Wednesday, 25 July 2012

So who made your pants? Let's talk about ethical underwear

Being a lover of fancy lingerie and a right nosey parker, I couldn't resist the opportunity to visit ethical pants manufacturer Who Made Your Pants?.

I have been following them on Twitter for about six months, having spotted that they use end-of-line lace, which other lingerie manufacturers discard at the end of their seasonal runs. However, I soon discovered that this business was not just about saving waste, it was about turning around people's lives too.

And it's that which tempted me to scoot all the way from Suffolk to Southampton for the company's open day and to finally have the chance to meet founder Becky John (pictured left) and to find out more about what goes on at Who Made Your Pants?.

Immediately, it was easy to detect the warm and welcoming atmosphere of a small enterprise that was specifically created to help the people who work for it. As Della, the Operations Manager took me on a tour of the business she described how the enterprise helps women, such as refugees, get onto the work ladder, in a way that allows them to overcome language barriers and other cultural hurdles.

Although clearly working as a team to create what felt like a family atmosphere, the philosophy of the organisation, which is managed as a co-operative, stems from one woman's passion, that of Becky John, to tackle, in her own words, the issues of waste, both in wasted stuff and wasted lives.

Becky understands what this means, having volunteered with Amnesty and having been nurtured through her own life-changing experiences. With women who have arrived into the country from as far afield as Sudan, Somalia and Afghanistan, she wants Who Made Your Pants? to work for them, as well as enabling them to work for the enterprise.

It was very easy to see her passion as she explained,
"The women we work with are marginalised and isolated in so many ways and they are bursting to do something.  They are just like you and me and any other woman. They get bored, passionate and curious and that's why we are here, to unleash that and do something good."
Becky continued to tell me about one of the younger women who had arrived from Afghanistan with her mother. When she first met her at a refugee organisation, her body language showed her distinct lack of confidence. She was hunched over the table, very nervous and shy and she knew no English.  She's now been to college for a couple of years, has done a media course and a computer course and now confidently teases her team. Becky recognises this as an amazing change and is just one of the examples of how she's seen her staff develop.

"I believe in this, and this organisation, with everything I am," she added. "It's about an opportunity to help women learn and help them feel empowered, as well as providing good role models for the daughters in the family."

And that's one of the reasons why Becky had committed to sponsoring last weekend's Winchester Science Festival. She wants girls and women to follow their curiosity and have the confidence to believe in themselves.

I liked Becky very much and loved the environment that she and her team had created.  And by team, I don't just mean the 'Management Team'.  It was everyone in this enterprise that makes the Who Made Your Pants? co-operative work so well.  Whether it's translating basic vocabulary into one of the many languages, helping the women have access to office computers, respecting prayer routines or everyone enjoying delicious home-made food that's brought in to share.

.... as well as special cake for Who Made Your Pants? Open Days.

All hands on deck - to cut the celebratory cake!

Of course no visit to any organisation like this would be complete without a nosey around the bins and it was great to see that all the lace off-cuts are sent to a local social enterprise to stuff cushions, so no waste is created.  They've also had requests from Knickerbockaglory artist Fanny Gogh, to provide extra lace for her fabulous fundraising collages, which helped raise money for the British Heart Foundation.

But recycling and repurposing doesn't stop with lace. Waste reduction is really at the heart of the business and almost everything acquired into the office is reused or upcycled, including computers, printers, desks, whiteboards, book cases and some reconditioned machinery.

"I love old and have always loved things that are different," Becky tells me. "Even our stock boxes are from the Ordnance Survey."

As she shows me the page of the annual report, which highlights how little waste they created in 2011, I realise that even as a small business it weighs waste to ensure that it's included in the business assessment criteria.

Becky nods at my positive response.

"If you are going to be a good organisation, you have to start at the very beginning, so we've done this from the start. We also try to engage the women in the recycling process and help them understand why it needs to be done."

She tells me that this enterprise could have been based around anything, but due to her ludicrous love of underwear, a passion to which I also confess, and her desire to provide the world with a fabulous ethical choice, knickers it is!

Having risen out of her fundamental question about who made her pants and the welfare of the women concerned, Who Made Your Pants? has made great progress in helping a small group of women in the UK and Becky still campaigns to raise awareness of the issue of sweatshops.

My pants in progress!

Having seen my own pants being made last Tuesday, by a small team of women working for an enterprise that cared about their welfare, the first thing I did on my return was to contact my long-standing lingerie brand to query their own ethical and sustainability policy.

Seven days later, I've still not received a reply but I shan't give up.

People like Becky John really do make you stop and think, and if you are inclined to begin asking questions about fast fashion, you can't really find a better place to start than with pants!

More information about Who Made Your Pants?,  its ethos and how it is run as a co-operative, can be found at An online shop, where you can browse and purchase the beautiful lace goodies, is also available.

Monday, 9 July 2012

An educational farmers' market. Lessons from a Suffolk primary school

On Friday, my son's primary school held its end-of-year award winning "Farmers' Market".

With gazebos and traditional bunting to set the scene, the hall was transformed into a wonderful entrepreneurial venture, with fresh vegetables, plants and food on offer as well as toys that the children had either decorated or made.

Organised entirely in-house, with just some support from the school community and a couple of external producers, the school Farmers' Market has already won a Green Suffolk award.  And it really is well-deserved.  This is something really special and here's why I love it....

  • Most of the vegetables sold - including those in the photograph above - are grown by the children and are planted and watered during lesson time or by the gardening club.  Not only do they learn about growing food as part of the curriculum, but they also learn that there is a real market for their produce as well as the economic value of food.
  • In preparation for the event, some of the classes had the opportunity to make food and drink for sale. The Year 4 children were really proud of the pizzas they had made. Year 3 had also been busy that day making fresh lemonade. Not only was it a great commercial opportunity, but the educational benefits can be long-lasting. My 8-year-old was so proud that he knew how to make lemonade, he woke up on Saturday and Sunday wanting to show off his new skills and make some more!
  • It's also a fabulous way to raise funds from existing resources. Our school is blessed with lots of lavender, which flourishes in the summer and is then cut back as part of the grounds maintenance work.  The market offers a great opportunity to gather bunches and sell it to children and parents, raising a few extra pounds from a resource that could otherwise go to waste.
  • It also gets the wider community involved. Families have a chance to contribute, with home-made jams, cakes, biscuits and seedlings helping to raise money for the school. Kind donations were also received from local potato growers as well as a supplier of free-range eggs.
  • The older children have a chance to manage stalls, serving their customers and handling the money, some independently and others with staff help.  It was obvious to see that it was a great confidence-builder and what a fantastic way to bring maths out of the classroom into a real practical setting!

For an after-school event that only lasted an hour, I could rave on about it for hours more, but I guess you already get the gist.  This is only the second summer Farmers' Market, but the school has also held one at Christmas, which was a real festive highlight.  Seriously, if you've got school-aged children, I'd recommend having a word with your headteacher in the hope that they can organise something similar. This is learning at its finest - with children and the school community, working together on a practical project that doesn't even feel like education!

So, while you go and stir up the vegetable beds, I'm off to indulge in a glass of my son's home-made lemonade and ponder a proposition that might encourage him to become my regular supplier.

I could get used to this life.  If I play my cards right, this could lead to my retirement on a lemon orchard somewhere on the continent, or even here in Suffolk.  By then, we might even have the weather for it.

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