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Startup Knickey Is Improving the Business of Women's Underwear Want to disrupt an aging industry? Start with changing how you define your supply chain.

By Patti Fletcher

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Knickey

Women began wearing drawers, the first-generation underwear, in the early 19th century. The world's population has grown significantly since then, and hence so has the number of women who wear underwear. At 33 percent of the intimates market worldwide, the global underwear market was valued at $9.9 billion in 2016. Yet in this highly mature and saturated market, there is still room for disruption.

Eighty-three percent of consumers buy cotton-rich underwear. Of those consumers aged 16-69 years old, 91 percent say that they would prefer natural fibers. And with that, Knickey was born in 2017. Considering that 95 percent of people throw their underwear away in the trash, Cayla O'Connell Davis the founder of Knickey -- who cut her teeth working in industry-shaping companies with a heavy focus on sustainability, supply chain and design -- started a direct-to-consumer women's underwear brand that offers a subscription service for women who want great underwear, but not at the cost of the environment.

More and more consumers have started to make buying decisions based on the impact to their environment. Unlike the food industry, there is no certification process in place to verify if non-food products are organic or not; that may change soon. Eighty-eight percent of consumers have indicated that certification is needed to rule out inaccurate claims of product safety. Together with Lauren Sagadore, a supply-chain and operations pro, who, like O'Connell Davis, shares a passion for sustainability, Knickey is disrupting the fashion industry supply chain status quo by taking a holistic view to minimize waste beyond the point of purchase.

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"Our biggest contribution to disrupting the traditional supply chain is in considering the "end of life' of garments after consumer use," says O'Connell Davis. What happens after a product is in the hands of customers after a month is typically not in the realm of consideration for clothing companies. "Companies typically do not consider disposal of their garments as part of their chain of custody, but the fact remains that most garments persist well after use," says O'Connell Davis.

Sure, there are plenty of brands that promise cruelty-free clothes made form organic materials and others that offer a subscription model. Knickey is bringing these two concepts together for underwear. While it might seem strange to recycle underwear, Knickey's approach may prove to be a new industry standard. Beyond checking the marketing boxes that typically define an eco-friendly clothing brand, O'Connell Davis and Sagadore. The supply chain disrupts traditionally held beliefs of an eco-friendly approach by following these six critical components:

Fabrics that promote female health best practices while also being eco-friendly

The fabrics used check all the sustainability boxes -- GOTS, OEKO-TEX, and Fair Trade. And by using only breathable certified sustainable organic 100% cotton, Knickey promotes female health by combatting the odds of women contracting yeast infections.

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Design does not compromise any of the key design components

This includes the traits of comfort, appearance, style, simple and well-constructed. This writer tried low-rise bikini and mid-rise hipster. The colors are earthy and the four styles currently offered (low-rise bikini, mid-rise hipster, high-rise brief and low-rise thong) will fit most style preferences. The best part was that the underwear didn't ride up or sag, making it easy to forget they are on; this may be the best complement paid to an underwear company.

Create a price point that is accessible to most -- not to some

One-off purchases through Knickey are sold for $12 a piece. The subscription option provides discounts for bundle offerings.

Provide greater ability for consumers to live a sustainable life style by providing bundle savings

The company offers subscription bundles for three pairs shipped four times a year ($27 per box, 12 pairs per year), five pairs shipped three times a year ($45 per box, 15 pairs per year) and 10 pairs shipped two times a year ($75 per box, 20 pairs per year).

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Offer a subscription option to make it easier for women to live a clean life through their most intimate garment

In order to promote female health, like the company's product, Knickey's subscription service is founded on a "by women for women" mindset. Doctors recommend that women discard their underwear after six months to a year of use, extending the science-based approach to the subscription offerings.

Provide an end-of-life program that lives by the reduce, reuse and recycle without compromising quality

This is where the disruption Knickey brings to the table really shows. The eco-friendly packaging is designed specifically for the company's take-back program. The box is used to ship new underwear to the customer and discarded underwear back to Knickey. Knickey partners with a NYC-based non-profit that sorts products based on resuse and recycle streams by quality, and material and wear before distributing to the respective recycling channels. The recycler down-cycles the materials into fiber lint that is used in insulation, batting, and industrial rags and more.

Long thought to be the processes behind the veil of a brand, Knickey's decision to offer visibility into their supply chain may set the precedent for other underwear brands. According to a 2018 study by MIT Sloan, consumers will pay a premium for transparency into a brands supply chain. By disrupting the traditional, linear supply chain and providing insights not only into their sourcing, production and distribution but also extending the view to how disposal after use impacts the environment, Knickey may be the only underwear brand on the market to think so holistically.

Patti Fletcher

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® VIP

Leadership Futurist and Gender Equity Advocate

Dr. Patti Fletcher is the author of Disrupters: Success Strategies from Women Who Break the Mold (Entrepreneur Press 2018). Dr. Patti is an enterprise tech CMO, gender equity expert, board member and keynote speaker who has spent her career at the intersection of technology, business and people.

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