and I know we're not at that level, but in reality, we certainly rely on communities, and we'd like to think we play a role in communities.
And I think we probably do have a community because when you're trying to do something a little bit different, you attract customers, peers, and colleagues who are on the same path and share the same motivations.
For me, community is more about the connections, the networks, the strength, and numbers that are greater than the sum of your parts.
Thinking about how I get cards from our customers, even thank you messages when people return products, it feels like we’re making a difference to people.
It's hard to stand up and say, “we are a community-led business”, but there is a community of people that support us, our customers, and the broader, ethical, sustainable fashion space.
We're trying to work together and support each other. As a business, we showcase other brands, and we try to build that network because we can't bring about the changes we want to see on our own."
Are you a fan of management or business books or podcasts, and what would you recommend?
"I love learning – it’s one of our business values. One of the biggest frustrations of running a business is not having enough time to read as much as I'd like to.
I like story-led business books – some favourites are “Let My People Go Surfing,” the Green & Black's story, Delivering Happiness, Shoe Dog. All those books that are relevant to people starting a business and relate inspiration and creativity.
For podcasts – the Do Lectures, although I’m more likely to listen to audiobooks, especially around purpose and sustainability, like Simon Sinek, Mike Berners-Lee, Doughnut Economics – there’s never enough time to read and listen to everything I want to."
What advice would you give to your younger self?
"I've clearly got Nike in my head – I’d say just do it!
I never thought I would start a business, but you don’t have to know everything. The internet and professional communities are both wonderful things in terms of resources.
If you're thinking about starting a business, you need to be doing something you're passionate about. That means that when it gets hard – and it does get hard – it’s amazingly inspiring and motivating to do something you want to do. Your values can be your business values.
I’d also tell my younger self that eventually, you’ll get to an age where you ask - "why am I doing this?" One of the things COVID has shown us is the importance of reflection, and younger people now care more than ever before.
You should know that you can make a difference whether you’re part of a good business, you support good businesses, or you start your own business. But just go for it because there's never a right time. You've never got the right skills and experience, or money - so just do it!
I’d also say ask for help, collaborate – you don’t need to do it on your own. It can be hard to ask for help because you feel you’re admitting you don't know your stuff. But you can flip it around.
People are flattered to be asked for help. I say yes to pretty much every request for help because I think it’s amazing to be asked and that this person has the courage to ask.
We’ve all got imposter feelings and insecurities, and if you admit it and be a bit more human, people are ready to help. I think that’s another of the positives we can take from the pandemic.
“Bringing your whole self to work” feels like a bit of a cliché, but we’ve really seen colleagues, customers and businesses as more human and if we can maintain that honesty, let down our defences and say “we’re doing the best we can” it will make a massive difference to how we can all keep growing."
Final question - if you didn't do this job, what would you be or do?
"A weather forecaster...it takes people by surprise, but I did meteorology at university, and I always wanted to do it for real. Not the TV bit; I can’t think of anything worse. But I love the forecasting."
Images courtesy of Y.O.U. Underwear
More Building Better Business Interviews
Learn from more experts and business founders who've spoken to us at Guild about building a better world through better business.
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