A very good bra drama
4 March 2020 at 8:43 am
Being ethical in business can sometimes come at a cost
When Stephanie Devine, founder and CEO of The Very Good Bra, found a small hint of white stitched into the sample hook and eye she had been sent in January, she was devastated.
The bit of white was a polypropylene stabiliser. For the manufacturer this was something so normal, it did not merit a mention. But for Devine, it meant the hook and eye piece in her otherwise sustainable bra was not 100 per cent compostable.
She had only discovered it because the sample she was sent was unfinished and she was able to take a closer look at it.
Devine had to go – bra in hand – to her customers and explain that her world’s first zero-waste lingerie line, was not as sustainable as she had promised.
“I was horrified. I felt betrayed and I didn’t know what to do,” Devine says, admitting she didn’t even tell her partner for a week what had happened.
“I really did think I was going to have to close the company down, because I had mislead so many people who in good faith had bought the product and completely believed me. And all this time there has been a piece of plastic in the bra.”
There are several lessons for social entrepreneurs in her recent experience, not least the importance of a good comms strategy.
While she felt sick when she sent out the email explaining the situation, Devine says her customers have rewarded her honesty with kind words and continued trust.
“I feel very blessed that people get it, that mistakes happen and that I didn’t know about it,” Devine says.
“I think people respect you more for coming clean which is a huge incentive to carry on and to make sure that it is absolutely clean next time.”
She has also had to find a way to use the remaining 2,000 pieces of her most recent production, and made the decision not to waste the resources and carbon footprint that have already gone into their manufacture.
“They are still Very Good Bras, although I will make it clear on each product using the old stock that the hooks and eyes will need to be removed prior to composting,” she says.
Her experience serves as a reminder of some of the challenges that those in the sustainable fashion world are up against, and is a further indictment of an industry that is one of the most polluting in the world – with the fashion industry producing 10 per cent of all humanity’s carbon emissions.
“Companies don’t even realise what they are putting into products,” Devine says.
“They wouldn’t think twice about sticking a piece of plastic in there and not mentioning it because it is so normal for them.”
It is not enough for a business to want to be sustainable. You need your suppliers to commit to the same goal – and understand the standards you are working to.
There are not always that many suppliers.
Devine started The Very Good Bra in 2017 with the dream of creating a bra that used zero single use plastic.
She sourced her materials worldwide, from Australia, India, France, Switzerland and Germany to name a few, with manufacturing done in China (soon to be done in Sri Lanka).
She says she is lucky, as some of the components she uses were already Cradle 2 Cradle certified, and her factory in China has always been very understanding of what she was trying to do.
But for other things, like the hook and eye problem, she has been very restricted in terms of who she works with because, quite simply, no one else does it.
In 2018, Devine discovered the organic hooks and eyes were about to be sewn with polyester thread, and she halted production until she was able to get a botanically sourced alternative to the factory.
Along the way she says people have suggested she cut corners or design for disassembly. But she always refused – even where she thought no one else would notice.
“Because so many people do cut corners, and so many people do just let things slip. And I just think if you’re going to do something that you are saying is very clean, it has to be very, very clean,” she says.
“Once you have got so far… you can’t let that one thing let that down.”
For Devine, her role is as much about education as making a very good bra, free of polyester thread, nylon labels, synthetic elastic or spandex.
“A lot of people don’t have a clue,” she says.
“So it isn’t just about selling bras, it is about raising awareness of what goes into things.”
But she admits being ethical isn’t always easy.
While sales are growing, it is a capital intensive business, the bras are expensive to make and the business is not at break even point yet.
Devine says there are cash flow issues for a small business such as hers.
“I just bought 24,000 metres of Cradle 2 Cradle elastic from Germany, because that is the minimum quantity, which is about five years worth for me,” she says.
“So it is a struggle when you’re small but as you get bigger it is more scalable and I do believe that at the end of the day this will be a business that is financially sustainable for me, as well as sustainable.”
Her advice for other ethical businesses is to play the long game.
“You have just got to understand that it is a longer road than you think it is. But I think it is still the only way to go,” she says.
“The traditional fashion industry is dying.”
And she believes the conversation is changing.
There is more awareness now, more products, and innovations such as circular sourcing platforms.
People are waking up to the need for sustainable consumption.
“Particularly in Australia this year, with the bushfires, the conversation is on nothing other than what’s going on with the climate,” Devine says.
“People are really starting now to make the connection between what’s happening with the climate, and massive events like the bushfires, and their purchasing decisions on every level.”
Looking to the future, Devine says in spite of her recent setback she is still passionate about sustainability and botanical circularity.
“And I am confident that it can be done,” she says.
“The hook and eye is just one small piece of a Very Good Bra with otherwise very good compostability… and this piece can and will be replaced.
“I intend to persevere.”