So what should I write about today, the blogger wonders. The smart grid? Combined heat-and-power systems? Or underwear? Well, given that it’s holiday shopping season….
Meet PACT, a company that wants to persuade you to change your underwear and change the world.
Launched this year, PACT is the brainchild of Jason Kibbey and Jeff Denby, new grads of the Haas business school at Berkeley who met as first-year MBAs. PACT makes premium organic cotton underwear for men and women, sells it online, transports the stuff in reusable fabric bags, and gives 10% of each sale to support nonprofit partnets including Oceana (which works to protects oceans), Forest Ethics (activists who work on behalf of forests) 826 National (mentoring young writers, inspired by Dave Eggers) and Global Green USA (best known for its sustainable development work in New Orleans.)
The company says:
Buying PACT underwear is more than a transaction; it’s commerce as a social movement embodying the motto: Change Starts With Your Underwear.
I’ve always been mildly skeptical of the idea that shopping can be a driver of social change. But PACT seems like a well thought-out enterprise, so I agreed to talk by phone recently with co founder Jason Kibbey. (Disclosure: Pact’s PR firm also sent me a free pair of underwear.) Before starting PACT, Jason interned with the Union of Concerned Scientists, helped start a land conservation group called Defense of Place and worked at Patagonia on Freedom to Roam, which became a nonprofit dedicated to protecting wildlife corridors.
“I came to business school with the goal of leaving with a green business,” he says.
With Denby, wbo has worked as a product designer, Kibbey surveyed the landscape of business aimed at the so-called LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability) market. “Everything from chocolate to denim has its LOHAS market leader right now,” he told me. But there wasn’t much happening in the underwear category.
Influenced by such companies as Patagonia and Method, Kibbey decided that PACT would position itself not merely as a socially responsible company but with its cutting-edge design. He formed a partnership with Yves Behar, a well-known designer who has worked on such project as One Laptop Per Child and the Herman Miller LEAF lamp.
Says Kibbey: “Without making something beautiful, and making a high-end project that people could get excited about, sustainability alone wouldn’t fly….We want to lead with beauty and create a product that people love.”
“People might buy it once for its green cred, but they wouldn’t come back,” he says.
PACT is careful about everything it does. The cotton that goes into its underwear is farmed organically in Turkey. The garments are made in a factory that meets Fair Labor Standards. PACT’s home office is in Berkeley where, according to the company website:
All of our employees live within a few miles of the office and walk, bike, or use public transportation to get here. When we have meetings in the big city, we use the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system to get there. There are no company vehicles or fancy parking spots.
Most of the furniture in the office was recycled from friends and family – it is not pretty.
You don’t get much more politically correct than that.
But can PACT succeed as a business? Selling only online is one challenge. Selling only underwear is another, as Kibbey is finding. “It is a challenge to get the volumes up fast enough to get the costs down to where we can be comfortable,” he says. Men’s styles are $22 to $25, women’s are $18 to $22 — not cheap. Then again, who thought we’d pay $3.50 for a latte until Starbucks came along?
I hope PACT succeeds. If startups that take their social and environmental responsibilities seriously do well, they will send a message to big companies that consumers care about the impact of what they buy.
As for Kibbey, his gig as CEO of an underwear company has already generated some unexpected moments. People want to express their support for what he’s selling.
“I walked into a diner party at my mom’s house, and somebody I’d never met dropped his pants,” he says.