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Interview with Do-Gooder CEO Jeff Denby of PACT

by Dan Cassidy recently spoke with Jeff Denby, CoFounder of PACT, an apparel company that is working to revolutionize underwear by using organic materials and donating a percentage of sales to non-profits chosen specifically for each design line. Jeff spent time with Inspiyr talking about how it all started, why there is a growing trend toward social entrepreneurship in the US, and what guys can do to turn their dreams into reality.

Let’s hear the story of PACT.  How did it all begin?

It all started in Toronto where I was managing an industrial design studio and we were making a lot of products – furniture, kitchen products, medical devices – just a lot of household consumer products, and all of them were manufactured in China.  Part of my job was to work with those manufacturers, and after visiting them I didn’t like what I saw.  This was back in early 2000’s.  There was a disconnect for me between how well esteemed we held ourselves and our designs and then how we went about getting the products manufactured – we didn’t care about that process much.  We just wanted it to be cheap and high quality to get the margin we needed.  I thought, “Why can’t we make these things better”?  “Why don’t we care about the people making these products, and the damage it’s doing environmentally and socially?”

While I was in China I connected with a few people from Gap and a couple other clothing companies and learned the apparel business from the factory floor rather than being a designer first and then finding out later how the clothes were actually made.  I was always interested in fashion and design and at that time sustainability was starting to become something that was talked about.  As a consumer I was frustrated because anything made from cotton or animal textile was an oatmeal-colored, hemp yoga hippie kind of thing.  I thought, “Why can’t we make things that are stylish, cool and interesting, and also organic and made properly?  Why not also give back to the community where they’re made or sold?”  That’s where the idea behind PACT really started – that was the pain point of the business we wanted to solve.

When I went to business school at Berkeley I showed up and told anyone who would listen that I wanted to start this organic underwear company.  Everybody told me I was weird because everyone else was working to do other things that were much more business oriented.  But I’ve always been fascinated by mass produced objects and if we could make mass produced objects better we’d have a huge impact.  Underwear is something that basically everyone needs, and I thought about the impact we could have when millions and millions of these items are being produced every single year.  So that’s what PACT started to coalesce around – mass-producing essential items that consumers need.  The idea was to make them better – more environmentally and socially responsible, and stylish and desirable, and not give up any of those aspects.

As I went through Berkeley I met my business partner Jason Kibbey, and then through the school we met up with Yves Behar, the well-known industrial designer who had heard about our project and always thought underwear was a boring category because it had never changed. He offered to do the design work if we wanted to partner.  We thought, shoot, now we have to do this as a real business!  That’s when we launched the whole thing.  Right when we graduated we spent a year designing the whole concept behind PACT.

What made it important was not to just make the product more considered but we wanted consumers to feel engaged with their products and connect people more with their underwear and socks.  This idea of connecting to and supporting a cause for every collection that we do was born out of that.  It’s evolved over the past couple years and is going in an exciting direction for the future of PACT.

What we like doing the most now is coming up with a theme for the seasons collection, like a broad theme and then working with a specific nonprofit who works in that area to use the sale of the collection to raise and fully fund a particular project that the nonprofit is doing.  For instance PACT worked with Architecture For Humanity last holiday and helped them raise money to rebuild a village in Japan that was wiped out in the tsunami.  We were able to raise enough money to build a particular workhouse for a group of fishermen in the rebuilding project, so it was really exciting and visceral for our customers.  We were able to communicate back to our customers what was going on with the village.  They thought the transaction was more than just a transaction, they felt like they were part of it. It developed a feeling of closeness to the product.  So we really made an emotional connection between somebody’s underwear and how they’re feeling.

In terms of differentiation, why not just stop at organic underwear?  Why go so far as to improve conditions for workers and build a sustainable chain throughout the whole process of PACT manufacturing?

Sustainability is a journey and not a destination.  There’s so much improvement that can be done, everyday in everything we do at PACT.  It’s holistic; everything is connected.  It didn’t make sense to just buy organic fabric and then use any old factory to make it. If we’re going to use organic cotton we have to think about how we’re manufacturing it, and we also have to think about the dyes we’re using, and we have to think about where the cotton comes from – not just is it organic but who’s picking it.  Once you start digging into the supply chain, particularly in apparel, which is a very non-transparent supply chain, more questions were raised then answers given.

As I asked all these questions I was traveling around the world looking for factories that would satisfy me with enough answers to make me comfortable to manufacture our products there. We went to China, Vietnam, India, Peru, Portugal, and the US, and finally we settled on Turkey because we found a factory there that actually went all the way to the base of the supply chain and considered their responsibility right from the seed of the cotton, both environmentally and socially. Once you start on that journey there’s no turning back, we had to make sure all those things were a part of it.

On top of that, at PACT we were smart in foreseeing that organic was not going to be a selling point for a product over the long term, that it couldn’t be the only attribute we could rest the brand on.  We had seen a lot of apparel brands that had put organic cotton in their line and struggled making a connection to a consumer with just that.  It took consumers a long time to really understand organic food until Whole Foods came along and popularized the idea.  Then en masse people started purchasing it and paying more for it.  For us we needed to have more depth to the brand than something that was an easily copy-able attribute like organic.

How do you choose the non-profit organizations you partner with and support at PACT?

In the past we looked at organizations we believed in and trusted what they were doing with the money.  My business partner Jason came from the nonprofit business sector so has a good understanding of how that industry works and who the main players were.  Also, our non-profits had to be committed to working with an underwear company on a campaign.  We worked with Sierra Club, which seems surprising but their youth division was interested in doing something fun, young and different so there was a commitment on their part.

As PACT has evolved most of our focus has been raising money on specific projects, and we partnered with an organization called Citizen Effect.  They’re an online philanthropy crowd funding site and they’re amazing wonderful people.  We’ve been able to go to them and say “we’d like to do something in Detroit, what non-profits are doing interested projects there?”  They go off and find great people – social entrepreneurs who are starting projects and companies.  They’re a great trusted entity and our source for non-profits around the world. We give our money to them and they ensure that money goes to the non-profit, and that the non-profit uses it.  Citizen Effect does all the due diligence and follow-up.  We’ve developed a great long-term relationship with them.

Years ago people would go to school in hopes of starting a career where they could work for a large company and stick with it for 30 or 40 years, and as long as the bills were getting paid and they could provide for their family they were happy.  Now it doesn’t seem like that’s enough. People want to be successful professionally, but only if their career leaves them fulfilled personally as well.  Why is that?

I think the Internet has been an amazing tool to open people’s eyes. 20 years ago, people were not as connected to the rest of the world and the rest of our community as we are now. People are now able to self-educate on social, political and environmental issues over the Internet and are becoming passionate about them quickly, while they’re young.  They see opportunities to make the world a better place, and are asking questions a lot earlier then they ever were in the past. It’s a very independent generation and smart people are finding outlets for their curiosity.

Also, there is so much hyper-sharing right now it’s almost impossible to avoid anything that starts trending so by osmosis you pick up what’s going on in the world.   Now it’s crazy; access to the info is so readily available.

I think it’s really encouraging to see younger kids and Millennials want more for their own personal career and their communities.  My hope is that continues as they grow up and get college degrees and then face the realities of life.  It’s easy to want to change the world when you’re young and in college but it’s really hard when you have to pay the rent and eat.

I think it’s super important for communities to support young entrepreneurs with ideas like that.  The unfortunate thing is I don’t see political leaders investing at all in education or support but hopefully this next generation will start to grow up and demand it.  That’s keeping the hope alive for me.

The social entrepreneur trend is something I’m passionate about.  For our fall campaign in July I took our photographer and we went to cities across the US and met young social entrepreneurs in cities like Austin and Portland.  Despite all the political and economic dysfunction, young people under 30 are starting businesses and non-profits, and they all have missions and fascinating business models.  A lot of them are hybrid non-profit/for-profit businesses specifically developed to solve social or environmental problems.  That was really what inspired the PACT fall campaign.  We shot a lot of these social entrepreneurs in their underwear. You’ll see those people featured in our fall campaign -we call them our Change Makers – and they’re just fascinating young people.

Nike goes out and sponsors athletes.  PACT goes out and sponsors change makers.  I want to find people all over the country who are young and passionate and be the brand that sponsors them, helps them get their message out and helps them get funding.  They’re the future; they’re our real leaders.

Many of our readers are aspiring to be change makers – either they want to be a social entrepreneur, or just want to make a life change that would have them more fulfilled.  What’s your advice to them?

I’ve seen so many friends who have kids and houses go and do it.  I think that you really have to say there’s no time like the present. Either you want to do it or you don’t.  If you really want to do it it’s life changing, it’s all in, and your spouse has to be committed to it as well and you’ve just got to go and do it.  It requires a long walk on the beach to ask what’s important to you.  Is it the house, the car and private school, or is it starting the business to change the world?  How do you want to leave your mark on society, on your family, and your friends?

If you’re going to stop what you’re doing to start something that’s mission driven it really has to come from your heart and you have to be 100% committed to it.  But starting something is the hardest thing any person can do.  It’s really hard.  That’s why you have to know in your heart that’s what is the most important, not making money and buying expensive cars or having a big house.  It’s serious commitment.  Take those long walks, go on the weekend getaway, figure out what you want to do.

But the most rewarding thing you can ever do is to make something yourself and see someone you’ve never met before wearing it on the street or participating in whatever service you’ve created because it’s solved a problem for them or delighted them or helped them in some way. You’ll never get that from a spreadsheet that you made at your corporate job.

It seems that men are more environmentally and socially conscious now compared to years ago.  Do you see that male consumers are being more considerate with the products they’re purchasing, in terms of the impact those products have on the environment and the world in general?

Over the past ten years men’s fashion has really started to come of age and men have embraced their vanity more.  There’s a big move for men to dress better and consider their appearance – men’s-only sale sites and websites are doing extremely well.  Guys want to look good.

Where you see a lot of engagement on their side is particularly in urban areas.  Upwardly mobile, educated, civically engaged men are interested in fashion and design and are also environmentally and socially aware in their own position in life.  So a brand like PACT is speaking to them because it’s hitting all of their values.  We have lots of men with young families who are seeing the future through their children’s eyes.  That’s the kind of guy our customer is.

How’s business going?

It’s great.  We’re growing really quickly.  You can find PACT in Nordstrom’s across the country, Amazon, launching our socks in Whole Foods in the coming weeks and expanding in boutiques across the US.  We’re getting new stores every week.  We just need to get boots on the ground to start walking in new stores and start selling.

What should we expect next from you and PACT?

We’re working on some big partnerships that are going to be really exciting. We’re transitioning our focus from operationalizing the business back to our heart and connecting deeper with our causes.  I’m hitting the road over the next six months visiting and participating in some of the projects we’re funding, which is going to be exciting.  We’re working on awesome content for our customers so they can feel engaged and really see what their participation in PACT is doing to help make it more visceral for customers.  I’m also excited about that.

We’re also looking for ways we can expand our impact.  There are a lot of partnership opportunities for us to raise a heck of a lot more money than just from the sale of our clothing.  We’ve got some novel ideas we’re looking to come out with in early 2013.

Thanks Jeff.  Best of luck to you and the PACT team.


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