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Sustainable Business | Who Made Your Pants?

Through founding the cooperative enterprise Who Made Your Pants, Becky John is transforming the lives of refugee women in Southampton, England.

So Becky, where did the idea for WMYP come from?

I really, really, really like pants . . . a lot! I’ve always had a thing about underwear. I’ve also always been involved with Amnesty and human rights activism and I did some work with Amnesty locally about sweatshops and about what happens in sweatshops. While all of that was happening, through some work I was doing with a local Amnesty group, I knew that there was a big refugee population in Southampton, and I knew that within that group, it was going to be the women that were the most marginalised.

What problems have you encountered within the marginalisation of refugee women?

Because of the way the law works around refugees and asylum, it’s often the husband that comes to the new country first and after two years he might be able to apply for leave to remain, then after another two years he might be able to apply for his wife and family to join him. So the husband will have had to certify that he’s earning enough money to keep the family and in that case something will be stamped in the woman’s visa that says no recourse to public funds which means she can’t have any benefits in her own name, so that means she is completely reliant on her husband.

So in having to rely on their husbands, there’s little chance for them to have any kind of independence, especially being in a foreign country.

Very often in countries women are drawn from they won’t speak any English so they can’t actually go out by themselves. If they’ve got no friends they can’t go out at all. So the husbands at work all day earning money, kids are in school learning English and mums at home developing depression.

“I didn't want to give up my lovely underwear and I think personally telling people to give up the things they want is no way to make people change their behaviour. So I wanted to make the beautiful things in a way that’s really positive. People can have the beautiful things and feel really good about it.”

So at WMYP, how have you been tackling this issue?

We have a small team of six women and in the beginning we started out with English lessons and really basic employability skills. I’ve tried to build a brand and a feeling which is us together making a difference for women. It’s definitely not us and then the team is separate, they’re making their own future. My team’s jobs are hard and the standard of quality has to be high be, but it’s amazing when after weeks of someone was saying this is really difficult, they say oh, but it’s easy! You can see people’s confidence growing and growing and that’s fab! Everybody stops at 12:30 every day for lunch, we all eat together and it’s very much a chance for us to be women and talk about all kinds of things.

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When researching into sustainable lingerie brands, I found that the majority were not affordable or accessible to the mass population. WMYP were one of the most affordable I have found, had this always been an important aspect of the business to you?

Absolutely, back in the very beginning I was clear that I wanted to bring high street styling to the ethical market and ethical values to the high street. I think you need to be able to give people really sensible, useful, beautiful alternatives to the things they would normally buy, at a price they would normally pay, so you have two comparable products, but one of them has an excellent story.

I think one of the main appeals of your brand is that your designs are so accessible and practical to anyone of any age…but are still beautiful!

I don’t position us as sexy, we are absolutely about underwear for you to wear and feel fabulous in, not for your partners to look at you in. I think that’s one of the other things about lingerie, it’s often always about being sexy. Here at WMYP, we never use the word sexy, we are gorgeous underwear not sexy lingerie and for me, that positioning is really important. I personally love my underwear and I want to put it on everyday and think, this is really making me happy, this is a beautiful, cheerful thing that has been made in a positive way!