What’s the story behind how Y.O.U Underwear came to be?
It all started when I travelled out to East Africa in 2016 and was volunteering in local communities as part of the Uganda Marathon programme. I was shocked at the number of women and children I met who didn’t have access to something we take for granted every day – underwear. In some communities it’s estimated that 1 in 10 girls miss school on their periods due to a lack of underwear and sanitary products – that’s up to 12 weeks a year!
I believe that underwear should be freely available to everyone – it’s a basic right that ensures health, dignity and even access to education and employment. To help tackle the issue, I decided to create a business that sells underwear on a buy-one-give-two model. We’ve partnered with Smalls for All, a Scottish charity that collects and distributes underwear to vulnerable women and children across Africa and the UK.
Why is the work you’re doing so important?
At Y.O.U Underwear, we’re on a mission to show that business can act as a force for good. This is why we’re doing everything we can to minimise our negative impact on people and the planet, and make a difference while doing so!
I was inspired to start the business after realising how important underwear is for many women and children who don’t have access to it. It’s essential for most sanitary products to work, which means that women and girls can be subject to social exclusion and stigma when they’re on their periods, and miss out on education and other opportunities. So far, Y.O.U Underwear has donated over 13,700 pairs of underwear through the charity Smalls for All, allowing us to make a difference to thousands of people!
Our use of GOTS Certified Organic Cotton is also a key part of our impact framework. Non-organic cotton is one of the world’s most polluting crops, relying heavily on chemicals which harm the environment and people involved at every stage of the supply chain, from farmer to customer. Organic cotton is much better for the environment, resulting in less pollution, less CO2, and less water usage and contamination than its conventional counterpart. It also makes a superior fabric that is super soft and gentle on all skin types, perfect for underwear!
How has the business changed for you over the last year?
Despite some significant challenges, 2020 actually ended up being an amazing year of growth and development for us. The first few months were hard and our sales dropped dramatically, but we re-focused, kept our costs low and worked incredibly hard to just keep going and talking to our customers. Despite many of the markets and other events we usually attend being cancelled, the hard work paid off and we ended the year with increased sales and new customers, which I’m incredibly thankful for.
We had a number of supply issues in the middle of the year with our manufacturer being closed for several months due to the coronavirus, meaning our new stock arrived nearly 8 months late, but thankfully our customers were very patient and understanding. We were able to keep things moving slowly and even managed to get some new products out by the end of the year. We now have girls’ bralettes too, as well as reusable organic cotton face masks, and a new range of adult underwear designed in collaboration with the Kenyan brand KikoRomeo.
Our hard work was also recognised externally, with a range of exciting awards and achievements. The business was a finalist in the Global Good Awards, The Business Green Leaders Awards and the Blue Patch Awards, and was a Gold Winner in the One Planet Awards. We were also named as one of Small Business Saturday’s SmallBiz100; the focus of this national campaign fell on us in November. On top of this, we also received some amazing national press coverage; we were featured in the Guardian twice, London’s Metro, and more!
We’re also so proud to have expanded our impact, both in the increased quantity of underwear donated, and also through planting trees over the Black Friday weekend, and supporting the work of the Ajuma Foundation in Kenya for every sale from our KikoRomeo collection.
What are you guys working on at the moment?
One focus for us at the moment is the introduction of a circular fashion scheme as part of the 2020 Circular Fashion Pledge, which we signed last April. We aim to introduce a take-back scheme for our underwear by April 2021, a year on from when we signed the pledge.
We’ve also got more new products on the way! We’re developing new colours to add to our KikoRomeo collection, and we’re also hoping to expand our range with some new garments.
We’re currently working on improving our website, which is particularly important as we are now operating fully online, and were fortunate to receive a Kickstart Grant from OxLEP to help with this, having not qualified for any other government support. We’re including new features such as a webchat option for customers, and also a customer loyalty programme.
We’re also working on new ways of collecting customer feedback. We want our customers to be central to our development over the next year, and so we’re working on ways to incorporate their feedback and testimonials into our decision-making processes.
What has leading Y.O.U Underwear meant for you, and what’s next for the business?
Although there are many challenges with running your own business, I absolutely love what I do! I know that I’m directly responsible for the success (or not!) or the business and everything we do to have a positive impact on the world. I always feel motivated by knowing I’m making a difference! Leading the business has meant that I’ve really poured in every effort – but long days really don’t feel the same when you’re working for yourself!
This year, I’m looking ahead to new products, new certifications (we submitted our application to become a B Corporation at the end of 2020), increasing sales, expanding our team, and – most importantly of all – increasing our impact!