Sarah, founder of Y.O.U. Underwear, shares the importance of starting a sustainable social venture

"For the past 20+ years, I worked across the charity and education spaces, focusing mainly on how technology could be used as an enabler and to have a positive impact.

Sarah Jordan
Image: Sarah Jordan, Founder CEO of Y.O.U Underwear

I am Sarah Jordan, living in Oxford, U.K. Let’s just say I never expected to be running my own underwear business! I am the Founder CEO of Y.O.U. Underwear and the team are on a mission to prove that underwear really can change the world!

I was inspired to start Y.O.U. Underwear on a trip to Uganda in 2016, where I took part in the Uganda Marathon. While volunteering in local villages I came face-to-face with the problems associated with not having underwear. In some communities, 1 in 10 girls misses school on their periods due to a lack of underwear and sanitary products – this totals up to 12 weeks a year! This has a considerable cumulative effect on opportunities available to women and girls including education, employment, and community inclusion. At the same time, I also became aware of the considerable problems in the fashion industry, not least the environmental and social damage caused by modern agricultural practices. Conventional cotton is one of the world’s most polluting – and thirstiest! – crops, with its production relying heavily on the exploitation of people and natural resources. This is why I decided to only use GOTS Certified Organic cotton for my underwear - it’s much better for the planet and the people who work with it, and it’s also softer and more durable!

Additionally, I wanted to run an ethical business as “you can’t exploit people in one part of the world to empower them in another” (Hayat Rachi). The fashion industry is notoriously unsustainable and unethical, so that’s why Y.O.U underwear is also Fairtrade, PETA-approved vegan, and made from 100% GOTS Certified Organic Cotton. We work with one of India’s leading ethical manufacturers, are single-use plastic-free, and have also embraced body positivity, whereby we actively promote realistic body images in our marketing strategies, brand imagery, and product design.

Image: Buy-one-Give-two model

Through Y.O.U Underwear, my goal is to improve access to opportunities and education for women and girls by donating underwear. I set up the business with a buy-one-give-two partnership with Smalls for All, a Scottish charity that collects and distributes underwear to vulnerable people in Africa and the UK. So far we’ve donated over 15,500 pairs of underwear, and we’re on track to reach our goal of 23,000 pairs by 2023!

Over the past three years, I’ve faced some significant challenges associated with business partnerships and issues such as manufacturing reliability, stock levels, cash flow, long lead times, as well as the need to constantly keep on top of the logistical side of the business in order to maintain our excellent customer service. As a business owner, you have to wear many ‘hats’ and I’ve had to adopt the skill of multitasking, whilst also trying to ensure I maintain enough time and space to formulate strategies and tackle larger business development projects. Without a conscious effort on this front, it can be easy to get distracted in everyday tasks that ultimately won’t lead to business growth.

Another challenge this year was the initial instability caused by the lockdown in March 2020. This disrupted our sales, causing the business’s income to drop significantly. But we managed to stay positive and implement some effective strategies – such as prioritizing PR work to increase our organic reach. We were lucky enough to get featured in the Guardian twice (once alongside Stella McCartney!), which helped us to build our sales back and in fact, reach new highs! I’m also really proud that the business was able to maintain its buy-one-give-two model over this challenging period.

Body positivity
Image: Y.O.U. underwear promoting body positivity

Having mentioned the challenges, I’m really proud that we receive amazing feedback from our customers, which makes me feel like I’m making a difference to them! I get lovely cards, photos and lots of personal messages, which I really appreciate. I love the fact that I’m getting to know our customers and am building up personal relationships with them - it’s so much more than just a business! I was hoping to go out and see this work for myself in 2020, but our trip got canceled due to Covid, but hopefully, we’ll make it in 2021 instead. Until then I’ll have to give you a quote from one of the partners:

There’s nothing better than being able to give that woman a full set of clothing to go home in – which has to include some new underwear. Seeing their face light up, not only because they’re dry again but because they have clothing that helps to make them feel like a human, is a joyful sight…The impact of providing underwear is far greater than just handing over something that we very much take for granted” – Paul McNeil, Freedom from Fistula Foundation.

One piece of advice I would like to share with all is - the main thing would be to ‘just do it!' When it comes to starting a business, you will never know enough and the timing will never be right, so don’t wait for that perfect opportunity. There’s a lot to be said for starting somewhere and growing your expertise and experience as you go along. And if you never start, you’ll forever be left with a feeling of ‘what if….?’. At the same time, it is also incredibly important to follow your passion. Entrepreneurship and running your own business are hard, particularly when you’re by yourself! Doing something you really care about - or where the injustice makes you angry - is the best motivation you can ask for and will give you the determination to keep going when it gets hard. Trust your instincts! Your head does the strategy, your heart drives passion but your gut is surprisingly useful in business too. I think it’s something we don’t listen to enough, so it’s really good to cultivate the ability to trust your feelings, particularly that first gut reaction. Running a business is a journey. It is a cliché but so true, particularly as a sustainable enterprise. You don’t have to be perfect or do it all to start with, but even small steps will make a big difference. Our old models of business don’t work for so many people (and the planet) and it’s time for the smaller, sustainable ones to step in!"

You Humanity pays respect and gratitude to Sarah Jordan and Y.O.U. Underwear team for going above and beyond to contribute towards Humanity. Spread positivity, share this story with your friends and family.

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