At this point in our business life cycle, Bluestockings hasn’t been able to work with 80% of brands and designers with whom we’ve had wholesale conversations. (OK, so 80% of the industry might be an exaggeration.) There are a variety of reasons these conversations fall through, but increasingly, it comes down to manufacturing and specifically, Bluestockings’ values when it comes to ethical manufacturing, which is a piece of our Sustainability Policy.
Bluestockings currently stocks 22 brands and designers, 19 of which are independent, meaning that they aren't bankrolled or owned by a larger corporation. I’ve spoken with well over 100 brands and designers over the last eight months about stocking their lingerie. In the early days, conversations usually fell through because I got turned down or ignored by brands. These days, however, the conversation usually ends for one major reason: a brand’s policy on ethical manufacturing and sustainability - or rather, a lack thereof.
If Bluestockings’ policy of only working with brands that have ethical manufacturing means not being able to work with the vast majority of brands in this industry, why maintain this policy?
Simply put: because ethical manufacturing is about labor rights. I believe in paying people a fair wage for their labor (as has been discussed in many other forums, cheap clothes are cheap because the labor cost has been cut out). Importantly, this is also a women’s rights issue, especially in developing countries, as 85-90% of sweatshop workers are women.
At the end of the day, I think that the companies who are willing to accept labor conditions which are tantamount to slave labor care more about their bottom line than they do about people. That's a strong statement, and while the obvious rebuttal is that businesses need to make money, why must we pit making money against providing humane working conditions? Obviously, businesses have to make money to survive. But at what point is a margin worth a person’s livelihood - or life?
It’s no secret that the fashion industry, generally, is plagued by problems with ethical manufacturing and sustainability - which is a nice way of saying that fashion, generally, sweeps their dirty laundry under the rug and moves on to the next factory in the next country. A recent tragedy serves as an example: just two years ago, the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh collapsed, killing 1,130 workers and injuring hundreds more. Bangladeshi officials worried that the factory collapse would negatively impact outsourcing to the country. In fact, Western outsourcing to Bangladesh has only increased.
The #FashionRev movement, on the anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse.
Photo courtesy of fashionrevolution.org
The lingerie industry, as part of the fashion industry, has long benefited from the significantly reduced cost of labor in the developing world, and the United States’ notoriously loose trade agreements are written significantly in favor of the corporations (just look at the Trans-Pacific Partnership currently on the table, which would, for one, expand protections for companies which outsource jobs - US and EU business have enormous interests in this deal). Victoria’s Secret’s use of sweatshops is well documented. John Oliver recently did a piece on the numerous human rights violations at factories used by a number of companies, including Hanes - who, incidentally, have a hilarious manufacturing policy on their website (hilarious if you know about their string of abuses over the last few decades). Hanes, btw, owns Playtex, Champion, Bali, Maidenform, barely there, JMS/just my size, WonderBra, and Lilyette.
I have no patience for these companies, because they have the capital to affect industry change if they wanted to, if they cared less about their bottom line. But there are other, smaller companies who also use offshore manufacturing, who are hard up in many ways. Some of these other companies are on the struggle bus to represent underserved customers themselves and have simply been priced out of developing their products in developed countries with fair labor laws, which is a related issue that desperately needs to be addressed.
Ethical manufacturing is a particular concern with the full bust and plus size market, and I often struggle with where to temper my frustration because of some of these companies’ very real budget concerns. Finding manufacturers is difficult, and production costs force many overseas. (As was recently discussed in Holly of The Full Figured Chest's article on The Lingerie Addict, people don’t like to hear that it simply costs more to make plus size lingerie.) Now, manufacturing overseas can be done in an above-board way (look at companies like Claudette and Anita), but unfortunately, that's not the trend.
Here are some things I look for in a conversation with a brand about ethical manufacturing. These questions aren't perfect, and they aren't fail safe, but the ability to answer them usually indicates a brand's high level of transparency and care about their manufacturing:
- Does the person I'm speaking with know where the brand manufactures their items without having to check?
- Can the designer/owner/sales rep speak extensively about the factory conditions, or can they refer me to someone else who can answer my questions? (Do they know who to refer me to for these questions?)
- Is the factory WRAP-certified? Are there pictures available?
- Do brand employees visit the factory on a regular basis?
- Is the owner of the factory known to the brand? Have they had a working relationship for a long time? Is this factory used by other independent brands in the industry? Do they have a strong reputation?
Unfortunately, the vast majority of plus size and full bust brands I’ve inquired with simply can't answer these questions. When I find out that a brand's lingerie is manufactured in a factory "in Asia" that meets some vague “industry standard” (of which there is none) and someone is unable to provide me with any further details, that conversation is, clearly, over.
It bears noting that full bust and plus size brands that manufacture in the USA and UK are almost always luxury brands - or very near it - and thus often have the price tag to show for it. Harlow & Fox, All Undone, and Bosom Galore are prime examples. A handful of other brand new brands have popped up over the last year with sizing that extends into full bust and plus size ranges, such as Blue Reign (UK) and Sojourn Lingerie (US), but as operations solely run by the designer, these one-woman-shows are not capable of producing at the level of, say, a Panache or Wacoal, and the prices and time-to-production reflect that.
Here at Bluestockings, we stock RavenDreams: one of the more affordable luxury plus-size brands, but still with a higher price tag than other brands
Though those luxury brands are doing great work both aesthetically and ethically, they are well out of the budget of the average Bluestockings customer. One of the most common requests for inventory expansion has been more full bust and plus size options. However, finding brands at a reasonable price point that are manufacturing ethically is hard - really hard.
Ultimately, a lack of accountability when it comes to offshore manufacturing and a barrier to entry for brands attempting to serve the most underserved creates a vicious cycle that perpetuates the worst parts of capitalism. With the Trans-Pacific Partnership on the table, the United States government has made it clear that they are not interested in cracking down on trade agreements. It's truly up to consumers to vote with their money and tell brands (and businesses) exactly what kind of values they stand for - and expect.
P.S. Get the latest and sign up for our newsletter!