In the second instalment of our Meet Our Makers series, we sat down with Brendan Lo, founder of smartass undies. Creating eco-minded underwear that packs a positive punch, this innovative, quirky (and brilliantly named) brand is paving the way for the future of sustainable fashion. We LOVE Brendan’s work, so we wanted to catch up with the man behind these wisdom-filled briefs.
So how did Brendan start making underwear? Funny enough, it all started with a toilet wall!
“I've always been interested in wisdom. You know, the messages and quotes that help bring us back to what's important in life. And, you know, my toilet, our toilet wall is covered with little quotes from the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, Dr. Seuss and so on. And, like you, I'm a dad. And I've always said to my children, if anything ever happens to me, the most important thing they can do is to not only read, but to take in and learn how to put into practice those things on a toilet wall.”
His work as an occupational therapist began to fuel this idea too. To find ways to make these amazing messages have more impact, to really embed them into our lives and minds:
“...(at work) we have a core philosophy of doing, taking action, being involved in your own life. And I started thinking about what is something that people can do to help trigger the mind? And what is something that people already have a habit of doing? And it really was a 3am brain fart. I woke up with this idea - about a billboard where I can put positive messages to help trigger positive thoughts. And then I thought, what do people do every day? Most people most days change their socks and undies!”
We all know we should be meditating, and that we should be spending an hour (or more!) on it everyday. We know it’s good for us, but sometimes it’s hard right? With the kids running around and work to be done and always something more interesting pulling us away.
“We're only human, nobody stays joyous and full of life every day. And I really believe that motivation and memory, they're fallible, we get tripped up, they fade. But sometimes we can read something, you know, a value, and have this great concept that we want to stay with us.”
I’ve always thought of mantras as mini meditations in this way. A reset. A moment to pause, evaluate and redirect my attention. To me, it makes sense that if we repeat something over and over, it’s got to affect our brain right? Like a path becoming worn into the earth over years of use, it becomes easier the more we do it; there’s less resistance and it becomes more effortless.
In this way, words are really powerful things! Whether it’s something my grandfather has shared with me, something you read in your favourite philosophy book or simply a word to live by. Which is why, to me, Brendan’s idea is so brilliant.
“You see them when you take them out of the drawer, you see them when you put them into the wash, when you take them out, when you hang them up. I now make folding clothes part of my mindfulness practice. Every time I pull up a sock, it's a moment to reflect on, you know, a key value in life...if we can impart those, like your grandfather has done with you, impart our values to the next generation - that's how we create a better and better world.”
With values at the core of what both Bonpinda and smartass do, the question of ethical and sustainable business practices is something we both love to discuss. In such a busy, distracting and loud world, how do we cut through the noise of fast fashion? How has Brendan navigated producing products in an eco-friendly way?
“I was convinced that natural fibres must be the most sustainable. But then as I started to scratch the surface, it became increasingly more complex. I started looking at bamboo, it’s plant based and the fastest growing grass in the world….but it's actually a Frankenstein effect, because of the amount of the mechanical and chemical processing involved. Then I started to learn about deforestation that's occurring because the fast fashion industry is putting out so much product now. That’s because cotton requires a lot of water to grow. It requires a lot of land where there is high rainfall - which is around the equator. Which is where we can least afford to lose forest because that is where forests grow quickly so they absorb lots of carbon.”
So where did this maze lead? To recycled plastic!
“When I discovered that you can take used plastic bottles and turn it into a high performance fabric, it was a moment of discovery for me. We have now over a million single-use plastic bottles going out into the world. Every minute across the globe. At the same time over 90% of the material that we recycle is not currently being turned into new products because of a lack of demand. And the light bulbs went off for me - we can take a problem and turn it into a solution.”
For undies, recycled plastic fabrics work wonders. It wicks away moisture and dries faster than natural fibres can. Plus, toxicologists have confirmed that they are safe and stable to use, not leaking BPA’s or chemicals if kept at safe, normal temperatures, unlike what some plastic water bottles experience.
But for socks, they had to follow a different route.
“We needed stretch. And anything with stretch in it, it's most often got spandex in, which is a synthetic with a petrochemical base. So for our socks, we made a major decision to use organic cotton, because socks need to actually absorb moisture. When your feet are locked away in a shoe, that moisture doesn't breathe out easily. So the sock being absorbent is a good thing.”
After all this incredible research and hard work, what was Brendan’s biggest discovery? That nobody and no product is perfect. That instead of striving for perfection or fighting over what’s right or wrong, we could instead shift our focus to more positive outlooks and achievable goals.
“Any product that you buy is going to have an impact….that whole journey about what's healthy, what's sustainable - it, you know, it’s complex! It's not easy for consumers, it hasn't been easy for me. I am a believer that the best, most sustainable products you can look for, whatever the materials are made of, is actually more about the duration. How long do you keep it for? How long do you use it for? Trying to slow down that process of turning things over, is actually, you know, what helps us reduce our impact.”
This movement towards ‘slow fashion’, towards reusing and re-loving, is something we can all be optimistic about. So how can we help it grow? Brendan thinks connection, communication and conversations are the way forward:
“I think we're at a time, a point in history, where the most valuable thing that we can change to make a sustainable impact is to open people's minds. If we can shift our culture, shift our behaviour, so that people start making a simple choice - they buy one item or product that's more sustainable than another, then that sets up the mind for thinking about ‘what's the next thing I'm going to do?’ I'll look at, you know, who my financial institution is, you know, how ethical are they? Can I find a bank that doesn't invest in fossil fuels? You know, everything from banks to the toothbrush we use! We make those incremental changes, and nobody does it perfectly. I still drive a car!... But you know, every little change we make is a step in the right direction.”
It’s also our children, the ones who change our perspectives, who are leading the way on this. They truly are both our biggest inspirations. Teaching us that we are capable of great things, each of us. Whether it’s changing the way we shop, the way we vote, or the way we view our own businesses. And our past can be an inspiration too, as Brendan puts it:
“My reference point is always as often been, actually, America entering the Second World War. That it went from a huge manufacturing industry making lifestyle goods, into an effort to defend itself, and others, and women went into the workforce in huge numbers. It saw industry literally transformed overnight, into a new effort. And it’s proof that we can do it. I'm a bit reluctant to leave it all in the hands of the politicians, large businesses. And that is why, you know, I've started my own gig. And we're partnered with an organisation that plants trees and saves rainforests.”
As business owners, we can change the tide. Show customers that they have options that can align with their values too. That's our first priority at Bonpinda, that a business can mean so much more than just endless growth. Brendan believes that the idea of ‘profit’ can change. That it can become something new, something about giving back, something that benefits all:
“My decisions to use recycled material often cost more than actually using virgin material. Biodegradable packaging costs more than in a non biodegradable packaging. But, you know, I think...profit is not just financial remuneration, or the number of figures that come up dollar wise, but that profit in knowing that our choices match our values...the impact on other people's lives, the people who make the product and to the environment.”
This conversation with Brendan was totally eye-opening for us, packed full of new insights on what business, ethics and sustainability can really look like. Which makes a lot of sense, considering his products are all about daily wisdom!
Did you find Brendan’s insight helpful in your own life or business plans? Which wisdom quote is your favourite? Which would you want to pass down to your kids? Let us know, we’d love to hear.