The Very Good Bra
6 June 2018 at 8:21 am
Stephanie Devine talks to Pro Bono News about the world’s first zero waste lingerie line, in this month’s spotlight on social enterprise.
There are around 2 billion women on the planet, and if recent research is to be believed the average woman owns nine bras, which means there are 18 billion bras headed for landfill.
But social entrepreneur Stephanie Devine has come up with a solution – The Very Good Bra.
The bra, which comes in 24 sizes, is made from botanic fibres from sustainably-farmed Eucalyptus trees and includes “no wire, no toxins, no waste”.
It marks the world’s first zero waste lingerie line, which will break down in nature leaving no toxicity.
The idea came about after founder and CEO Devine was diagnosed with breast cancer, and struggled to find a cotton-lined, non-wired bra that she could wear during chemotherapy.
“So 12 years ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer and I couldn’t find an non-wired bra in my cup size that was lined with a natural fibre like cotton, which I had to wear during treatment to go through radiotherapy, that wasn’t a maternity bra,” Devine recalls.
“I’d just been told I would never have kids after chemo so it was incredibly upsetting and frustrating and something that really stayed with me.
“I didn’t do anything immediately because you don’t really think after that you are going to live. But five years on, I thought hang on a minute I’m still here. I should do something about this.”
Devine decided to put her idea into action.
Conscious of how vulnerable she had been during chemotherapy and having spent a lot of time thinking about what she was putting on or in her body, she set out to develop organic cotton bras.
“So I started working developing organic cotton bras. Not for people going through cancer specifically but quietly fit for purpose because I never wanted to be ‘the cancer person’ with ‘the cancer bra’. I wanted them to be beautiful but also practical in their circumstances so that’s how it started,” she recalls.
“I started making non-wired organic cotton bras in 2014. Then I entered and was fast tracked into the semifinals of the Livestrong Foundation’s social enterprise competition, The Big C Competition, for innovation to improve the lives of people going through cancer, and my bra idea got picked up there and I got right the way through to the last five.
“On the back of that, I got a backer and grew it a bit.”
But Devine says after learning more about the apparel industry – the second largest polluter on the planet behind oil and gas – she realised “it was not just about the wire”.
“There was so much that was wrong. In fact all cotton takes 20,000 litres of water to grow one plant, whether it’s organic or not. And that made me really decide to focus on this and start understanding about the circular economy and the cradle-to-cradle movement,” she says.
“And 12 months ago I decided to really just focus on this and try and make the world’s first zero waste bra which became The Very Good Bra.”
According to Devine, 80 per cent of a product’s environmental impact is locked in at design stage, and so she decided to start from scratch.
She began to scour the planet for zero waste elastic made from sustainably farmed rubber trees and organic cotton, for organic sewing thread, organic inks, completely compostable packaging, and the cleanest and most sustainably made Tencel.
But sourcing the right materials was far from easy.
“It’s been incredibly hard,” she says.
“I don’t come from this industry, I come from financial services so it’s all very, very new to me. I think Natalie Portman once said about directing a film that if you knew how hard it was going to be you probably wouldn’t do it. But when you don’t know about it you just say ‘Oh well I can do that and I’ll find a way’.”
After searching Devine was able to find just one manufacturer that was prepared to make up tree rubber elastic from sustainably managed forests.
“I can only find one provider of that elastic and I have to beg them and I have to pay 100 per cent upfront before they switch on a machine,” she says.
“Then everything down to the sewing thread has to be absolutely pure and compostable and so that’s been quite hard as well. Just simply, because the cost of those things is astronomical. Printing labels, everything within it has to be organic.
“I managed in the end through Cradle to Cradle Foundation and their fashion positive arm, to find a company that will do old traditional pad printing in garments using organic ink. But it’s just the constant thing of ‘oh gosh, what do I need now and how am I going to find it?’”
Devine laughs when she explains how it took her almost a year to find hooks and eyes.
“I manufacture in China, China’s a great manufacturer of lingerie, they’ve been doing it 20 odd years now, but they don’t make a hook and eye unless it is laminated or glued in some way and they just couldn’t do it,” she says.
“In the end I realised that I needed to go back to more traditional lingerie makers in France and Italy because originally we had no glue and laminate, so they used to sew pieces of fabric together and hooks and eyes, so I managed to persuade a company in France to custom make hooks and eyes where they are sewn into organic cotton that I sourced from Turkey.”
Not only are the materials to make this lingerie range hard to find, but according to Devine they are also much more expensive to buy than mainstream products.
As an example, the elastic costs 100 times more than regular strap elastic.
Devine says she thinks people probably do not understand enough about the industry and what it takes to be zero-waste.
“Certainly there isn’t another product like this and the more I get involved and understand the pricing you can understand why it doesn’t happen, but I think people don’t really understand,” she says.
“I think people are wanting sustainable options without necessarily realising how that can compromise the design because if you have only one type of elastic you’ve got no variety there. But also there’s a cost to that, which is phenomenally expense in many cases, you’re paying a premium price for something which may not look as beautiful as you would like it to look.
“So I don’t think people necessarily realise, but there’s a real appetite for it.”
Devine is now running a campaign on crowdfunding site Kickstarter to help fund the first production run.
As a testament that there is an appetite for sustainable lingerie, she met her $20,000 goal within 48 hours.
“You never know whether people will put their money where their mouth is but clearly they will. And they’ve shown that, so that’s very heartening,” she says.
“It’s great to get to that goal now but it’s still important that I raise as much as I can because I don’t want it to be a one hit wonder. I want it to be something that can really be sustainable, as a business.”
Devine says in the future they may also include low waste and recycled options.
“I may not always do zero waste because that’s really hard core but you can do low waste and recycled fabrics,” she says.
“So 15 per cent of all fabric ends up on the cutting room floor and there is a lovely company in Italy that gathers all the lace together and makes it into new lace, so that’s all stuff that otherwise will go into landfill.
“So we hope that it expands to include low waste and recycled options and basics for men and women not necessarily just women, and that it can just provide an undergarment that actually sits next to your body and is a really clean, pure product. That’s my hope.
“And I would love to become a B Corp.”
She says her aim is not about becoming the biggest. It is about purpose.
“There’s sometimes the opportunity with a business like this, because some of the bigger companies really want to get into it, of do you go with a bigger provider that can get it out further, more quickly, or do you continue to do it yourself and maintain the integrity of what you’re doing,” she says.
“It’s an interesting balance and I hope I have the choice at some point.
“I’ve always said that this is as much about creating awareness and conversations than it is about the bra. I think what I’ve done with social media in particular and things like Instagram is actually made people aware of some of the statistics that they didn’t really know about.”
Some of those statistics include the fact that 85 per cent of clothing ends up in landfill and polyester takes 200 years to break down.
“I think if you can just educate people about clothing and make them think twice about buying something and what will become of this garment when you are finished with it, then I think that’s a huge part of what I’m doing as well,” Devine says.
“It really isn’t just about the bra, it’s about awareness.
“People need to be aware of the choices that they make when they buy things. Everything should be made with it’s end in sight, because we are getting to that point in life where China is no longer taking our rubbish, neither is Africa and if we make our own bed we have to lie on it. So we need to be really careful what we create and what it’s going to end up as.”