Turning Underwear Manufacturing Inside Out | Net Impact

Turning Underwear Manufacturing Inside Out

Jeff Denby, Chief Creative Officer & Founder, PACT Apparel

As a twenty-something working in web development and design, Jeff Denby took a life-changing trip to a manufacturing plant in China. “There was black metal dust floating through the air – I couldn’t see across the room,” says Jeff. “All in the name of making products for Americans to consume. It was there on the factory floor where I saw the disconnect between what we purchase and where it’s made.” Jeff knew he wanted to change that - and the change would start with the most basic thing he wore everyday: his underwear.

Becoming the underwear guy

He may have been an unconventionally “artsy” candidate for business school, but Jeff decided the first step to his vision was to enroll at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley. "I showed up with the crazy idea I wanted to start an organic underwear company…one of the smartest things I did was just talk about my idea, and people got to know me as ‘the underwear guy.’”

Throughout b-school, Jeff found a way to integrate sustainability into his learning at every turn. He took course after course at the school’s Center for Responsible Business. He surrounded himself with like-minded people, including his eventual business partner. He became the Net Impact Haas School of Business chapter president.

And the pieces fell into place.

During a product development course, Jeff and his team created their very first samples, which were “terrible, but they really got across the idea we were trying to come up with.” The samples were enough to catch the eye of renowned designer Yves Behar, who recognized that underwear was an otherwise boring product category ripe for innovation. Yves made him a deal: if Jeff could find a funding source, Yves would take on the project. Jeff and his classmate-turned-business partner got to work, and soon after graduation they designed and launched PACT.

Do you really want to do this 24/7?

The social entrepreneur is a unique breed, and Jeff started gravitating toward the role even before heading to b-school. “Maybe it’s because I don’t work well for other people,” he says. “I always wanted to be involved in the strategic planning, the bigger meetings; so I found myself weaseling my way into those things in previous roles.”

“You really have to have a lot of tenacity, a lot of passion, and a lot of belief in what you are doing. And you have to be willing to work harder than you ever imagined you would work.”

Even so, getting PACT off the ground wasn’t easy. “You really have to have a lot of tenacity, a lot of passion, and a lot of belief in what you are doing,” he explains. “And you have to be willing to work harder than you ever imagined you would work.” Jeff quickly discovered that the all of the mundane decisions and administrative tasks he took for granted at previous jobs all of a sudden landed on his shoulders. And while even a social entrepreneur has to find a way to keep the lights on, being mission-driven adds an additional layer of complexity to those day-to-day decisions.

The hard work pays off

Jeff set out to change a product’s entire lifecycle: he immersed himself in every detail of the business to create a better supply chain. The company uses organic cotton, sustainable factories, compostable packaging, and even offers a recycling program for worn-out goods. But if this kind of social entrepreneurship is such hard work, why does he do it? Why put up with the risk, or the long hours, or the many obstacles that face a company like PACT?

The answer is actually pretty simple: “I want this to be a brand that excites consumers and gets them thinking about their own personal contribution to the world.” One of the ways PACT does this is by teaming up with nonprofits like EarthSpark International to develop specific collections that raise money for various causes. With the proceeds from the sale of a few packages of underwear (okay, more than a few; the line sold out almost instantly), PACT and EarthSpark were able to provide over 500 solar-powered lanterns to women in Haiti, while capturing the attention of PACT customers and the media.

As if that wasn’t enough, Jeff received a personal letter from Bill Clinton praising PACT’s work. “He said it was a creative and innovative way to help solve and give back to some of the world’s most difficult problems. That was one of the most proud moments I’ve had in my career thus far – to imagine that somehow Bill Clinton saw we were doing something that had real impact; from our little office in Berkeley we caught the eye of the [former] President of the United States.”

Jeff's advice

Becoming a social entrepreneur isn’t easy. If you’re ready and willing “to risk it all for this dream you have,” Jeff shares some tips he wishes he knew along the way.

  • Build your technical skills first: Jeff recommends strengthening your hard skills (like mastering Excel) early in your career. Even if it’s frustrating, “it helps you understand what people under you are doing, and allows you to do them quickly yourself.”
  • Don’t see failure as failure: Pay attention and learn quickly. You have to be “willing to take risks, and when things don’t work--don’t look at that as a failure, but see the lessons you learned from that experience.”
  • Stay focused in a dynamic environment: There’s no shortage of ideas or opportunities with entrepreneurs, so it’s important to stay focused on your mission and execute your ideas. Jeff says because the business is changing so quickly, “every day we remind each other to get what we need to get done.”
  • Build a support system: Building a business is “the hardest thing you’re going to do,” says Jeff, so it’s critical to surround yourself with people – family, friends, other social entrepreneurs - to help you through it. “It’s so amazing to see people do innovative amazing things with social impact, and that’s what really has to keep you going every day.”