The problem with ethical underwear

IMG_5339A photo of me feeding the little one just before her 2nd birthday. We’re a bit unintentional matchy-matchy in our stripes here.

A defining feature of motherhood for me has been breastfeeding. If you know me, and you’re reading this you’ll have heard my children shouting or whispering or simply stating their need for “booby” many, many times over. We didn’t quite think that one through when they were learning to talk. I breastfed both girls until they were about 2 and a quarter. Finishing was haphazard both times and there wasn’t a fixed date in mind, it just seemed to happen. It’s a big thing to have finished completely now. The end of a 4 year era. For the best part, it’s been a really positive experience for me. Both of my children were pretty straight forward in the feeding department and I feel very lucky for this. However, it wasn’t all plain sailing. I found it physically painful at the start and emotionally difficult to wean them as toddlers. There was discomfort at times and irritation too. Of course, the way you feed your child isn’t important and I’m not looking for any back patting or medals. Like all other mums, my ethos is one of winging it and scraping through the best you can! There is nothing more to say than “fed is best”. Just happened that my girls loved their boobies and nothing was going to get in their way!

Over the course of feeding my boobs have gone from 34B pre-pregnancy to a whooping 36FF at the height of the tandem feeding and now I’m back down to about a 34C. I feel like I’ve had two small and very slowly deflating beach balls on my chest for 2 years and we are now at destination empty. Needless to say I’ve had a lot of bras. And mostly from M&S. Now. I usually rely on the Ethical Consumer as a first port of call for checking the credentials of a company and on this occasion it’s terrible news. M&S score 5/20 on the underwear board. This is not good – that’s under Primark and H&M. I’m quite shocked actually.  There are many reasons listed in the detailed summary as to why M&S are not that ethical – workers’ rights abuses in Cambodia, the employment of Syrian refugee children in one of their suppliers factories in Turkey, operations in oppressive regimes and an Ethical Consumer worst rating for their use of tax avoidance strategies. Eeek! M&S always manage to come across as a company who care and who are trying to do things the right way; they always seem to publicly apologise when they get something wrong. Yet, they are a huge global company and therefore profit driven, so it’s obvious that their ethical credentials will not be on a par with specialist ethical companies. Even so, in this particular table, I’ll say it again, they are under Primark and H&M. I can’t see how old this table is and things must have changed since it was published, as there is a note saying that Ethical Consumer’s updated recommended high street best buys in this category as of 2014 are M&S or Zara. That’s still 3 years ago. I don’t feel like this table is actually much use to me on this occasion.

I’m surprised that M&S don’t offer an organic or fair trade cotton underwear range. I’m thinking of writing to them as this would be a positive step in the right direction. The vast majority of my underwear has been bought from M&S over the years because they do tend to be good quality. I also find that the sizes are consistent. Plus everything washes and lasts pretty well. And shopping in M&S is super convenient with small children – lots of big changing rooms and toilets. I have very mixed feelings about giving up some of these conveniences. Yet with a score of just 5, and the opportunity to buy bras in the right size I felt that I should at least give some of the more conscientious brands a whirl.

Bea Johnson stated in her book Zero Waste Home that you just need one multi-way bra. Now this is all very well and good but I have no idea where to find the perfect multi-way bra and this seems to be a little too minimal for me. If I find the perfect, ethical multi-way in the future, I may change my mind. I still feel that I would need two: one each in black and nude to have a bra option to wear under light and dark clothes. And one bra poses a bit of a problem on wash day. I don’t have massive boobs anymore, but I feel that I need some support and there are very few days when I’m just in the house doing washing!

With this in mind I opted for 4 new bras to cover all bases. I bought a black Living Crafts bra, a sea blue Luva Huva bralet, and 2 M&S t-shirt bras: one white, one pale pink.

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The Living Crafts bra may tick all of the boxes when it comes to eco-credentials, but it isn’t very flattering. The Luva Huva set is great but the bralet isn’t supportive enough for everyday wear and is possibly the wrong size. I think this bra is really meant for a perkier pair, although it is surprisingly flattering.  I bought the M&S pack of 2 t-shirt bras because I couldn’t find a white or nude eco alternative in my size. Surprise, surprise these fit perfectly and wash really well. The ethical sets were not cheap and it’s so disappointing that they don’t suit me.  There are a few other brands I’m aware of, which I haven’t tried including Do You Green, Swedish Eco, Naja and Peau Ethique. I’ve just ordered a few bits from Do You Green, including a balcony bra and multi-way bra, which I’m hoping is a winner. Maybe I’ll be able to reduce my bra ownership to that one magical multiway after all. Maybe.

I recently watched My Green Wardrobe’s vlog about sustainable underwear. If it’s something you’re interested in, it’s well worth a watch. She has some great tips about where to buy, what to buy and how you can have a sustainable underwear drawer even if you’re unable to support ethical brands. On that point, it comes back to those 3 things I discovered during the 6 Item Challenge. Buy less, buy what you really, really love and need and look after your garments. She’s reminded me that I need to buy a delicates bag for washing my bras and that ideally I should be hand-washing my smalls.

Part of the problem, I think, is that ethical underwear is such a tiny share of the market that you have no choice but to buy online, possibly from overseas (yes, I know, The Footprint). So once you’ve even tracked down a company making ethical underwear you then have to work out what size you are. Even if you do measure (I nearly always do) the shape may not suit or there may be a small discrepancy in the actual garment size. I’m a pretty standard size but I’ve found it difficult to find ethical bras in my size, which seems ridiculous. The Luva Huva bralet I bought is an M band and C cup. M is 34″-36″, and my underbust measurement is 33″. This is annoying because S is 30″-32″ and I’m therefore between an S and M size. Perhaps I would’ve been better off with the smaller one as the material is soft and stretchy, and there isn’t a clasp, so you can’t adjust it. Without the option of trying them on side by side, I’ll never know which would’ve been better. Saying that, I’m now aware that they make custom fit bras. I’ll definitely keep this in mind for the future as the bralet I bought is super comfy and very pretty. It may be useless as everyday out and about wear but it certainly adds a touch of glamour to evening loungewear.

I’d love to find a shop stocking lots of different ethical underwear options and to be able to ask someone to measure and recommend a good bra for my shape. Some of the best underwear I’ve had in the past has come from independent lingerie shops where the person doing the fitting really understands boobs, body shapes and how and what different bras do. But with an ever changing body shape, it hasn’t really been possible to buy investment pieces. Now I’m getting back to a more stable body shape I have the luxury of investing in pieces that will last for a long period of time. I can’t wait to see how the Do You Green stuff works out, it looks promising.  I’d also like to try out Naja in the future, their nude for all range is inspired and I love their company ethos: empowering women, eco consciousness, good craftsmanship and their underwear for hope programme is really inspiring. If I don’t have any luck, I will be going back to an independent shop for some advice and to find the elusive perfect bra.

And then what to do with all of the left overs from the big boobed days that no-longer fit? Well, I’m going to donate them to two different charities. There is a donations box for used bras at our local beauty therapist’s with all proceeds raised going to a breast cancer research charity; the newer ones that are only very lightly worn will be sent to Smalls for All, a Scottish charity who collect and distribute underwear in Africa to help women and children.

Oh and back to that not getting a medal thing. Ok, ok, I did treat myself to a new necklace to remember my time feeding the girls. I really did feel that I needed something to mark the occasion. My necklace is from an Etsy company called Calmer Soul. The lady who makes these beautiful pieces of jewellery is based just down the road from me on the coast in Brighton. I chose a raw chrysoprase stone on a gold chain. It’s said that chrysoprase brings good fortune and prosperity and helps to facilitate self-expression, courage and hope. What’s not to love? If you ever need a gift, these come beautifully wrapped with a hand written note and can be customised to your exact needs. Highly recommended.

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