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The Real Cost of Cheap Lingerie: Why Who Made Your Intimates Matters

When I started she and reverie, I knew I wanted to work with factories in New York City because it’s the easiest way for a Brooklyn-based independent apparel line to start production. There are so many benefits to manufacturing locally for indie designers. We can go to the factory in person and make sure a garment is being sewn to our quality specifications; minimum orders are relatively low; and generally, there's only about a two-week turnaround from the time the factory gets all the materials and patterns, to the time garments are finished and ready to be shipped to stores.

Silk tops by she and reverie hanging in their Manhattan factory

Silk tops by she and reverie hanging in their Manhattan factory

Even more importantly, it means we can monitor the conditions of the factories that create our garments. Given today’s globalized, technologically-advanced society, it’s easy to imagine automated machines churning out thousands of panties per hour, but that’s not the case. The price of clothing has actually gone down in the last twenty years, so we expect to pay very little for what we wear. Combine that with the low prices of outsourced labor, and you get very little demand for better manufacturing technology. Those classic photos of 1920s clothing factories, depicting rows of people sitting behind industrial sewing machines, are shockingly similar to photos today.

Photograph of a clothing factory interior with women employees. Ref: PAColl-9472. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Photograph of a clothing factory, 1920s. Ref: PAColl-9472. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

This means that, in order to keep costs low, factories often exploit the people working for them. A perfect example is the disaster at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh in 2013. When factory owners ignored orders to evacuate the building, it collapsed, killing over 1,000 people and injuring thousands more. Meanwhile, there are children working 11-hour days, workers being physically abused, and padlocks on fire escapes in Bangladeshi factories. There are “mass faintings” in Cambodian factoriesThese labor issues are not isolated, nor are they a thing of the past.

This human aspect is especially important in lingerie manufacturing, where a hand-operated machine or someone with a simple needle-and-thread sews embellishments like tiny bows and cut-out lace. These details are popular on even the most budget-friendly garments, which can lead to factory workers earning well under a living wage. That's why, as consumers, it’s so important to know where our lingerie comes from: garment workers manufactured every single piece of lingerie we own, regardless of cost. These workers even make the bow-embellished five-for-$25 panties easily picked up at the mall. And when we purchase lingerie from large chain stores and international brands, we typically don’t know anything about the conditions of the factories they use. Is cheap lingerie worth the exploitation of human beings?

Apparel factory in New York City, 2011, via StartupFashion

Apparel factory in New York City, 2011, via StartupFashion

That question has launched so many lingerie labels in the past decade, including my own, but it’s not always easy, convenient, or affordable to shop locally for ethically-manufactured lingerie. Brick-and-mortar stores can be hesitant to take a chance on a new label, and online shopping can be inconvenient, especially when you’re shopping for something last-minute. Because workers are being paid adequate wages, ethically-made lingerie is naturally more expensive. However, if we’re lucky enough to be able to make the choice, shouldn't we choose to purchase lingerie that we know was made under safe conditions? Plus, more demand for ethically-made lingerie means more accessibility. Labels committed to manufacturing ethically are gaining traction in the industry — and the best part is, they’re affordable, too. For instance, the ever-popular Hanky Panky is entirely made in the USA, and Miami-based label Cosabella still manufactures all their products in Italy; both countries have relatively strict labor laws, so you can be sure their workers are paid fair wages.

A garment worker at the Dear Kate factory in Queens, NY. Photo by Brister Photo.

A garment worker at the Dear Kate factory in Queens, NY. Photo by Brister Photo.

Here in New York, our locally-made lingerie industry is booming, from luxury labels like ARI DEIN to edgy, Brooklyn-based lines like NaïS. Across the country, Trashy Lingerie still makes their custom Trashy Original line in Downtown LA, as does the cute and eco-friendly label Clare Bare. If you’re not in the US, there are so many independent labels making lingerie domestically all over the world — Hopeless Lingerie creates their gorgeous pieces by hand from their studio in Melbourne, and Catherine at Kiss Me Deadly has a large list of brands that manufacture in the UK.

Whether we purchase a one-of-a-kind made-to-measure camisole from someone like HoneyCooler Handmade, a set of high-tech undergarments from NYC-made label Dear Kate, or a lace-trimmed mass-produced chemise from a chain lingerie store, remember that people just like us made those garments. When we choose to purchase ethically-manufactured lingerie, we’re telling those brands that we believe in what they do, that we care about their workers, and that we support the future of ethically-made lingerie. Because no one should suffer for our lingerie.

Quinne Myers

Quinne Myers is a lingerie expert living in Brooklyn, NY, where she creates quippy written content, crafts dreamy illustrations, and runs the ethically-made loungewear line, she and reverie.

11 Comments on this post

  1. yahaira isabel says:

    Great post! Where would one go to get a list of the local NYC manufacturers and sample makers. Those who can make small quantities for indie labels like you discussed?

  2. Jenna says:

    Thank you for posting this! Very informative and a great example of how both consumers and everyone involved in the production of these garments should be aware of what goes on behind the scenes!

  3. Peter H says:

    You are absolutely right. Playing the ever cheaper production game is a race to the bottom (no pun intended.) A friend of mine was a trail blazing production guy for a huge company. When negotiating to open sewing factories in a country that had none. He said “no kids.” They said “but they’ll only have prostitution if they can’t sew. He said “I’ll open factories if you open schools.” They did and he did. A tiny company doesn’t have that clout. So you stick to your ethics. If you do right you will be (all)right.

    • Quinne says:

      “I’ll open factories if you open schools.” What a powerful statement, and a great example of the positive things big companies can (and should) do in regards to their production. Thanks for sharing, Peter.

  4. Michelle says:

    I agree with all the points you’ve made in this article but I feel as if there is a huge counter argument which you’ve omitted. If these Bangladeshi women and children weren’t working in sweat shops making our clothes they would perhaps be starving. They choose to work in the factories because it is better for them than trying to live off the land. While I support locally made products and of course fair and ethical working conditions, I think that it’s still a very important point that their economies are largely built off cheap manufactoring so if we took that away they’d have nothing. I personally can’t decide which side I’m on, but I think this viewpoint should be considered too.

    • Quinne says:

      Thanks for your comment, Michelle. You’re right, I didn’t even touch that viewpoint in this article. My main problem with that argument is that it’s usually used as a feel-good cop-out: “If these children weren’t making my clothes, they’d have nothing else!” While it’s true that garment work gives needed income to these families, the abuse and exploitation that often happens in these factories is inexcusable. It’s not a matter of taking away the industry in those countries, but raising the standards. Outsourced lingerie can certainly be ethically-manufactured lingerie.

    • michelle says:

      The global companies treating their workers poorly are exploiting the fact that these women and children have no other options. They are not small start-ups with razor thin margins who will pay more when they can, but megabrands turning in huge profits that pay top management extremely well and have no intention of ever treating their employees better.

      Also, a lot of employers have the mentality that if someone is desperate they will work harder, even in the USA and Europe, I have heard this from people when hiring, and it turns my stomach.

      One of the reasons no one can afford those domestically made goods is because so many goods are produced abroad and the middle class is disappearing, its like a trap.

  5. Rachel says:

    I doubt I’ll ever be able to afford ethically created lingerie, so I’ve been learning how to sew so I can create my own. Still not a good solution, but it’s what I can do.

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