Ethical. Organic. Local. Handmade. Sustainable.
These are the buzzwords of an entire industry, buzzwords that have quickly become trendy as they infiltrate just about every market in our economy. Is your food local? Are your clothes ethically made—or better yet, handmade? Do you frequent businesses that engage in sustainability?
But when we shop local, when we buy “ethical lingerie,” when we look for those four little words on a tag (“Made in the USA”), are we thinking about the meaning behind them? Have the words become dissociated from their meanings?
To an extent, I think they have. I think that, to an extent, we’ve forgotten why they’re important.
It’s why we still shop at chain stores when $15 seems like too much to spend on underwear, nevermind that much of that clothing comes from sweatshops, where it is indeed handmade, just not by hands that are valued in a western economy—hands that don’t earn close to what would pass as a minimum wage in the United States, let alone a living wage.
Why is this important? And why is it specifically important for Bluestockings?
It's important because no one should be subjected to the inhumane working conditions in sweatshops. It's important because women make up 85-90% of sweatshop workers. It's important because only three years ago, Walmart, Macy's, Target, and Hanes were linked to a "rape factory" in Jordan, where female workers were routinely physically and sexually abused. In Cambodia, sex workers who are arrested are "reintegrated" into society via the garment industry—only to flee back to sex work because they find it preferable. It's only been one year since the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, where 1,130 garment workers were crushed because factory owners ignored evacuation orders. A recent New York Times article details how Bangladeshi officials worried that western corporations would pull out of Bangladesh because of the factory collapse, but in fact, business has only increased.
But there is a paradox here: the young, progressive queers and allies who make up the core customer base of Bluestockings are on a budget. There is the desire to support ethically driven business, but there are financial limitations.
The market research surveys for Bluestockings have revealed a lot about price points folks are willing to pay. People are, by and large, willing to spend a lot on bras—especially (but not exclusively!) folks with hard-to-find sizes. Underwear, though? That's a whole different story.
Underwear is one of the only items in a person’s wardrobe that can’t be thrifted. Gently used bras can be found at Goodwill, and you can find awesome vintage lingerie on Ebay, but underwear? Not so much. You really have to buy that new. And at the rate that people with vaginas tend to go through underwear, no matter how well prepared they may be, spending any more than $10 a pair can seem really steep.
In the United States, we are accustomed to bargain bins and deep discounts. Chain stores have annihalated Main Street, and “outsourcing” is code for “cheap” [read: unvalued] labor.
When you think about it, factoring in the cost of materials and labor, how on earth could our underwear vary in cost from $3 to upwards of $$60 a pair? Is it all in the materials? No. I mean, yes, lace is expensive, but even the finest materials in the world can't account for the fact that some pairs of underwear in this country cost over 20x more than others. A $60 panty from a brand like Natori or Chantelle—which are mid-price point brands in the lingerie industry—costs 20x more than underwear from Wal-Mart and Target. And we aren't even coming close to the cost of luxury brands like Carine Gilson, Agent Provocateur, and Bordelle.
What accounts for this difference? Quality materials, absolutely. But a majority of the price difference is in the labor: the difference between manufacturing in the US or the UK and in a country that has a very loose “trade agreement” with the US, where corporations can get away with human rights abuses such as paying workers a pittance per day.
Human labor. That’s where they make up the difference.
You can afford cute, cheap undies from Target because some woman is slaving away for 10-12 hours a day, earning 20 cents on the hour.
And it’s not just the megastores. Victoria’s Secret is notorious for their human rights abuses, and they’re taking a significantly larger profit margin than Target and Wal-Mart.
You’re on a budget, boo. I get that. I’m on a budget, too. I still have some old, trashy Victoria’s Secret lingerie in my underwear drawer (not trashy cause it’s from VS—trashy cause it’s so old but hey, I can’t afford to outfit a totally brand new drawer overnight). But over the last few years, I’ve been slowly throwing out all the old stuff and bringing in new stuff from better places: from big brands that manufacture ethically and have strict codes (like Curvy Kate) to small, one woman shops (like Knickerocker).
It’s hard to transform an entire wardrobe overnight. But your underwear drawer is a small, manageable place to start focusing ethical priorities.