I realized the other day that I needed a new bra. Usually I would hop in the car, drive to the nearest Victoria’s Secret, and buy some mass-produced, synthetic hot pink thing that claimed to make me sexy. Easy enough. But I just couldn’t do it this time. My conscience wouldn’t let me.
Over the last few years, my knowledge of justice issues has grown. I can no longer ignore the realities of sweatshops, child labor, toxic pesticides and dyes, and unjust trade laws. Sure, it’s easy to walk into the mall and buy whatever is on sale. It’s easy to not care about where my clothes came from, who made them and under what conditions, and what their long-term effects will be. I buy things without asking those questions all the time—like I’m sure the ad execs want me to. Of course, I’ll buy the fair trade coffee or the organic produce when it’s readily available, but, when it comes to just about everything else, I still know how to mindlessly consume with the best of them.
But not this time. I decided to see if I could find a new bra that was ethically made—just to see if I could do it and to force myself to actually put my money where my mouth is. So as my friends rolled their eyes and offered sarcastic “good lucks,” I began my search for the justice bra. But first I set my criteria.
The bra had to be made from an organically grown material. No synthetics made from petroleum, no pesticides that harm the environment and the farmers, and no unsustainable practices. Since hemp growth is restricted, bamboo isn’t usually sustainably grown (and who would ever want a wool bra?), organic cotton seemed to be my best option. Cotton is the most pesticide-dependent crop in the world, accounting for 25 percent of total pesticide use. Since we don’t eat cotton, the amount and types of chemicals dumped on cotton crops aren’t as restricted as for other crops. These chemicals are taking their toll on the environment as well as on human health. The EPA considers seven of the top 15 pesticides used on cotton as “likely” or “known” human carcinogens. Every t-shirt made of conventional cotton requires a quarter pound of harmful chemicals. I can’t knowingly support that. So to be ethical, it had to be grown using ecologically friendly practices.
It also couldn’t have toxic dyes in the fabric—dyes that hurt the environment and are potential carcinogens. I didn’t want fish to die or metals and chlorines to seep into my skin just so I could have hot pink. Numerous chemicals are used to dye most fabrics and these chemicals generally do not break down in wastewater treatment plants. And often to get the dyes to set heavy metals are used in the process. All of this is in the clothes we wear. It hurts the environment and it’s unhealthy. So standard number two was that the bra had to be free of harmful dyes.
Finally, the bra had to be fairly made. From the farmers who grew the fibers, to the weavers who spun the fabric, to the tailors who assembled it, each person (adults, not children) along the way had to have been paid a living wage (usually much more than minimum wage), not been coerced to work, and treated humanely. I’ve read the reports of the growing numbers of Indian cotton growers who are committing suicide because under “free trade” agreements they can’t earn enough to survive by growing cotton. They deserve to be fairly compensated for their labor, not cheated because the hypothetical potential of cotton flooding the markets drove down prices. I also didn’t want to support a company that holds women (or children) as virtual slaves in a sweatshop (where often the women also have to perform other “services” for their male employers in order to keep their jobs). Nor did I want to support a company that pays their workers a wage that isn’t sufficient to live on just so the company could make a bigger profit. Whoever made my bra needs to be able to make a living doing so. And not a degrading, oppressive living either, but one that treats them as a real person.
Not too much to ask, just an ethically made bra. I could find that somewhere, right?
Julie Clawson is a church planting pastor in the Chicago area and the coordinator of the Emerging Women blog.
(Check back soon for part two of Julie’s search for an ethical bra.)