In an age where we’re all trying to be a bit more eco-friendly, there’s one landfill-filling culprit you’ve probably never considered – your bra.
And yet with more than two billion women owning on average nine bras each, that’s 18 billion of them headed towards landfill.
That statistic is what led Stephanie Devine to create the world’s first zero-waste bra.
The Very Good Bra is made from tencel, which is 100 per cent biodegradable, so when you are done you could bury it in your backyard if you wanted.
In Mamamia’s chat with Stephanie, she explains how she started her business, where her inspiration comes from and why she doesn’t believe in small, medium, large.
Tell us a bit about The Very Good Bra.
On the way back from a trip to Europe two years ago, I read that people in New Delhi were dying from the pollution originating from burning rubbish to keep warm.
At the same time, we were seeing women’s marches and returning to a ‘burn your bra’ movement, and I decided there and then that a bra had to be designed with its end in sight, a bra so safe that it could be burned, or buried in the garden at end of life, with no impact on the natural world.
As I’ve learnt more about the fashion industry, I realised that waste-free isn’t enough. The frenzy around fast-fashion has seen global production between 2000 and 2015 double, fashion is cheaper now than it was 25 years ago, and on average we wear a garment 36 per cent less than we did in 2000.
Fashion is the second most polluting industry on the planet behind oil and gas, with 40 per cent of landfill comprising of cheap and toxic clothing.
The more you learn, the more you realise you cannot contribute further to this problem.
Pioneering circular economy and cradle to cradle designers in Europe, in countries with less space and fewer resources than we are paving the way in terms of materials innovation.
What were you doing before you went into business for yourself?
My switch to bra design and manufacture was a fairly dramatic career change after a long career in financial services.
Since my 20s, I have been a headhunter in funds management, in both London and since 1995, Sydney.
What made you want to start your own business?
I’ve always been pretty entrepreneurial. I started a clothing business in my last year of school, with a friend, which actually saw us showing at the British Designer Collections in London in my late teens, and selling to shops like Harrods and Harvey Nichols in London, as well as Bendels and Charivari in New York.
Head-hunting was something I fell into when that business failed (as they mostly do when you start them while still at school!) and it was a comfortable lifestyle that allowed me to travel.
I was running my own search firm when I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006, and that was completely life-changing.
Coming out the other side of treatment, which included hormone therapy, we were five years into the GFC, and I felt like it was the universe telling me to find a solution for a non-wired, non-toxic bra for others going through treatment. This was the catalyst for setting up my first business, Bras Without Wires, and two years on I’m about to launch The Very Good Bra.
How did you come up with the name?
I have a great team of people around me working in other businesses, who contribute time and ideas, and one of them came up with this idea for the name.
As we are in the early, crowdfunding stage, it may not necessarily stick, but it felt on-the-mark for the launch.
We wanted to create something that was so very good, that you didn’t have to be. The idea of composting isn’t sexy, so we wanted to make it fun!
Describe the staff/ownership structure of The Very Good Bra.
We are now just at launch stage, if my big dream takes off, I will be able to get more of a team around me, but we have to wait and see.
For now, it is me, and some great external partners in PR, digital, and my great photographer and friend, Elise Lockwood.
Did you require investment to start The Very Good Bra?
Materials of this nature, sustainably farmed tencel from Eucalyptus trees, tree rubber elastic, cadmium free metal, organic inks for labelling, compostable packaging are incredibly expensive.
They are there and available to be used, but mainstream companies aren’t utilising them making them extremely costly for the little guys like me.
Our elastic for example, costs 100 times more that of regular elastic and I can only find one supplier in the world.
They don’t even turn the machines on until you’ve paid up-front in full as the product is so bespoke.
Hooks and Eyes that are compostable, have been hugely difficult to source and we are now working with traditional makers in Europe who can make these for us using organic cotton.
I’ve borrowed from an angel investor friend to get me to this point, but now we need to crowdfund to get the bra into production.
We are crowdfunding on Kickstarter from May 19 for four weeks and if we meet our target at this time, we move forward with production.
What kind of advice did you get before you started and from who?
I was really inspired by Bert van Son who runs the circular economy jeans company - MUD Jeans out of Amsterdam. I was fortunate to meet him on a trip he did to Sydney.
I could see from his journey just how dedicated you have to be, and how long this journey can take.
Sustainable alternatives for materials and packaging options are out there and available, however until more mainstream brands start utilising them, they are extremely costly and take time to locate and source from around the globe.
What’s the single best piece advice you got?
Start before you’re ready! That sounds flippant, but you will never be 100 per cent ready and so you have to choose a moment to just jump in!
What’s the one bit of advice you would give yourself if you were starting again?
I think Nathalie Portman said about directing her first film, if you knew how hard it was going to be at the beginning, you probably wouldn’t do it, although secretly I think we have to be pig-headed enough to just go with it! I think next time I would try and build in more time, I feel like I’m always running to stay on track, but then again, time is an absolute luxury in a start-up.
At Mamamia we have an expression “flearning” - failing and learning. What have been your biggest flearnings since you have started your business?
To be clear with everyone you work with, on values, roles and that you all have well-defined expectations of each other. It’s easy to imagine you are both on the same page but that is often not the case. I also tend to take on far too much myself and ultimately this can leave you working ‘in’ the business and not ‘on’ it. More resources can mean better results for everyone.
I’ve learned that it takes an incredible amount of dogged determination to mobilise people when you run your own thing and no-one is responsible for actually delivering anything to you. I’ve learned that it’s sometimes necessary to jump on planes and trains to show people you’re serious about a project and need their help. I find there’s nothing more mobilising than saying ‘I’ll be at your office at 10 am on Thursday’ - even if it's on the Belgian border!
What is the smartest thing you’ve done since starting your business?
I think the right choice of marketing partners, both digital and PR is very important. I have a gun PR partner - Charlotte Evans at In the Beginning PR and that’s a huge support. It’s great for a new business to work with other less mature businesses, we can grow together and support each other.
I’m also, whenever possible, taking more opportunity to play a more general, public role in education for sustainability in fashion, which feels great given I have learned so much, but which also helps the brand.
Are there any pieces of technology or software, apps or systems that have made it easier to do what you do?
I love VSCO for Instagram, but otherwise, until we are up and running I’m not sure which platform we will use for e-commerce. My first business struggled with the plug-ins required for a fairly complex business with thousands of SKUs on Woocommerce, so should The Very Good Bra become a proper e-commerce site, I will explore other options.
What do you do when you’re feeling like you’re in a hole emotionally (or financially)? How do you handle those ‘deep-trough-of-pain’ startup moments?
When I lost my first business I felt my life was over, and so I googled ‘failure in first business’ and guess what - there were thousands of us! It really buoyed me to know I wasn’t alone, that 90% of first businesses fail and that subsequent attempts are where it’s at. In the end, for me, given I survived breast cancer 11 years ago, I just consider myself incredibly lucky to be here, and I always build some joy and gratitude time into every day.
How many hours a day do you work on your business? Has this changed? How do you manage your time?
Most days I work about 10 -12 hours, but I work pretty full on and often don’t stop to eat or anything. I work from home so there are no distractions or excuses, it’s intense. I used to work one day on the weekend, but now, apart from social media moderation, I take weekends off. I understand I need 48 hours’ recovery time to perform better the following week.
What are your non-negotiables? (eg: exercise, putting your kids to bed, meditation, not going out on weeknights….)
I’m lucky enough to live at the beach and I always make sure I’m on it in the morning, even for half an hour every day, it helps keep me sane and sometimes it’s the only time I get out of my office. I also meditate every evening, I can’t fit in two, I’d rather be on the beach moving in the morning, but most evenings I stop for 20 minutes.
What's the biggest misconception you had about starting your business - how is it different to what you'd imagined?
Tricky, I think there’s probably a misconception with anything to do with fashion that it’s glamorous, it’s hard work and photo shoots are about the most exhausting days of your life! Other than that, I think you always need more money and more time than you think at the outset.
Tell us about your proudest moment?
I was blown away by the press we received pre-launch for the Kickstarter Campaign. Suddenly publications and bloggers were chasing me down, which was super exciting and humbling! The Kickstarter went live Saturday 19 May and we had reached our goal by 9.20pm Sunday night, which was an extremely proud moment! There is still so much more to do and I need to raise as much money as I can in the next 26 days of the campaign to really make this a proper brand with a future beyond this one bra. I love that people are universally interested in the idea.
With The Very Good Bra being so new, a real highlight was being invited to a panel in Hong Kong recently as an expert in sustainable lingerie by the incredible Christina Dean of Redress.
What she has done, and does, with regard to clothing waste and landfill in Asia is awe-inspiring. I found myself in the company of some real heavyweights in sustainability and considering myself something of a young pup in this world (albeit one that’s worked very hard to create something that is unique over the last year) I did feel honoured and proud to be on the stage.
What does your personal life look like? Who are the important people in your life and work?
There isn’t a lot of time in my personal life. I have a partner who thankfully is very commercial and less hot-headed than me, who supports what I do and hoses me down when I need it.
My close friends are amazing, but I find I end up more limited to a smaller group than before, with whom I do activities - Pilates, meditation and kayaking. I miss my family and friends in the UK but I enjoy their daily support over online scrabble and face-time. I also have two cats who give unconditional love and seem endlessly pleased to see me.
How much sleep do you get every night?
Not enough! I have horrible insomnia and always have. I envy those who can sleep well, I think I could do so much more if I could just get even 7 hours every night.
What can you recommend to women who might want to get their own hustle going?
I think just be prepared to back yourself and be prepared to fail. If you can’t then you shouldn’t do it.
Find your tribe, be inspired by that community and tap into it when times are tough.
I’d also say that even though I earn a fraction of what I did in corporate life, that I invested all I earned in this over three years whilst working part-time in a corporate role, and also the loss of earnings over the last few years is staggering, I’m glad I’ve not risked my home. It’s a tiny shoe-box, but if I fail again, it’s still here and life will go on.
Do you have a mentor? Who do you go to for help and advice now?
On this journey, I’ve been blown away by people’s preparedness to help and advise me.
The big guys like to support the little guys and I’ve never had anyone not give me the time when I ask for some special advice, from CEOs to lawyers and accountants in all fields.
People can be incredibly generous and I couldn’t have survived without my sounding board of experts, it’s a lesson to us all should we make it, about humbly and generously giving back.
Since we’re in the #LadyStartUp spirit, which Lady Startups do you recommend? Who should we be looking out for?
I’m keen on local ethical businesses so I’d recommend Charlotte Evans In the Beginning PR for ethical PR, Salt Gypsy for eco-surf and activewear, La Luna Rose for recycled silver Jewellery and their closed loop system, Natalie Shehata for starting the wonderful Tommie magazine, and Kristina Ammitzboll at Pigna Studios for the most beautiful edgy semi-precious jewellery.