It’s not often that something as insubstantial as a pair of underpants becomes the basis for an ethical inquiry. But this is 2017, and the pressure is on to make sure that our votes, social media presence, reactions to art and even the clothes on our butts adhere to high ethical and political standards. Consumption is no substitute for civic engagement. But if we’re going to have extended discussions about the merits of Lyft vs. Uber, or what, exactly, we’re buying when we purchase a pair of panties, we try to develop a more sophisticated formula for weighing a company ethically and politically, rather than responding to every turn of the news cycle.
Our journey into the latest iteration of this moral dilemma begins with Thinx, a company that sells absorbent panties that one can wear in lieu of a tampon or sanitary pad while menstruating. Thinx were marketed as a product that would help consumers avoid some of the inconvenience that comes with having a period. And the retailer layered on some extra dollops of social responsibility, first donating a portion of its proceeds from sales to a nonprofit in Uganda that helps girls obtain the supplies they need so that they won’t miss school days while they menstruate, then starting an educational foundation with offshoots in Sri Lanka and India and running an ad campaign that featured a transgender man wearing the company’s boyshorts design.
All well and good, as far as selling a sense of political righteousness along with those cheeky undies. But as reporters at Racked and New York Magazine dug into Thinx’s operations, they discovered a company where implementation of progressive practices was about as thin as the fabric in their unmentionables. From minimal maternity leave to low salaries and a nonexistent human resources policy, Thinx seemed to be doing only the minimum for its workers and encouraging them to accept stressful work conditions and bad benefits by appealing to their sense of mission. And it turned out that Thinx founder Miki Agrawal, who had sold herself as a corporate feminist icon, is the subject of a sexual harassment complaint from a former employee who alleges that Agrawal, like a lot of wannabe-revolutionaries before her, mistook her own lack of boundaries for liberation, groping employees, changing in front of them and asking at least one to strip.
Agrawal sounds like a dreadful boss. If the sexual harassment allegations against her are proved to be true, she should have no role in supervising other people. And even if they aren’t, her run as a corporate feminist icon should be over, to the extent that corporate capitalism and feminism are even compatible.
The factors involved in this calculation don’t end there, though. How do we weigh Agrawal’s behavior as a manager, self-promoter and person against the actual value of her product? If her panties do what they say, including make trans people more comfortable and making menstruation easier in a society that largely has not tackled that question, is there a political value to them that outweighs her alleged female chauvinist pigginess? If Thinx helped Ugandan girls make it to school on days they might otherwise have missed, how do those days stack up against Agrawal’s supposed behavior?
And what about the jobs Thinx creates, and the conditions under which the workers do their jobs? Agrawal has described their Sri Lankan manufacturer as “a family-run business,” though the reality is less cozy and artisanal than that phrase makes it sounds: Thinx are manufactured by the apparel giant MAS Holdings, which also manufactures Beyonce Knowles-Carter’s “athleisure” line Ivy Park. Agrawal and MAS Holdings both tout some of the company’s labor practices, including transit and meal benefits for employees and its air-conditioned factories, and its programs aimed at female employees, though MAS Holdings workers who produce clothes for other brands have complained about pay and hours. At minimum, there are at least minor discrepancies between the narrative Agrawal is selling and the reality of her production chain.
Similar challenges in balancing the moral ledger, some of which Jezebel’s Madeleine Davies laid out in January, are at issue in the corporate war between taxi alternatives Lyft and Uber.
Uber’s chief executive officer, Travis Kalanick, has been criticized for presiding over a workplace so rife with sexual harassment that Recode’s Kara Swisher said it sounded like “a goat rodeo,” and his short-lived involvement with President Trump’s business advisory council. (Kalanick sought to add credibility to an investigation of the company’s culture by hiring former Obama administration attorney general Eric Holder to oversee it.) On the other side of the ledger, Lyft investors include General Motors, whose chairman Mary Barra is a Trump adviser, and venture capitalist Peter Thiel, a Trump backer notable for a range of extreme views. Both Uber and Lyft have tried to make it harder for the people who drive for them to unionize, though when Uber encouraged its drivers to break the strike by New York City taxi workers who were protesting the detention of travelers at John F. Kennedy airport during Trump’s first travel executive order, Lyft seized on progressive politics to outflank its rival, pledging $1 million to the ACLU and seeing a wave of new customers sign up as a result.
If you don’t want to be in business with prominent Trump supporters, and you want to support drivers who are campaigning for better working conditions, ride-hailing apps may leave you choosing your least-worst option. And when you’re purchasing underpants, remember that no matter how nice they are, it’s not the revolution you’re adding to your basket.