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I bought a bra at Primark last week. The clothing, part of the retailer’s “Primark Cares” collection, is made in China and contains 50 percent recycled nylon. But I’m not attracted by its “green credentials” and its rock-bottom price – I just like the look of it. It didn’t squeeze my boobs into pneumatic missiles, contort them with painful underwire, or adorn my cleavage-less areas with itchy lace.
The cut, fit and fabric are all seamless – it’s the perfect shape. A set of bras and panties costs £6. I gave my daughter the matching thong.
Buying anything in 2023 comes with a certain level of guilt. As a former fashion editor who is now editor of a consumer magazine that preaches the gospel of investing and crafting, I know the grim statistics: We dump some 92 million tons of clothing in landfill every year, while only 20 percent of textiles go to landfill. collected for production. Reuse or recycle globally.
This fast-fashion venture is a rare opportunity that I’ve grown conditioned to think is fundamentally pathological. While impulse shopping was a staple of my twenties and thirties, I’ve since learned to hold back. However, I’ve worn this bra most of the time since then, and it washes out really well. As most mass-produced products assume, it’s not something I’d consider a “disposable”. I could have bought more expensive items from big brands or celebrity designer brands. But price doesn’t guarantee that certain products are made in more ethical or green environments, especially when it comes to underwear.
While the high street has become a nightmare for the desperate class, it can still offer excellent value. My closet is full of designer clothes, many of which are dear to me but are almost never worn. In contrast, items in permanent rotation are three T-shirts I bought from Uniqlo 15 years ago.
If I cherish something and wear it a lot, does that make my cheap bra more believable? Sustainability consultant and author Rachel Arthur gave me a clear no. “You buy cheap goods without considering the real cost of producing them – carbon, water, pollution impacts, thereby exacerbating the climate and ecological crisis. Every wash releases microplastics into waterways.”
Tiffanie Darke is writing a book about the sustainable wardrobe and the dilemma at its core. To draw attention to our toxic landfill habits, she signed up in January to buy just five fashion items this year. She described my bra’s journey with extreme precision, starting with the environmental footprint required to produce recycled nylon (not to mention virgin nylon) and ending with the tiny metal fasteners that will never decompose. She also prompted me to contact Primark to verify the supply chain for the bras. A spokesperson quickly wrote back saying: “Primark has been producing these products for three years and they are currently a top seller in our underwear segment. These bras are sourced from two long-standing suppliers in China . . . and, although with Most of the factories we work with also produce for other brands, but we only work with factories that meet the standards set out in Primark’s code of conduct.”
Darke does acknowledge that underwear is a particularly thorny issue in the sustainability space because current alternatives are poor: either break down after a few months, or fail to provide the right support. “One of the biggest issues is performance,” she said, “things like bras and sneakers need the best.”
Shopping has become deeply divisive as habits are classified as “good” or “bad.” Good shoppers will pay top dollar for clothes that have a lower environmental impact: anyone who buys a £2 bikini on the high street is considered a bad person. But surely, judging behaviors that are primarily driven by personal ability is just as harmful. Moreover, as Dak points out in The Great Green Washing Machine Part II by Veronica Bates Kassatly and Dorothée Baumann-Pauly, sustainability metrics in fashion are often misused.
“Clothes should be worn more than once, and if certain clothes are worn more than others, then that should be factored into sustainability calculations,” she said. “If an item of clothing ‘costs’ $12, either in dollars or eco-friendly measures, and is worn once, then the cost per wear is $12. If another item of clothing ‘costs’ $1,200 and is worn 100 times, then The cost/impact per wear is also 12. The difference is that at the end of those 100, there are 100 garments to deal with in the first case, and only one garment in the second case. Hence the wise advice of the great Vivienne Westwood: “Buy less, choose well, and last. ”
Choosing carefully and sticking to it was my childhood motto, and generations of my family have knit, sewed and stitched their own clothes. Unfortunately, I belong to another generation that grew up during the Top Shop boom. I still think of shopping as a micro-hobby: it’s a dopamine-inducing hit.
I can hardly admit that I went back to Primark last weekend and bought two – well, then, four! – more sets. I realized that in order to justify this purchase, I had to be buried in this damn bra.
Email Joe: firstname.lastname@example.org
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