Should Oxfam be collecting a million bras from the public and selling them? Time to cast your vote…

bra hunt 1bring you….. Oxfam’s ‘big bra hunt’. The story so far: on 1 April (but not linked to April Fools’ Day, as far as I’m aware), Oxfam’s trading team in the UK launched a campaign to get women across the UK to donate a million bras from their underwear drawers to Oxfam’s string of second hand clothes shops (which raise some £25m a year for Oxfam’s work). Many of the bras will be sold in West Africa by Frip Ethique,  a social enterprise funded by Oxfam, and the proceeds ploughed back into development work in the region. Cue ‘giant bra window displays’, staff  and celebs like Helen Mirren (below) ‘sporting underwear as outerwear’ a la early Madonna etc etc. The press loved it (and spiced up their coverage with some entirely fabricated and deeply dodgy quotes from Oxfam trader Sarah Farquhar); our shops are already inundated, and we may well hit our target. Cue also, a lot of outrage, some of it manifested in heated internal email exchanges, but spilling over into the blogosphere. I tried to get the critics to debate the issues in public, but they were all too hopping mad to be fair and balanced and all that, so they asked me to do it instead (cheers, people). So here goes. I think there are three broad areas of concern: development impact, public messaging about aid and undermining Oxfam’s work on gender equality and women’s rights. Development Impact: concerns include both undermining local clothing production and flooding existing second-hand clothing markets. I’m pretty sure these concerns are misplaced: Oxfam reviewed its second hand clothing operation back in 2005 and as a result concentrated its activities in countries without a viable clothing industry; it was Frip Ethique’s request for more bras that got us thinking about the bra hunt in the first place; the bras will be released over time so as not to flood the second hand market. Concerns on imposing Western culture don’t stand up because the bras are being sold, not given away – women can choose whether or not to buy them. Public messaging: The bra hunt presses lots of buttons in the development community because of previous appeals for ‘Swedow’ – stuff we don’t want. Most recently, the appeal for a million T shirts in the US got (rightly) hammered. There are overtones of charity rather than rights; of colonial administrators’ wives advising ‘native’ women on decent dressing. But the important question is surely whether it’s stuff people in developing countries do or don’t want – and our research (and this was a heavily researched exercise) suggests there is a real unmet demand for bras (hence Frip Ethique’s request). Undermining feminism and development work on women’s rights: Oxfam puts gender and gender rights ‘at the heart of all we do’, and there are a lot of passionate feminists working for it. They are alarmed by the kind of sugar-coated ‘cupcake feminism’ on display recently for International Women’s Day and see this as in the same vein. Pinkness, sparkles, underwiring, ‘all girls together’ holding big-bra-hunt-oxfam-helen-mirrenTupperware parties – it all feels like a bit of an insult in the face of the glaring violations of rights and the poverty and violence faced by the women in communities where Oxfam works. And bras do, of course, have a pretty iconic role in feminist history. Feminists working for Oxfam argue that this is turning a lot of women – and men – away from donating to Oxfam – and endangering its reputation as a champion of gender equality and women’s rights. This kind of argument is not unique to gender issues; it’s inevitable in any thinking aid agency that simultaneously has to raise money from the public while seeking to change policies and attitudes in both rich and poor countries. Think of the decades-old ‘poverty porn’ arguments over fundraising images of starving kids that perpetuate some terrible stereotypes while raising shed-loads of cash. Sometimes advocacy and fundraising are in alignment, sometimes not. If it hits its targets, the bra hunt could raise £1.2m for Oxfam’s programming and advocacy. The question is whether it comes at a cost to the wider mission. At this point, I’m supposed to ‘come to a view’ on who is right. Are you kidding? Allow me to pass the buck to you, with this poll – you can vote for more than one alternative. [poll id=”13″] Finally, here’s a 2 minute promo video on the bra hunt and Frip Ethique And some of you may wish to comment – it’s anonymous but be warned, I can still see your email address………. Go on, get if off your chest. Oops, sorry, just couldn’t resist.]]>

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81 Responses to “Should Oxfam be collecting a million bras from the public and selling them? Time to cast your vote…”
  1. Alice

    While this exercise may have some short-term benefits (raising cash for Oxfam’s important work and increasing access to affordable bras), I’m still concerned that it perpetuates the idea that international development is a matter of charity.
    Given biased media portrays of Africa, as well as limited popular understanding of aid and development (see and the likely role of public opinion in shaping national development policy (e.g. Daily Mail debates about aid to India), campaigns need to be carefully devised in a way that enhances public knowledge of international problems. To me, this is the more important issue.
    I’m not convinced the message ‘let’s be charitable and give those poor, unsupported women our cast-offs’ presents an accurate picture about international partnerships.

    • Kathryn

      This hits the nail on the head – it’s playing into all the old stereotypes of poverty porn for short term gain but long term loss. Its giving weight to the press arguments that nothing has changed therefore why should we continue to give? By doing so it grossly undermines all the great and more complex work that targets the sources of inequality – and it pepetuates the one story picture of Africa as a continent in unchanging crisis. To me this is not only insulting to proud African nationals, but also to western supporters in assuming they lack the ability to digest a more accurate dialogue about the status quo in developing countries. If we are truly convinced about our own interventions and progress, we should be confident enough to present them transparently for scrutiny without the obligatory poverty porn lens.

  2. Rosemary

    Thanks for sharing the video about Frip Ethique – I had not realized bras were such a desirable item in West Africa, or that they were complicated to manufacture. I learn something new every day.

  3. Your point about public messaging is probably the most valid, assuming Oxfam has done it’s research as well as you’ve indicated. So bras are something that research has shown is desired by local people. But why do they have to be used, preloved bras? Why not new ones?
    The assumption is that they do want bras and hence the only ones that we’ll give them are the ones that we don’t want – there is a problem with public messaging there.

  4. Steve Wiggins

    This has echoes of Nicaragua in the mid-1980s, when the economy was in dire straits. Owing to a chronic shortage of foreign exchange, there were next to no bras to buy in rural Nica. When a national rural co-op retail chain was founded, bras were high on the list of things to sell. I was told that rural women appreciated it enormously that bras were once available.

  5. Sarah

    Is Oxfam considering using at least some of the funds raised to set up of bra production factories and businesses in cooperation with Frip Ethique and other local groups? It might be more sustainable and environmentally friendly in the future rather than sending bras all the way to Africa.

  6. Leila

    I can but echo Alice’s comment… I saw a charity recently urging people to give things like “used colouring pencils” that they were then going to spend a fortune shipping to some presumably grateful Third World recipients. Really? We cannot even send new things?
    I feel a little like this with the bras. How much is it costing Oxfam to ship them over and clear customs? In this day and age, can new bras not be bought for a similar price on the local markets and redistributed? Or better still, support a local or regional bra factory). They do exist – South Africa and other African countries make local bras a-plenty, and I am fairly sure there must be cheap Chinese imports on most local markets.
    In any event, once the maths is totalled up in terms of how much it is costing to run the publicity campaign, support the admin costs of the local implementing partner and so on, I wonder if it is not something of a false economy….

  7. Caroline Sweetman

    As Editor of Oxfam’s journal Gender & Development, I hope the vote reflects my extreme concern that this kind of fundraising depends on simplistic messaging about what ‘we’ need to do to support the empowerment of women and gender justice in poor communities where development NGOs work. Women I’ve talked to say they are horrified by the sexualised images of women in bras which have appeared in the media (The Sunday Times in the UK headed its feature ‘Sexy lingerie seeks new owner’ on 1 April – hardly surprising that people thought this must be an April Fool’s Day joke). I wonder how many of these bras will end up being worn by women forced to sell sex in the backstreets of Dakar, because of poverty and none of the options which really would raise their self-esteem: education, freedom from violence, lack of land and other assets to make an independent living, a full and equal say in their futures? We need to give the donating public a chance to understand the real issues – my neighbour, who reads the Daily Mail, also thinks this is a bad campaign – she said she would prefer to give money for Oxfam to spend on the real issues rather than being told the only action she needs to take is pass on her old bras. Please, please, let’s stop selling ourselves and women short in our public messaging!

    • Claire Hetherington

      Well said Caroline Sweetman! You’ve helped me untangle my confusion about this issue. The recycler in me kind of liked the idea, but my guts were saying no. Now I understand why!

  8. Audrey

    I cannot make up my mind as I can see both sides of the coin and they both bring their own pros and cons…on one hand it raises money and awareness, also those women at Frip Etique are inspiring; on the other hand, I agree it puts a bad light on the gender equality issue.
    And you know there is one thing that bothers me… bras have actually a short-life span so we’re basically sending something that is not ‘doing its job properly’ anymore. What kind of message is that?
    I also wonder whether we’re getting media attention for this because it’s an excuse for them to publish pictures of bras and women with bras, or is it because they truly think it’s a great campaign?
    Am I too cynical?……
    Basically, I think that when a campaign raises the wrong questions, it may be a good idea to look at it again…

  9. Catherine

    Thanks for the blog – and I agree with so many of the comments, especially around longevity of the goods; messages about sending cast offs instead of tackling real issues of power, rights, and poverty; and what future for these markets. Good challenges to the question should we be doing this – but I just wanted to add, if we are doing this should this be how we are communicating about it? At the recent internal presentation on the campaign we were told that this is primarily about maximising income for Oxfam and local vendors through bras being a high-value and highly sought after item – pure enterprise! Yet when you see the promotional materials and the media coverage it’s all pink, frills, and ‘oooh we’re talking about underwear, how titillating’. If this was about a male dominated enterprise development programme it would be talked about in a very different way, yet because it’s about women involved in enterprise and a women specific product we have to suffer pinkness and a patronising tone. So sex sells, so we probably got much, much, more coverage about this campaign than if we were getting people to donate socks – but just as we try to challenge attitudes and believes in countries Oxfam works in, shouldn’t we be promoting our values and challenging social norms at home? In the UK my perception of Oxfam outside of this building is not an aspirational picture of women – we seem to be prepared to perpetuate a vision of women as shopaholics, frivolous consumers who don’t care about weighty issues but will buy lots of pretty bras they’ll never or hardly wear. Is Oxfam living our organisational values in our portrayal of and engagement with women in the UK… personally I find Oxfam quite alienating as a women living in the UK today (it makes me incredibly sad to admit).
    So donate your spare bras if you have any – along with anything you have and don’t need – let’s raise a lot of money for Oxfam’s great work and not throw so much into landfill that can actually be used by other people. But let’s not dumb down messages about enterprise to supposedly engage more with women, let’s not drench everything aimed at women in pink, and let’s live our values through challenging social norms in this country that objectify or ‘frivolitise’ women. Let’s make the women who work in Oxfam proud of Oxfam’s portray of women in the UK!

  10. Katie liddle

    I ticked ‘yes’, because of the money that is raised and ploughed back into the local economy in Senegal. It also caught a storm of media attention and showed Oxfam’s other side, a side that doesn’t just give rice to poor black kids, which is all our adverts ever seem to show (a stereotype in itself).
    But, and this is a very big BUT! I am incredibly concerned with Oxfam’s representation of women, considering we are supposed to be champions of the female cause.
    Pink, tea dresses, bras, doing lunch, dinner parties, cake etc etc. I struggle every day to encourage my daughter to see past the female gender stereotypes that flood her from all aspects of the media, including the kids’ books that I sell in my shop (helpless princess needs a handsome prince to save her from an evil witch then marry her), and to look within herself as a human being without limits and not a ‘girl’. Then the company I so passionately work for is working to those exact stereotypes.
    When we did our international women’s day window, we did use the pink window posters etc, but then we counteracted that with a swathe of feminist and gender equal literature and text books.
    I think Oxfam need to rethink our strategy with women’s issues. We should be the ones who stand up against the stereotype, the ones that lead the way, that create a storm and work, not just in developing countries, but also here to establish gender equality. We will be judged by the actions we take, the face that we show, not always by the words that we speak and we need to be leaders in this field to be able to truly say that we are champions for women and their right to choose a life that is not constrained by sexual stereotypes and gender expectations.
    I don’t want to be defined as a woman, I don’t want to be proud of my gender, I want to be inspired to be myself as a whole person, and I want to share that experience with my daughter and the other women I meet.
    So yes, I think the big bra hunt was worth it, but can we please establish a more gender equal outward image for future promotions… and no more pink, please!

  11. John Magrath

    A fair and balanced blog, Duncan. For me the most interesting issue is, what does this say about Oxfam?
    There have always been tensions between on the one hand, the messages put out to raise funds (and particularly, to engage with [stereotyped] “Daily Mail readers”), and campaigning and advocacy messages [which yes, can be a bit po-faced]. But my question would be, would Oxfam have done this appeal – or in this way – in the past? My feeling is, no – for better or worse. Or, if Oxfam had, say, appealed for bras for Nicaragua, I feel sure that behind the razzmatazz there would have been a serious message about the US blockade!. With the current appeal, there seems to be no message at all about issues of justice or equity – simply, isn’t it a pity that African women don’t have any bras…. So what bothers me more is why there isn’t any message. To me it implies a kind of dis-unity within Oxfam now about what it is/stands for, and what image(s) it wants to portray.
    Or am I just an old Leftie and is it really just a (highly successful) appeal that is also fun (and which Oxfam wouldn’t have done in the past because it lacked a sense of humour)??

  12. Ruben Alba

    Hi Duncan,
    I read your blog with great interest from Brussels.
    The debate you present here is interesting but you miss the whole point: why aren’t bras manufactured in West Africa if there is such a high demand? What is stopping bra manufacturers from setting up a new factory in the region or import them cheaply from China? That’s precisely the root of the problem and Oxfam should be looking at ways to find answers for it. My two cents.

  13. Nathan Nelson

    From my recent experience of Ghana, one of the reasons for the glut of second-hand clothing is that it is affordable, but also good quality, far better quality in fact than the cheap Chinese imports that otherwise flood the market (used clothing is called ‘obruni wa wo’ or ‘white man has died’ because you’d surely have to be dead to get rid of it).
    People don’t just want to buy used clothing, they want to buy TVs, DVD players, fridges, blenders, microwaves and bikes, and stuff from Europe and America is a safer bet. My Ghanaian friend told me that you’d rather buy used stuff from Europe or the US than new stuff from China because even if it was a few years old, it would still last longer. It seemed particularly ironic that some of that imported used stuff would have originally been made in China, but to a much higher standard. There is also an aspirational element here – I was told that Ghanaians want things from Europe and the US – people prefer to buy rice called Uncle Sam with the American flag emblazoned across the sack (the rice is from Thailand).
    Chinese goods are imported in massive quantities and they’re mostly low-grade tat – but undercut a lot of what could be produced locally, particularly when there are practically no barriers to importing them. There’s Chinese toilet roll, toothpicks, sandals – all sorts of things that Ghanaian businesses could produce, but they can’t compete with Chinese imports, particularly when the local assembly and everyone else would want a ‘cut’ as soon as they even thought about opening a factory, and there are greater barriers to importing materials from within Africa than there are from China.
    So sending used bras? Yep. Not ideal. But they are in demand as long as they’re better than the alternative, because considerations around gender equality and perception aside, people need to buy stuff that lasts. If Oxfam also says that this is bigger than bras, that it’s addressing the effects of trade liberalisation on local enterprises, that people in Africa need affordable good quality goods just as much as the next person (and maybe they can even get them brand new), that local enterprises will get the support they need to make imports of bras obsolete, then crack on. But I’m not really hearing Oxfam say that.

  14. Jo

    I am really uncomfortable with the cupcake stuff and the general pinkness of Oxfam’s current public messaging around lady-things. But I’ve had some interesting conversations with (mainly female) colleagues and friends about the ‘bra hunt’ because actually I was delighted to discover a couple of years ago that there was a second-hand market for bras – at least, for the ones you buy in a hurry but never actually wear because they aren’t right. If you have large breasts a good bra is genuinely life-enhancing. It’s not just about frippery, it’s not necessarily about titillation, and it is a gender issue. But I know it’s not as simple as that and I agree with many of the other commenters in wishing we’d reflect some of the bigger issues in our messaging.

  15. Richard

    I totally agree with Catherine. I have no qualms about the enterprise aspects of the project; everything I’ve seen suggests this is a potentially lucrative opportunity that responds to a legitimate demand without distorting the market, and which could be of genuine benefit to Senegalese social enterprise and consumers alike. Bra-vo. But I do think the way it has been marketed in the UK, and the jumping-off point this provides for others without gender equality at the forefront of their minds, is more worrying. Oxfam can’t control the conversation, nor should we, but we should be more aware of our contribution and the way we are framing the debate.
    I also don’t think we should lose sight of the fact that some of the donations are destined for UK shops – there’s nothing inherently wrong with charity or ‘Swedow’ – done right it’s a socially and environmentally sustainable model. But I would be interested to know more about what determines which bras end up in UK shops and which ones go to Frip Ethique.
    p.s. I haven’t voted because the option “A good idea that should have been better executed” isn’t available.

  16. P Baker

    This is just part of a much bigger trade – in second hand clothing in general. From the US in particular it’s a major trade and even forms part of trade negotiations such as the one between US and Colombia (I once met a US embassy official involved in this who was deeply embarrassed by the way the US was more or less forcing Colombia to accept it).
    In Africa especially there is a major trade in second hand clothes, so why shouldn’t Oxfam get a part of it?
    Read “The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy: An Economist Examines the Markets, Power, and Politics of World Trade” by Pietra Rivoli – it’s a very readable and well balanced view…

  17. martin

    Quite confused about how this, and particularly the messaging around it, ties in with the Common Cause approach that I thought Oxfam was championing?

  18. Abhijit Bhattacharjee

    Oxfam is good at fundraising. These cheap gimmicks may bring it some short-term publicity and a few more dosh, but if it is serious about women’s dignity in Africa and cared about the image of Africa it is portraying to the general British public, it would have asked the latter to donate new bras and not the wanted used ones. And if Oxfam was serious about development in Africa, better still, it would have encouraged setting up small factories it Africa – producing a bra costs less that 40 pence (ask the Chinese) – which would have employed millions of African women). Something which Oxfam was goot at doing in the past.
    I am pained and shocked by the fact that of all the charities, Oxfam, which I worked for once and had lot of respects for, is stooping to this level in its publicity-hunting.

  19. TB

    For what it’s worth – bravo for the post. As with the Nairobi swimming pool, washing your dirty laundry in public makes for excellent blogging and commenting.
    Having the debate in public enhances Oxfam’s credibility. (with me, at any rate.)

  20. John Magrath

    Your pained response answers my previous question Abhijit – would Oxfam have done this in the past? Certainly not without a strong message, as Alice, Nathan and others have pointed out. It distresses me that within Oxfam, it feels like this appeal was already launched before these concerns were heard….

  21. Rachel

    Two decades ago Oxfam shifted from an approach based an ‘charity’ to one based on rights. A rights-based approach challenges the system and structures that create and perpetuate poverty and suffering. Fundamental to this is the recognition that giving poor people our old ‘stuff’ with the implicit expectation of their gratitude for our largesse is not what Oxfam should be about. The Big Bra Hunt feels like a retrograde step back to the old charity model, and is not something that Oxfam should be visibly and publicly defining itself by and and has longer term consequences for Oxfam and public perceptions of aid, rights and Africa.
    Coming on the back of the intense discomfort many Oxfam staff felt about the approach to IWD – a sugar-coated toned-down version of feminism in which women were infantalised as ‘girls’ and a radical women’s rights agenda was turning into a tea party, we seriously need to address the disconnect between our ambitions and aspiration on women’s rights and gender equity and the way we present women and women’s rights in our marketing, publicity and fundraising.
    If we approach women’s rights and feminism with cupcakes and sugarcoat it in sprinkles we reinforce and perpetuate the very gender stereotypes that underpin inequality. When we talk about ‘getting the girls together’ we present them as less than equal to men – which is how many women around the world are treated – as children.
    The very real struggle for women’s rights across the globe needs to be more substantial and more radical than bra-shaped bunting and cupcakes. We need to be strategic not opportunistic. I agree with Abhijit – we should not compromise our beliefs and principles for cheap gimmicks and a quick buck.

  22. Michael

    Great post. Very thought provoking.
    One thought I had was where the bras, which the good ladies of Britain are being asked to purchase, are actually manufactured? Is it the UK?
    The answer is almost certainly no. Designs may be specific to UK retailers, but they are manufactured somewhere else.
    One example: Triumph. The name “Triumph” was registered as trademark in 1902 to a German company. It is headquartered in Switzerland and the company has manufacturing operations in Philippines and Thailand, Chile, China and Viet Nam.
    Time prevents me from looking at their CSR rating…
    Of course, acquiring this information did require surfing the Triumph website on a Friday afternoon. A hazardous occupation for a man entering his middling years.

  23. Caroline

    That last line of the last post makes me smile – and prompts me to share with the assembled company the irony that Oxfam’s own internet filter at head office prohibits surfing of lingerie sites in the office. Not suggesting that we should have it any other way, but interesting in this context that the filter assumes bras to be, by definition, unrelated to Oxfam business.

  24. Anna

    Oh for goodness sake. I’m a woman ‘of a certain age’ and I am very happy to be ‘one of the girls’.
    What about the very successful, no-doubt-researched-to-death-to-check-women-engage-with-it campaign from Boots: ‘Here come the girls’, or Race for life’s fun run where everyone is in pink and the poster shouts: Join the girls’. Lots of women like the camaradarie of ‘being one of the girls’ whatever their age. It’s not insulting. Personally I hate the colour pink and hate the stereotype of pink = female, however, lots of women/girls do like pink.. but anyway who cares? Trying to encourage people to deal with and talk about difficult issues is a real challenge. Taking the first step with something light like a discussion over tea and cakes is one way of approaching that challenge. Many women will go on to delve a little deeper into the issues and do more. We can’t all be development experts from the outset or pretend to be interested in the jargon-filled development articles.
    As for the bras…it’s a hook (‘scuse the half pun) to get people interested in donating to Oxfam and talking about our work. Seems to have worked.

    • Abigail

      You said all this 7 years ago, but it’s still true!
      I have been reading through all the comments, with an increasing awareness of my own stupidity, and lack of international awareness!
      I’m already too close to 80, for comfort, but I, too, still like to be “one of the girls”!
      I took a large bag of bras, ( from my “failure” drawer, and those of my many friends’), only yesterday; now I’m confused: did I do the right thing?

  25. Isabelle Bremaud

    I am really puzzled, ok, women in West Africa needs (or wants) bras (for comfort, health, conformity, fashion?) but is a “pinky” campaign in the UK the best way to for them to get them? Based on Oxfam way´s of working, principles and policies, we should first work with the women on a participatory assessment of the problem: what is really needed? And then come up with the kind of bra they would prefer (are UK bras adapted to the morphology and taste of West African Women?), then think of the different strategies to bring them to them that is cost-effective, sustainable, environment friendly, socially acceptable, empowering etc.

  26. Kim

    Having seen that the majority vote so far is that this is a “good idea”, I am relieved to see my concerns about this campaign reflected in the comments above. A wide range of people (some of whom voted in favour of the campaign) have each highlighted significant concerns from their own unique stand points, e.g., Alice is concerned about public messaging and media portrayals of Africa, Katie is concerned about “cup cake feminism” and portrayals of “girls” in the UK, Leila points out the financial and environmental costs of shipping second-hand bras to Africa and Abhijit’s proposes setting up factories in Africa as a more sustainable economic and empowerment model. I support each of the arguments and would like to raise a few additional concerns as well…
    First of all, I am appalled to see that this campaign appears to have no problem sexualising women in order to make a quick buck (after all, bras are not the only thing Frip Antique sells). I cannot imagine Oxfam responding positively if a private sector company were employing a similar publicity stunt to this one. Also, I am concerned that derogative and highly stereotyped “cupcake campaigns” such as these are harmful to Oxfam’s reputation and to our long-term fundraising goals. Oxfam has (or had) a strong feminist following within the British public, and frequently attracts grants and attention from major donors on the basis of our women’s empowerment expertise. Damage to this reputation could have a significant financial impact.
    Secondly, I’m concerned that this campaign is inadvertently blurring the lines between donating to a charity and investing in a private business. Research has shown that the British public generally read less than 7 words about a campaign before deciding whether or not to donate to it. Based on the images and public messaging being used, I imagine the majority of women donating are assuming that their unwanted bras are going to be given to some poor African woman because (apparently) every woman “needs” a bra. If they then discover that their bras are actually going to a private business, from which only those women with access to disposable income will be able to purchase these non-essential item of clothing, then they may feel cheated. From a rights-based development perspective, supporting a business in Senegal is more defendable, but it is a difficult message to put across, no matter how many pink frills you put on it…

  27. Jayne

    Wearing a well fitting bra, especially if you have larger breasts as one comment above points out, makes a dramatic improvement to your comfort and freedom of movement and posture helping to aleviate what can be continuous significant muscular pain and discomfort. Bras are not just about covering up or sexiness, or frivolous femininity – they are about being comfortable and pain free. Women know that. We have had loads of bras donated at our shop many of them new and unused, many of them plain, designed for comforable reliable support alone. No complaints or negative comments have been received and many donors have expressed pleasure at being able to donate something they know to be a useful practical thing for women.
    We are not filtering the best to sell in UK, we are sending all of them to Frip Ethique and Frip Ethique have said that is what they can make good use of. I think many of the comments above underestimate the ability of our female supporters to read publicity in a sophisticated way and deduce quite easily for themselves what the real issue is. I think its a great idea creating thought and interest and participation in and among the context of many other initiatives by oxfam.

  28. Abhijit Bhattacharjee

    There’s some interesting debate here. I think Kim’s comments are spot on. These do raise serious moral issues of how we look at women in general and African women vis-a-vis women back home.
    A further point to note is the highly inconsistent and damaging message this campaign is sending out to public. Oxfam (and several other humanitarian organisations) have for years now tried to educate people not to donate used clothes for sending these out overseas for relief as these not only compromise the dignity of recipients, but also cost more in terms of real cost of handling, transportation and logistics. Donating cash is the best form of any support one could provide to the poor and disaster-affected. That’s why Oxfam shops have been selling donated clothes here in the UK to raise cash that can then be used to meet the needs of the poor.
    Looks like Oxfam is forgetting its seventy years of learning, or is it a case of one arm of Oxfam not knowing what the other is saying or doing.

  29. Brian

    The Bra Hunt is a fantastic way of engaging with the general public, and mobilising the shop network.
    Most people want to do something quick and easy. This fits the bill.

  30. Shawna Wakefield

    I somehow missed this when it came out, and am pretty perplexed – mainly on the messaging. We have a lot of great analysis in Oxfam of the deeper causes of gender inequality and women’s rights violations. We have some amazing partners who are real experts and doing some serious work. There is a serious problem with funding declines for great work, and lots of need for public messaging on the real issues. Why are we playing into the media’s simplistic treatment of women?
    We should be even savvier – check out the NYT website collection of stories on women’s issues – it looks like some good coverage is out there, and possibley some greater interest in telling real stories. We be taking advantage of it and as one post said, changing attitudes in and through the media. So how is it we seem to be able to mobilize our messaging as a priority for this? Ok, they are important but really, when you look at all of the issues we are working on this would not come up as the number 1 priority I doubt in Senegal or anywhere else. (GJ Lead for Oxfam International)

  31. Lauren

    Great blog and great debate!
    I eventually came down the middle and voted for the ‘ok, as long as it’s making money’ route, but I am having second thoughts. Should we always think about making money (even if it is for good reasons) over the principles we are said to hold?
    I worked in the trading arm and there always seemed to be a schism between the ‘business’ lot (us) and the policy lot (ideas). In having your trading arm separate from campaigns separate from private sector engagement etc etc, you’re always going to have conflicts of interest. Some of the biggest will be between using stereotyped imagery (e.g. pink, cupcakes) to sell an idea and those fighting the very same gender stereotyping in their work.
    Advertising and PR thrives off stereotyping, humour, and simplified messages. Sex sells. Pragmatically, Oxfam needs the money and the profile it gets from its trading arm. Perhaps the pink should be toned down, but the fact is, sadly, Oxfam can’t always have its cake and eat it. What it can do is communicate between departments better, and hopefully be trendsetters in carrying out great advertising that doesn’t always pertain to damaging stereotypes. If you can do that- wow- you can have the whole cake stall!

  32. MSN

    Speaking as a non-Oxfam (and not even ex-fam)person who also works in development, this is a really tough one. I work with lots of small UK groups that want to help people in developing countries. And like others here, I spend a lot of time trying to convince people that sending out containers of second-hand goods is not necessarily the most helpful way of proceeding. So it’s a bit tricky when one of the UK’s largest and most respected development charities advertises that it’s sending out second-hand goods in quantity. Yes, it’s clearly being done in a way that’s better thought through. But I’d guess it’s a pretty minute percentage of the population interacting with the campaign that gets into the details of how the bras will support local enterprise – for most people, it’ll just be about sending the bras to “the poor in Africa.”
    There’s also something slightly difficult in the fact that bras are one of the few things that most UK charity shoppers probably wouldn’t buy secondhand. So we’re not only sending cast off goods … we’re sending cast-off goods that we wouldn’t expect many people here to want or buy. From a recycling standpoint it makes great sense — less landfill! But from a messaging standpoint it just gets trickier and trickier.

  33. Catherine

    I think the ‘exposure’ this has received in the UK ‘lads mag’ Nuts is exactly what people upset about this campaign knew was unfortunately inevitable and not something Oxfam (or women working at Oxfam) would want to be associated with.

  34. The first comment to this post made me smile- “pepetuates the idea that international development is about charity”. I think from memory Oxfam spends about £25m each year on fundraising and £10m on campaigning. Let’s have a vote on whether we think that is the right balance of spending and a vote on what would happen to the future of the programme work if those figures were reversed.

  35. Gary

    Oh come on people are you serious? Please get over yourselves, this is a different style of campaign that we’re used to seeing and all this so called “cup cake feminism” is really losing the plot.
    I have news, this may come as a bit of a shock to you, but women have boobs! Yes that’s right, boobs – please don’t blush, it’s true. Now are we saying that women in Senegal who want bras shouldn’t be able to buy them for themselves, but should restrict themselves to the cheap imports from China? Also, people are talking about shipping stuff abroad being expensive, oh wait a minute, Oxfam – we you aware of this? Of course you were! From what I’ve read it’s a thriving little enterprise that is really helping about 40 local people by providing jobs and also the local economy by providing good quality items.
    Don’t you think that Oxfam would have looked into this campaign carefully? of course they did! everyone seems to know better, but don’t actually offer viable solutions.
    And one more thing whilst I’m on one – I walked past the Oxfam shop in Oakham today and they had a fantastic window display about the campaign and had loads of bras for sale – some still had their original price tags on (some didn’t), but you could tell that the quality was excellent and they were well priced – my girlfriend was extremely impressed, she would have bought one, but it wasn’t her size.
    Good work Oxfam, i think it’s an excellent campaign. Even if Nuts has got in on the act – but then again, isn’t this campaign now reaching a new audience?

  36. As an inhabitant of West Africa, I see women buying second hand bras all the time at the local market. So a need, yeah, it is. Clothes from the west are extremely cheap on the market and the quality is amazing. Most of the clothes and shoes, we have ‘donated’ I cannot tell they are second hand.
    However, that there is no local textile industry doesn’t mean it is good to drop second hand clothes in length of days. Hence, local industry will never have a chance to develop.
    An important thing to keep in mind: If NGO’s are not bringing in (second hand) clothes, african or chinese business men will do it anyhow. So a local textile industry will only evolve if the national government forbids import of clothes and shoes and other products to build up a local industry.

  37. Kimberly

    I’ve voted ‘bad idea.’
    I see this as a very poorly executed fundraising campaign – something that could really undermine Oxfam’s own work on how people in the UK think about people living in poor countries. There is the charity/SWEDOW component of it, and then there’s plain old factual accuracy. How many of those donated bras are actually “British,” in that they were made in the UK?. Bra donors are getting the message that “we” have manufacturing capacity and developing countries don’t(which in the case of Senegal, looks to be partially true)…when in actual fact the situation is far more complicated and interesting than that. The whole thing feels a bit 50’s to me.
    It could have been done so much better! But the way it’s been communicated here in the UK has been, to my eyes, a disaster. (I’ll leave the nuanced ‘cupcake’ commentary to the more articulate commentators. Personally, I just find the pink irritatingly tacky.)
    In terms of impact in Senegal – thanks Duncan for posting the 2005 study. As it’s now 2012, it looks like this particular project is probably due another?

  38. Lyn

    Why is Oxfam not actively protecting their brand identity to the same degree as any retail brand would?
    Brand image and therefore public perception is difficult to change once formed, especially any negative perceptions.
    Even car manufacturers have had to move on from the outdated sex sells ads.
    However financially successful this campaign is deemed to be, once launched into the public domain Oxfam have had no control over the direction it has travelled.
    If this debate encourages Oxfam to consider the long term implications of any future campaign it will be a job well done.

  39. Anna

    Whilst any campaign that uses bras to raise funds ‘to support women worldwide’ is inevitably going to attract some unwelcome attention and ridicule, it could be a lot more sexy if it actively engaged with some of the debates and controversies around the second-hand clothing trade in Africa and better demonstrated how Oxfam’s programme approaches with are linked into organisational policy recommendations (I’ve just been looking at Oxfam’s 2005 study).
    Whatever the arguments though, the appeal is probably contributing to perpetuating public misunderstanding on issues of aid and development (as the terrible Daily Mail article seems to illustrate). It also risks undermining Oxfam’s credibility to speak authoritatively on policy action at national/regional/ international levels that could tackle structural causes of poverty and economic inequalities – with potentially far greater impact on employment creation and poverty reduction than the recycling of 1 million humble brassieres can achieve. Does Oxfam not have anything to say about the impact of neoliberal agendas on trade and industrial policies which prevent local producers from establishing successful domestic textile and clothing industries? (There seems to be no escape from the fact that the second hand clothing trade is both a consequence of and to some extent implicated in their absence….)

  40. Vimal

    This campaign is one of the best Ive seen yet since starting work for Oxfam over four years ago. My customers, staff and local press love it.
    I dont know much about bras, obviously, so wont say much on that…..Otherwise Frip Ethique is ace, so good to learn about this, its important.
    I think the investment in materials, time and effort to promote this has been worth it. Its good to engage with the public and educate about the long journey of donations of clothes.
    Also as a donor this gives me more confidence when I need to give up my wear to make way for new. Im not aware of what other charities are doing with donations of clothes, they havent screamed out to me as loud.

  41. Kate

    There are a few things I want to get off my chest.
    I find it patronising that women in Senegal are deemed witless victims of Oxfam’s ill thought out activity. Do we assume women in Senegal are brainless dolts then? Shouldn’t they be the best judge of it they want to wear a bra or buy a bra?
    On the whole most people in the UK are busy getting on with their lives to care about international issues. This helps to get a conversation started which would otherwise not happen. It’s not about Daily Mail readers (those witless dolts again, too stupid to form their own opinions) either, it’s about ordinary bra wearing women, doing something useful, quickly and easily between their jobs running Britain’s companies, homes and schools. Most will not have time to read Oxfam’s reports. For many this will be the closest they ever want to get to Oxfam & this will be enough for them.
    It would be fantastic if the media were pre disposed to give air time to more complex and deeper debates. But as someone whose made over a 1000 phone calls in my life to journalists, selling the wares of the international development community they are simply not interested.
    Is the issue more that Oxfam’s got something right, a campaign that sings? Should we put the problem at the door of the UK media that prizes t*ts over trade rules?

  42. Anna

    As others have suggested is Oxfam considering using at least some of the funds raised to set up bra factories and businesses in cooperation with Frip Ethique and other local groups? If Oxfam’s development programmes are intended to pilot new approaches that can serve as scaleable and replicable models across a country or region, taking the success of Frip a step further would surely be consistent with its own policy recommendations? Or is Oxfam more comfortable promoting the feel good idea that swedow recycling represents the most viable, sustainable and ethical solution to market demand because the UK media (if not general public) would lose interest if we started talking about underlying political economy issues.

  43. Tracey

    There isn’t a box for ‘justified because it was well-researched and considered the unintended consequences it might have’ or ‘justified because it has sparked debate about gender and development’ – so I’ve just voted ‘a good idea’.
    Might also be good to use it to publicise the iniquities of the underwear trade – maybe highlight work of Thai women laid off by Triumph who went on to make their own knickers – and women who sent their knickers to Burmese embassies to protest against repression there. And many more no doubt – they would make great ‘underwear’ in development stories for Oxfam shops.

  44. Rosemary

    Interesting to read the discussion about this. I do have one additional thought, about a topic that is not so sexy but is nonetheless vital.
    One common search that brings people to Hopebuilding wiki is about sanitary protection for girls.
    Some projects create employment for women by making sanitary pads, or indeed selling low cost pads. Meeting this need in this way creates sustainable economic development in the community as well as keeping girls in school. Not so sexy as a bra campaign, though.

  45. Steph

    Well, some very interesting discussions here!
    I am curious about some of the mixed messages though. I appreciate that women in West Africa should absolutely be able to buy bras if they wish, and I would echo Sarah and Leila’s comments that we should support local markets to make these products available rather than ship out our old ones.
    Also, Jayne’s comment above (“We are not filtering the best to sell in UK, we are sending all of them to Frip Ethique”) confused me slightly, as the Oxfam website states that bras will either be sold in UK shops or sent to Wastesaver to go on to Senegal.
    Link here:
    If you then follow the link to the wastesaver page, it clearly states that we try to sell as much as possible in our shops in the UK to maximise revenue, and that goods and items which cannot be sold in our UK shops, or are damaged or low-grade, are then sent on to be sold in Senegal.
    This to me clearly implies that we are selling in the UK all of the new/good/high quality bras, and only sending to Senegal the ones which our own shop staff deem to be un-sellable. This shifts the focus of the campaign away from the needs of West African women for good quality bras, and makes it purely about money and fundraising.
    This also highlights both Rachel and Abhijit’s (far more articulate) points about us sending old, colonial cast-offs and hand-me-downs off to Africa.
    And if this is in fact about fundraising only, I would also love to see a transparent financial report letting us know how much money Oxfam has spent on this bra campaign, in terms of advertising, and staff costs etc, when compared to the £1m it hopes to raise from this campaign.
    And on a side note about all this cupcake feminism, I too was embrassed by the use of pink, frilly marketing for both this project and International Women’s Day. Inviting women to get together and discuss serious gender issues is great, but by highlighting bunting, cupcakes and pink frilly doilies, surely we are essentially excluding men from a disucssion that they should form an integral part of? I would have thought that one of Oxfam’s core ways of tackling women’s empowerment and gender equality should be to encourage men around the world to get involved in helping to address the gender imbalance, not by actively excluding them from the discussion with such embarrassingly child-like and girly marketing campaigns.

  46. Anna

    Using the appeal to publicise the iniquities of the underwear trade and share stories of women’s successes in challenging these is a great idea. (I’ve just seen this story on the ‘protest’ panties in Thailand
    It might help to restore confidence in Oxfam’s engagement with issues of gender empowerment which the following commentary on the campaign from South Africa also takes issue with.
    ‘Oxfam’s Bras without Borders’ depressingly concludes: ‘With the Big Bra Hunt, Oxfam proves that there is a flourishing trade in good intentions. Well-meaning people in the West will donate their underwear to African women. They feel better about their own lives. They feel less guilty for their excesses. But this sense of wellbeing is then owed to the poor African women desperate for support. It does little to offer sustainable solutions to the underlying problems’.
    It’s also worth noting in the West Africa context that whatever the pros and cons of recycling second hand underwear Ghana has recently decided to enforce a ban on its sale.

  47. Nick

    Great blog, and really thought-provoking debate – thanks to everyone for writing such thoughtful comments.
    It does seem like solid research has been done to ascertain that there is a need for bras in West Africa, and that this can be contributed towards without harming the local economy. Those were my initial concerns when I first heard about the concept.
    But the messaging around this in the UK has done Oxfam a disservice. The media, including ‘lad’s mags’, have cheerfully leapt at this as an excuse to print photos of scantily clad women. So yes, we are maybe reaching a new audience – but with totally the wrong message.
    As with the IWD Get Together events, I think the basic idea of the campaign is good – but only if more is done to communicate the reality of gender issues, rather than accepting that tired stereotypes about women are somehow a necessary expedient for successful fundraising.

  48. Rosa

    I also want to flag that it’s not only external media outlets that have been “off-message” – I was shocked to see Oxfam South East’s own blog exposing some pretty dodgy messages (thankfully now removed, following complaints) – particularly the “significance in the south” section – which was highly patronising (that tribal communities find bras “bewildering”) and insulting – stating that the bra plays a significant role in the “status” of women (rather than an education, livelihood or political participation) and implying women in the south think wearing a bra can reduce the likelihood of rape. Oxfam (and women’s rights organisations in the south!) has a long history of working on sexual and gender based violence, and excellent analysis about the causes of violence against women – and I don’t think the absence/presence of a bra has ever been part of our gender or protection analysis. I found the suggestion pretty incredible, and undermining of the work of Oxfam and many others emphasising that violence against women happens because of deep seated gender inequality and attitudes and beliefs about a woman’s value – not because she does not wear a bra. Although it was removed quickly and was not written by the big bra team – it’s very damaging. And for me a real reminder that gender training and conscience raising needs to happen across all parts of the organisation, led at a corporate level.

  49. Rosa

    In addition, I recently returned from the AWID (Association for Women’s Rights in Development) Forum in Istanbul – several non-Oxfammers there complained to me personally about the big bra hunt and Get Together – so I think it is fair to say that our communications around both initiatives have not done Oxfam any favours in representing ourselves as a credible actor supporting women’s rights… which is really sad considering the great work going in many areas of the organisation. Many women I spoke to felt very disappointed and angered that the small space that exists in the media around women’s rights and International Women’s Day was taken up by pink, cupcake-filled and largely a-political messaging. If we are not seen as credible and supportive by the women’s rights movement… how will we ever make real progress on our drive to put women’s rights at the heart of all we do and really change the lives of millions of women?! We can’t do it without the women’s movement, that’s for sure!

  50. Nick

    Also, I found particularly interesting John Magrath’s comment that, had we run comparable fundraising campaigns in the past, they would never have been apolitical – we would always at least have tried to build the campaign around our wider work on gender.
    The problem is that by being ‘apolitical’ now, we are actually being very political. Others will look at how we talk about women in all contexts, and will make judgements based on that. It’s not possible to separate out our programme and policy work with our UK-based fundraising and marketing. It’s only within Oxfam House that we somehow seem to think there are these impenetrable barriers between different divisions, meaning that there is so little coherent link-up between public fundraising, and the work that funds are being raised for.

  51. Heather

    I have just seen a copy of the coverage of this campaign in Nuts magazine. I was going to post a copy of the article, but feel strongly that it contravenes Oxfam’s code of conduct. I would not be upholding the integrity of Oxfam by ensuring that my personal and professional conduct is, and is seen to be, of the highest standard in keeping with Oxfam’s aims and values and nor would I be treating all people with dignity and respect.

  52. Rachel

    I understand that one of the reasons for doing this campaign was that bras would attract attention. One of the risks that was weighed up would presumably be that the resulting media coverage woudl objectify women. Just seen the appalling Nuts article. What an own goal, Oxfam.

  53. Petra Ernst-Gutierrez

    I was appalled when I first saw the bra tree in our local Oxfam store. My reasons are:
    Living in Malawi I saw quite clearly that even though there was textile manufacturing in Malawi, everything was exported to the US and Asia as there is just no way new even locally produced, textiles can compete with the prices of clothing that was initially given for free. I don’t agree with the rsults of your 2005 review on this at all.
    I think there is nothing wrong with the idea of bras, after all if I wear one why wouldn’t want women in Africa want bras…but why not sell the bras to a recyling plant here and send the money to Africa to develop local bra factories, preferrably staffed with women fairly paid, creating rather than destroying jobs and…making sure the bra is consistent with local temperatures and styles.

  54. Lorraine

    I hope that after the Nuts article, there will be no room for doubt that this campaign is a bad idea. I recently had dinner with a dinner who was very excited about telling me that she gone through her drawer to find bras to donate to Oxfam. She had felt that this was important because she read in our campaign material that it helped prevent women from getting raped. She had thought it was really great that Oxfam would be distributing the bras to help these poor women in Africa. At first I couldn’t believe that my friend, a highly educated woman was saying this but then I realised it went back to the value of our brand and the trust she had in Oxfam’s messages. Why would she question this if it was coming straight off Oxfam’s website? This has now been compromised. We have a responsibility to ourselves, to the public and most importantly to the women in these communities whom this campaign supposedly is meant to benefit to put forward images and ways of really promoting and supporting change for women- and it doesn’t involve wearing a bra. I don’t care if it can potentially raise lots of money- it ruins our credibility to work on gender, undermines the sector and makes me a bit ashamed to work for Oxfam.

  55. Anna

    Interesting Trade Union conference papers (2005) on the future of the textile and clothing industry in Sub Saharan Africa:
    Though most concerned with the injury to national industries by cheap textiles and clothing imports from China they also assert that the current trade in imported second-hand clothing has significant negative effects on employment in the industry and is not the most effective way of combating poverty.

  56. Rosa

    A colleague asked me yesterday what I object to about the comms materials, so I thought I would share my response online here too:
    a) despite the catchy strap line, donating your bras -does not “support women worldwide”. As far as I can see it supports 40 women in Frip Ethique in Senegal and the women who buy bras there. Bra’s that are sold in the UK shops (as far as I know) go to the general unrestricted pool of funds, and not to specific women’s rights work – only a small proportion of unrestricted goes on Oxfam’s Gender Equality work. To me – the key proposition in all the communications materials that by donating your bras you are support women worldwide is ridiculous (and misleading to the public) in the context of the gross worldwide women’s rights violations, systematic discrimination and inequality, and massive funding needs of women’s rights organisations globally. Oxfam supports hundreds of cooperatives & enterprises worldwide, many of which support the livelihoods and leadership of women… in this context, I don’t think the benefits for 1 organisation & community outweigh the negatives…
    b) The pink colour scheme is stereotyping, as is the image of the frilly bra in all the materials. The brand will inevitably be linked to IWD by the public and general observers. This is building up a portfolio of stereotypical images linked to Oxfam ….which don’t do women any favours as far as I can see.
    c) It seems to me completely predictable that the focus on bras (as opposed to hats or shoes for example) would run the risk of sexualising and objectifying women in the media, and surprise surprise, nuts have picked it up with a horrible article which is deeply objectifying of women. I don’t think we can say “it’s not out fault”… to me, that’s just not good enough. As someone on the blog said, the UK media likes tits not trade… surely we had a responsibility not to fuel this.
    d) How much has been spent on this? IWD’s get together has not made a profit yet deeply undermined our credibility within the women’s movement. Heaven forbid DFID or other donors see it on the same day we send them a proposal for an anti-violence programme…

  57. Jeff

    Some Oxfam people hope that everyone will have the same values, interests and understanding of poverty and how to approach it, as themselves. If you use this idealistic basis for campaigns everytime, you will only ever appeal to a certain niche.
    If this Bra Hunt engages people, great, if we can encourage people to listen to Oxfam’s rights-based approach to solving the world’s inequities at the same time – brilliant.
    The campaign is running, it’s gathering interest from groups that would perhaps turn an apathetic blind-eye to a ‘starving children campaign’. For many women it is an attractive, positive action to clear out bras and donate (rather than feeling shit about the world)… as Oxfam we should use it as a spring board for discussion around topics that we feel are important and need change. You’ve got their attention, engage with these people, show them what else they could be doing.
    Whilst women are donating their bras and feel like they’re involved, give them literature to take home and read, encourage them to understand more. The shop manager who simultaneoulsy put on a display of “feminist and gender equal literature and text books” – great idea!
    Using bras in this campaign doesn’t have to be “sexualised”, or “underming our work with women’s rights”, they are functional pieces of clothing and there appears to be a need for them in West Africa.
    Poverty and how to deal with it is a contentious issue, and you will always find criticism, but let’s try and find the positives in this and make the campaign work for Oxfam?

  58. Aggie

    I am supportive of this campaign. It’s taught me more about the way Oxfam works. I now know that donated goods don’t just get sold on on our high streets but that some items can be sent to projects such as Frip Ethique. Before now, when making donations to Oxfam shops I have always avoided including items such as bras because I didn’t think they could be sold on. I won’t be making that mistake in the future. It’s also great to hear about cooperative projects such as Frip Ethique being supported by Oxfam and to know how a donation of an unwanted item of clothing can have a direct impact.
    Besides, why are bra’s anti feminist? Women wear bra’s because they want to. Feminnism isn’t about pretending we are the same as men and shying away from mentioning anything that would suggest otherwise. Women wear bras. Deal with it. Bras are a commodity in life just the same as shoes and shirts. We should be able to speak about them just as openly. So why shouldn’t Oxfam shout about it when they see an opportuinity to help a project such as Frip Ethique.
    And as for ‘sugar coated cupcake feminism’, I enjoy baking and eating cupcakes. Surely it is my perogative as a woman to do what I like. I resent being made to feel as if I am commiting a crime against my sex just because I enjoy cake.

  59. John Magrath

    Jeff, I have some sympathy for your argument. But can you assure us that Oxfam actually IS using this as a springboard to engage women in discussions on causes of poverty? If so, I wonder was this part of the campaign from the start (in which case I totally missed it) or a sudden add-on in rtesponse to the many criticisms? Or is using it as a springboard something you think we SHOULD be doing (I agree!) but that is a hope rather than necessarily a fact?

  60. Anna

    I agree (as a fundraiser myself) that this campaign has presented an opportunity to get new people on board and encourage them to support Oxfam’s work. Donating to Oxfam shops is one of the best things supporters can do as it’s a vital source of unrestricted funds for the organisation including campaigning and advocacy work, which is so often hard to fundraise for. It’s also an opportunity to engage people more deeply in Oxfam’s work if they want this. But if the way Oxfam is saying what it’s saying has also (however unintentionally) alienated some of the existing supporter base/had undermining impacts on Oxfam’s wider credibility – and if what Oxfam is doing is also arguably of limited or questionable value then isn’t it time to go back to the drawing board?
    A future trading campaign which encouraged people to give to Oxfam shops without focusing attention on questionable bra (or any other swedow) recycling in Africa (maybe using the environmental angle instead?) would have a lot less capacity to offend or provoke – and maybe it would be possible to identify flagship development projects with clearly linked in policy messages which a share of funds raised from selling in-kind donations could directly support (for example along the lines of the Projects Direct style model).
    Although the target of 1 million bras will undoubtedly provide valuable support to 40 women at Frip Ethique, one of the messages that Oxfam is promoting with this campaign (alongside all the extremely dodgy gender messaging) is that the second hand clothes trade is a sustainable solution to poverty reduction and economic development in Africa. The reality is however that there is currently little policy space for national textile and clothing industries to re-emerge in Senegal and other West African countries, which would have the potential to provide significantly more employment (and impact on poverty reduction) than trading in second hand goods.
    Could some of the funds generated for/by Frip Ethique be used by Oxfam for advocacy to support those stakeholders within Senegal and other African countries fighting against the increasing liberalisation of WTO trade rules which allow cheap Asian imports to flood their markets and prevent them from competing in the sector?
    Or to support other enterprises that are still trying to compete in the face of all the odds? (For example I came across this story of Senegalese designer and entrepreneur Aissa Dione who has made it her mission to revive Senegal’s ailing textile industry and needed 1 million Euros to purchase a spinning mill
    For anyone who’s interested and not already familiar with Ha-Joon Chang’s work (I spotted the earlier post on this blog) I’d recommend ‘Kicking away the Ladder’ which argues in a very accessible way how developed countries are ‘kicking away the ladder’ by which they’ve climbed to the top and preventing developing countries from adopting the protectionist policies that they themselves used on their own path to development…….all apparently highly relevant to the textile/clothing industries in West Africa.

  61. Beth

    Ultimately, I think this is a good idea, purely because the bras are needed – full stop. However, Oxfam really needs to get it’s multiple heads together and start walking the walk with feminism rather than just talking about it as some far off concept that others need to understand.
    Stop the ‘get the girls together for a do’ that does nothing for the mass of women who are part of the newly revived feminist movement worldwide. Start treating women in the UK the way you treat beneficiaries, with respect, dignity and as powerful, strong, independent women.
    So there…

  62. Anna

    Is giving women bras to sell fully embodying the spirit of Oxfam’s ‘Give a man a fish….’ message? And if not wouldn’t it be better to publicly promote a project that is?
    Frip’s enterprise clearly meets a need – and the challenges to supporting women’s enterprises with the means of production to make their own bras would presumably be overwhelming – but as the Senegalese fashion designer’s story above shows (and it’s definitely worth a read) there is political will out there to revive the nation’s own textile/clothing industry which with more support might stand a chance of succeeding and growing.

  63. Mbali

    First of all it’s great that there is this open and public debate about this controversial campaign. What saddens me is that many retail shop managers who felt very uneasy about this campaign had our concerns dismissed. And there were just as many who didn’t voice their concerns for fear of being sidelined. Sometimes I’m very proud about working for this organisation. But increasingly I’m concerned about the way retail operates. Making money overides everything including our organisational values. The M&S relationship is another prime example. What an earth are we doing greenwashing M&S? Retail management seems to think the M&S clothing exchange is the main reason we’ve seen a growth in a very economically challenging environment. Is it not possible that it is down to the hard work, dedication and ingenuity of the shops teams? Having said that it gives me hope that so many Oxfam employees outside of retail feel able to excercise their right to be heard. I’ve seen that the wider Oxfam is also good at reflecting on critisim and making the necessary changes. I hope that retail takes this opportunity to reflect on concerns rasied here and doesn’t just use the excuse that our primary mission to raise as much money as possible.

  64. Mary

    I think it should be recognised that by setting up Frip Ethique, Oxfam is seeking to deal responsibly with the textiles that are an inevitable byproduct of the shops (because supply and demand for second-hand clothing in the UK are way out of kilter). Most other charities sell directly to rag traders and have little control over what happens to the textiles. Given that bras are the highest value item for Frip, yet many British women throw them in the bin rather than donate them to a charity shop, the Big Bra Hunt makes a lot of sense. The marketing materials are pink, yes (one of the few colours that the brand offers), but they’re hardly top-shelf.
    It’s good to see this discussion though – long live free speech!

  65. Great blog and really interesting discussion. I’m really disappointed by some of the events/initiatives that Oxfam has been running recently. The message that we can shwop, bake or donate our way out of poverty is not only overly simplistic, but to women fighting for an end to injustice, it is also a deeply patronising one. I have written a bit more about my thoughts under ‘A cupcake, a bra and goodbye feminism’:

  66. Monika

    Thank you for this post. One question that seems to be still with no answer is why there is such a demand for bras in the first place. yes, women have to buy them, so it’s up to them to decide whether they want to wear it or no, but what is the price point of those bras? can everyone afford them, is it a danger of it becoming a luxury product? Since wearing a bra is visible it may potentially become a way to differentiate between women who are wealthier and those who cannot afford them…

  67. Anne

    I am from the isle of arran in scotland and i have collected and delivered(to Oxfam) 737 bras and am still collecting from arran and the west coast of scotland, i think this is a truly wonderful appeal and one day hope to go see some of these bras being sold in senegal.

  68. Laura

    For me it’s not a question of ‘charity’. It’s more about the environmental aspect. I have tons of perfectly good used bras that just don’t fit me anymore, and it doesn’t feel right just to add them to needlessly increasing landfill. If someone wants them and will make good use of them, whereever they are in the world, then that can only be a good thing, right?

  69. Donna Sebti

    How much do Oxfam, Frip Afrique and other intermediaries pay/make from collecting, stocking, shipping (on both ends), how much are Customs fees in the countries receiving, how many factories, small businesses, lingerie selling shops in these countries go broke? In Morocco in recent times customs have turned a blind eye on Friperie and bras can be purchased for anywhere between 2-20 dhs. What are yours being sold for? Africa needs schools, hospitals, wells, etc. urgently. If you collected the price of one bra from each donor and sent it to a reliable organisation. This project seems to be well intentioned but dreadfully misinformed of the realities of the continent.

  70. Thoroughly used up, ragged clothing (i.e. T-shirts, shorts, etc) from the U.S., is dropped off at domestic nonprofits’ doors. From there, clothing no one here (U.S.) would purchase, let alone wear, is thrown together into bales, and sold to middlemen exporters, of from South Asia and the Mid-East. They then well it – eventually – to individuals with stalls in the rural marketplace. This, the wrong-headed notion that “Western” wear is somehow more prestigious, and the fact the used crap is cheap, has thoroughly destroyed the previously existing domestic apparel industry throughout West Africa and beyond. What is lost? Long-practiced art forms (e.g. ikat, hand-printing & dying; weaving; etc.) are no longer supported and lost, and with them, the transmission of culture and production of quality.
    WRT the bras? Well, they are complicated and relatively difficult to fabricate unless you become a specialist in bra-making and can justify equipment purchase and training. But – second-hand? Let’s be real – by the time a woman discards a bra? It is well past its due date, unless she has lost or gained a lot of weight, or had mastectomy. Bras have a shorter lifespan than the T-shirts, and I have to imagine they are completely stretched, the fabric and elastic exhausted, and just not much of quality left. So you are creating a secondary market for – what? (More crap.) And why? If the market exists, then raise money to build a local factory and cultivate a local workforce that can make decent undergarments for local people. Don’t spend money shipping shit to Africa. It’s a stupid business practice, it is costly to the environment, and – frankly – seems like a modern form of “First World” prerogative/idiocy.

  71. James

    I didn’t see anyone point this out, and this is old I know, but rather relevant: bras in Africa (particularly Uganda for sure) are seen as a very important status and class symbol – women that are wearing underwear are infinitely less likely to be raped because of the assumption that they’re just a little but more important: someone cared enough to give them a bra.
    Going on about how African women don’t need bras, or that it’s somehow offensive to provide used bras is pathetic – the technology to manufacture bras is largely unavailable, as is the skill Base, and although direct investment would be nice – while we are messing about trying to find a functional market solution (which is all Oxfam are doing with these ‘stores’), I think a little less of a principled approach is needed while we stop these women getting horrendously raped. Yeah?