By Emily Prichard | 16th February
There’s never been a better time for sustainability focused startups to start, scale and help create a better future for our planet.
Yang Liu is part of the new gen of innovators with a core focus on sustainability. Co-Founder and CEO of JustWears, she’s building an underwear business with a ballsy perspective (check out their turn on Dragons Den) and a clean, closed-loop manufacturing process.
Since launching in 2018, Yang has seen firsthand the changing mindset towards sustainability in the consumer industry. Whether it’s a cleaner conscience or a shrewd awakening to the monetary opportunities in ‘the green pound’, Yang highlights recent moves by high street giant H&M and luxury brands like Gucci, as pathfinders for fellow brands and canny investors.
On the other side of the shopping cart, Yang pinpoints 2020’s devastating wildfires in Australia and California as key wake up calls for consumers, who saw via social media the real time impact of climate change - some quite literally in their backyards. The learning? We still want to shop for products that are great quality - but not at the expense of the environment.
For wholesale brands and traditional retailers, there’s always a cost argument against environmentally sound manufacturing. Yang explains:
“Sustainability is always going to take a backseat unless you make it a sole part of your business. At JustWears, we actually start everything with sustainability in our hearts. It’s not just some fancy afterthought to meet certain CSR targets. It goes to the very core of our values.”
Patience, and often paying more for the right elements, are central to building a sustainable business from the bottom up. Creating JustWears started with an epic quest for earth (and balls) friendly fabric. Over to Yang:
“It’s easy to manufacture from cotton or synthetic materials but far, far harder to innovate around the future generation of fabrics, which are environmentally friendly and don’t end up generating more trash or microfibres that are harmful to our planet.”
Yang and her Co-Founder Alex Walsh hit up trade shows, chatted to suppliers and ended up testing over 1000 fabrics before landing on the ideal underwear fabric that both banishes chafing and sweaty balls. MicroModal® AIR , a soft cellulosic fibre sourced from sustainable Austrian beech trees, is made in a non-toxic and renewable manufacturing process by Lenzing, an Austrian based manufacturer with a mission to create sustainable fibres. Thanks to its pioneering work creating the world’s first producer of wood-based cellulosic fibres and making a strategic commitment to cut its CO2 emissions per ton of product by 50 percent by 2030, Lenzing was recognised as a sustainability champion in 2020 by the global environmental non-profit CDP. The perfect partner for the new generation of pants.
The work doesn’t stop there, however. Founders of sustainability focused startups need to consider how to prove the credentials of their products, thanks to greenwashing from corporations purporting to be environmentally friendly. For Yang and Alex, the solution is putting the time (and hard work) in to ensure their product performs exactly as they want it to - and say it does:
“If the suppliers say the fabric is ‘high functional’ or 60% more absorbent compared to cotton, we put that into the lab and start testing. From there, and only after we are convinced every feature they promised us is true, the fabric can be considered to go into product design.”
Three years on, the pair are selling over thousands pairs of pants a week to over 70 countries and have big plans for the year ahead. Put it this way: JustWears is not just about underwear…
When building a purpose-driven startup, you need inspirational businesses in mind to help you keep the faith and keep on track with your goals. After switching out dairy for plant-based alternatives (via a DIY soya milk experiment), Yang has become a loyal customer of oat milk rebels, Oatly and is passionate about their impact:
“They’re a sustainable brand with a clear mission and marketing - they’re a pioneer for the category and make everything transparent. From production to impact, it’s all communicated clearly to customers.”
On a business level, Yang sees Patagonia as the benchmark for success. With a strong focus on environmental and social responsibility, $1billion+ valuation and renegade attitude towards the fashion industry (see their second hand shop, Worn Wear), they’re green #goals for JustWears:
“If we can become a business like Patagonia with a clear mission and values that are carried not just in the product, but people who work there and stakeholders, that would be the dream.”
THE ALPHA PROGRAMME
We met Yang and Alex on the sixth cohort of our pre-seed accelerator, The Alpha Programme, back in 2019 and are so proud of, and inspired by their incredible growth since. As applications roll in for our 2021 cohort, focused on underrepresented founders innovating in sustainability, Yang reflected on JustWears experience on the programme:
“Alpha came into our journey at exactly the right time. It builds an ecosystem for cohort membership and friendship. We can feel free to share info and help each other with anything we need. We got into Alpha without expecting what to get out of it and left Alpha feeling stronger than ever.”