Who made your pants? When Becky John asked herself this question, she realised she had no idea. With the launch of Who Made Your Pants? – a project producing sustainable knickers primarily handmade by refugee women in Southampton – twitter was awash with users getting their knickers in quite the twist, castigating the campaign on charges of barefaced commercialism, exclusivism and didacticism. And while it’s easy to recognise WMYP’s laudable intentions and quickly disregard many of the 140-character nuggets of spite from so-called ‘Twitter feminists’, it seems WMYP misses the wider issue in ethical consumerism and the troubles facing refugees in Britain.
WMYP is a non-profit organisation, the purpose of whose existence is to create jobs for refugees
Back to the twitter storm. What prompted such cyber vitriol? Well, a number of things. With the fetishisation of opinion so marked in the twitter sphere, responses – the more extreme and filled with rage, the better – condemned WMYP’s attempts at non-sexualised promotion of ladies’ knickers as judging all female-kind for having saucy lingerie, for starters. Right. Next? Exclusivism, which I can understand given that the pants are selling for eye-watering prices of around £18 a pair. And lastly, unashamed commercialism; WMYP was accused of taking advantage of the feminist bandwagon, guilt tripping women into purchasing their pricy pants. Had the accusers of the latter charge done their homework, perhaps they’d know that WMYP is a non-profit organisation, the purpose of whose existence is to create jobs for refugees. Profit goes straight back into the business.
But, on the whole, I can’t say such a response has completely surprised me; admittedly, no woman wants feel they are being told they are a failure of a feminist if they don’t splash out 20 quid on some ethical pants.
As for the former two charges, it seems patently obvious to me that WMYP’s non-sexualised promotion of pants was not intended to be judgmental or instructive. It, further, seems pretty obvious that WMYP recognises that for the cost of one pair of their knickers you could buy a couple of multipacks in Tesco’s; it isn’t saying that if you cannot afford to fork out for a pair you are a bad feminist/human being. It is simply there, for those women who can afford them, and want to wear sustainable pants and know where they have come from, to spend a little extra to satisfy these wants with the added bonus of being able to congratulate themselves on providing jobs for refugees at the same time.
But is Becky right to set ethical products made in the UK against unethical products made in other countries as such a strict dichotomy? It is certainly true that unethical products are made here and also certainly true that ethical products are made overseas. ‘Overseas’ and ‘ethical’ are not incompatible factors in the production of goods, and to suggest so is misleading.
We must change the world one pair of pants at a time
This is not the only slight oversight in the campaign. Marginalization, as WMYP’s founder often remarks, is an incredibly debilitating reality for thousands of female refugees in Britain; while their children go to school and their husbands to work – learning English and integrating into society – the female migrant, more often than not, sits at home. While I agree that we must change the world one pair of pants at a time, and that even if WMYP was to close tomorrow, some good would already have been done to some refugee lives and the lives of their families, I think a campaign which brought into feminist consciousness the other issues faced by migrants, might serve the cause better. As well as jobs and income, community integration, legal support and public services’ access are also critically important for these refugees.
Raising awareness of these issues, at the same time as raising income for refugees from Sudan, Afghanistan and Somalia would further Becky’s cause. And suggesting, as she has in various articles, that with the issue of income out of the way, the lives of the Southampton refugees employed in the WMYP factory are a-ok, is in my opinion an error.
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