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Brief encounter with pants ethics
Becky John
Becky John's social enterprise will create 25 jobs

Not many offices have a washing line of pink and black knickers, thongs and briefs hanging above the boss' desk.

But it is the best way to show off the product range of a new social enterprise - the Whomadeyourpants? underwear factory.

It is the brainchild of a Southampton woman who wanted to wear underwear she loved - with a clear conscience.

Becky John set up the social enterprise in the St Mary's area as an alternative to "sweat shop" clothes production.

Social enterprise

Becky explains the concept behind the project which officially began production on 1 December 2009: "It's about providing opportunities for marginalised women to get training, skills and jobs while making a really gorgeous ethical product."

The idea for the new business grew from Becky's lifelong interest in human rights. Through an Amnesty International letter-writing scheme, she heard the story of a mother whose daughter had been killed on her way home from working in a Central American sweat shop.

"It was one of the most moving things I'd ever been involved in," Becky says.

"It made me think whether I was comfortable wearing the underwear I loved when it could have been made in these sorts of environments."

The pants are made from material which could have ended up in landfill

In 2006 she started Whomadeyourpants? as a not-for-profit social enterprise and a worker's co-operative, aiming to provide work opportunities for marginalised, mainly refugee, women living in inner city Southampton.

With no experience of manufacturing, and finding banks reluctant to lend money, Becky turned to alternative sources of funding for the project - grants, favours, help in kind, loans from individuals - even the paper on the office wall is an off-cut from a local factory.

The recession is making life difficult for many small business - but are consumers willing to pay more for ethical underwear?

Becky is confident the market remains strong.

She says: "Research has shown that even through the recession, sales of ethical goods have grown. It's really interesting - people do seem prepared to stick with their ethics on certain things."

A new manufacturing business is also a rare commodity but Becky insists: "Manufacturing is undoubtedly in decline. I believe wholeheartedly it's important to retain skills in this country.

"There are predictions of the costs of imports going up. We aren't going to be able to afford things, but we are still going to want them."

Female workforce

The first pants will roll off the production line on 1 December 2009

Whomadeyourpants? is based in an industrial unit in Northam which holds offices, a classroom for English lessons, social areas with internet access and a machine and cutting room where the pants are produced.

Eventually a workforce of 25 women will turn out 40,000 pairs of pants per year.

The first 12 women currently undergoing training are all refugees, mostly Muslim, and are from counties including Somalia, Sudan, and Afghanistan.

"A lot of the women have no income of their own. They get no benefits and they have to survive on their husbands', often small, income. They aren't entitled to any support from the state at all.

"They are allowed to work, but they can't get any - so we are trying to give them access into employment. We're trying to give them something to put on their CV which will lead on to other jobs for them."

Among the women are a former school headmistress and a lady who ran her own import-export business.

As well as a job, the women get training and a "a safe woman-only place" to socialise and make friends.

During the English lessons they have on site the women concentrate on vocabulary related to underwear-making.

"There are really interesting technical terms they have to get accustomed with. Nearly all of them can say 'chain mail glove' now! Through conversation with each other, English has become their common language."

Sales orders

Despite the noble aims, Becky knows the business has to cover its cost.

"There is no point hanging around. It has to be a working business - unless you thrive as a business, you can't create the money to do the social things."

Becky has a variety of pants - from the early prototypes, through to the latest briefs, shorts and thongs in sizes 6-20 - ready for the official launch. It is clear that the project has made huge strides in a short start-up time.

All the fabrics are bought from end-of-season off-cuts from established lingerie companies.

Becky explains: "Hundreds and hundreds of metres of material are diverted from land-fill and re-used rather than us taking any virgin fibres at all."

Production is due to begin in full at the start of December, in the meantime Becky jokes she is a "pants futures trader" - securing over £1,000 of pre-orders in advance of the first production run.

The pants will be sold through the Whomadeyourpants? website and local independent stores as well as department stores and online ethical and lingerie stores.

There are plans for Whomadeyourbra? and a men's and children's underwear range in the future and the business model is designed to be replicated elsewhere in the UK or Europe.

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