Underwear for good
Sarah Jordan on how Y.O.U Underwear is using sustainable fashion to improve access to education for women and girls.
Y.O.U Underwear manufactures and sells ethically made cotton underwear using a buy-one-give-two model.
Founder and CEO
What does underwear have to do with education? It’s not a connection that most of us would make, but it’s one that Sarah Jordan made when volunteering in Uganda in 2016. There she saw first-hand how a lack of underwear and menstrual products creates educational and economic barriers for women and girls.
Sarah decided to tackle this problem by creating Y.O.U Underwear, an ethical underwear brand using a give-back model: for every pair of undies bought, the company gives two pairs to women and children in the UK and Africa through their charity partnership.
Not wanting any part of the fast fashion scene, Sarah has put sustainability and ethics at the heart of Y.O.U Underwear. Fairtrade certified, PETA-approved vegan, certified organic cotton, and ethical manufacturing? Check, check, check and check.
They also promote body positivity in their marketing—no air-brushed images, for example—and package their underwear in re-usable organic cotton bags and biodegradable mailers. On top of all that, they’re working towards achieving B Corp certification.
Let’s dive into the interview with Sarah to learn more about how Y.O.U Underwear is creating change with sustainable fashion:
On doing the unexpected
I never expected to end up running an underwear business!
I was inspired to start Y.O.U Underwear on a trip to Uganda in 2016, where I came face-to-face with the problems associated with not having underwear while volunteering in local villages. I saw the number of women and children who were being excluded from school, work and even their communities—especially during their periods—all because they didn’t have underwear.
In some communities it is estimated that 1 in 10 girls miss school on their periods due to a lack of underwear and sanitary products. Without proper period protection, they’re left with no choice but to miss school, up to 12 weeks a year.
Y.O.U stands for Your Own Underwear—because I believe that everybody should have exactly that!
We make soft, stylish, organic cotton underwear for men and women and girls that lets you look good, feel good and do good. We’re an award-winning sustainable fashion brand with a difference. Our mission is to improve access to education for women and girls by donating underwear.
On making an impact
We have a buy-one-give-two promise in partnership with Smalls for All, a Scottish charity that collects and distributes underwear to vulnerable women and children in Africa and the UK. So far we’ve donated over 15,000 pairs of underwear. One of our main goals as a business is to donate 23,000 pairs of underwear by 2023, and we’re well on our way to achieving this.
Our underwear is Fairtrade certified, PETA-approved vegan and made from 100% GOTS Certified Organic Cotton, and we work with one of India’s leading ethical and sustainable manufacturers. We also embrace ethical marketing, and actively promote body positivity through our brand imagery and marketing strategies.
We share how using organic cotton instead of conventional cotton has helped us reduce our negative impact in our 2020 impact report:
- We saved enough energy to power a standard 60W light bulb for 381 days straight.
- We avoided CO2 emissions equivalent to driving 432 miles in an average passenger car.
- We conserved 414,946 litres of water—that’s 4,149 bathtubs full!
On charity partnerships
We found Smalls For All in 2017 when looking into the giving-back side and how we could support women and girls. After a few conversations to establish the relationship, we visited in August 2017 to meet Maria and the team and understand more about how they worked—and to help out for a bit.
It was all about having very similar values around long-term impact and recognising the importance of access to education and employment for women and girls, enabled by providing underwear to allow them to stay in school or work. We donate one pair ourselves, which is then generously matched by The Wandsworth Group, a business who believes in what we’re doing.
From my past experience working with Oxfam, I knew I wanted to partner with a charity that worked with local providers and organisations on the ground—relying on local expertise to help reach people and identify where the need was greatest, working in a culturally sensitive way, supporting local communities, rather than being the ‘white saviour’ business.
Smalls for All are the experts in what they’re doing and they in turn work with other groups who have the local expertise. From the start, it’s been a real partnership rather than just a business/charity relationship.
It’s been a real positive for us and our customers to see the impact that they’re having, which we show on our ‘Pant-O-Meter,’ and to show that you can make a difference with your purchases. It’s never too late—or too early—to start giving back with your business, and my top tips would be to pick a cause you’re passionate about and a charity that shares the same values as you!
On the highs and lows of sustainable fashion
After deciding to start an underwear business, I discovered the devastating impact of conventional cotton on the environment. I knew I wanted to do it differently. But it was a long journey to get to where we are today because I didn’t have any fashion experience.
We ran a successful crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter in 2017, in which we raised £20,000 for the launch of our first underwear range. I’ll never forget hand-delivering underwear on Christmas Eve to all the amazing supporters of the campaign.
We began selling officially on our site in early 2018. Since then, we’ve seen significant year-on-year growth (over 400% from 2019 to 2020).
We’ve been able to really connect with our customers and create a community of impact-makers through something so simple—underwear!
But it can be difficult to focus on one thing at a time—it’s easy to want to tackle everything! With something like sustainable fashion, we’re constantly learning about new things and new issues. However, we’re focusing on making an impact and balancing running a business without promoting overconsumption.
On the future
We’re constantly working towards being as sustainable and inclusive as we can, which is why we’re working on some new underwear styles including a larger, more supportive bralette which is in development.
We also submitted our B Corp application in 2020 as part of our commitment to be a fully sustainable business, so fingers crossed we’ll be successful in that this year.
We’re currently working on new colours and ranges, including expanding our KikoRomeo range and a collaboration with the breast cancer charity Future Dreams with our upcoming pink range.
Parting thoughts from Sarah
“We’re inspired by women everywhere! Women are at the heart of what we do, from the women and girls in Africa who Smalls For All help, the garment workers who make our underwear, the women who wear our underwear and the people behind-the-scenes—our business is female founded and female run.”
Good tools and resources
- Enterprise Nation for its webinars and resources which are so useful for small business owners.
- Small Business Britain is also a really great community and place for resources.
“Entrepreneurship is hard—and sometimes lonely—so finding something you’re passionate about, that motivates you and has an impact will help on those days which are trickier. Making sure to have people around you who will support you is so important too.”
Build a better business
Better for the environment, better for people and—yup—better for your pocket.
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