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The ethics of babywearing

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As a branch of philosophy, ethics investigates the questions “What is the best way for people to live?” and “What actions are right or wrong in particular circumstances?” In practice, ethics seeks to resolve questions of human morality, by defining concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice and crime. (Source: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ethics)

So what’s that got to do with babywearing? I don’t think there should be any ethical discussions about carrying your baby, that is definitely the natural thing to do. But when it comes to babywearing products, like wraps and carriers, there are a number of ethical issues to consider on your babywearing journey.

Fibre

Where has the fibre from which your wrap is made come from? Is it commercially grown cotton that has consumed a lot of water and pesticides in its production? Is it silk that requires the silk worm to be killed in order to spin the thread?

If this isn’t something you’ve considered before, it is worth looking into. It isn’t necessarily wrong to purchase wraps made from commercially grown cotton, it is 2015 and most of us are wearing clothes made from commercially grown cotton. But it is important to be informed and make a considered decision about what you buy as a consumer and how this fits into your ethical framework.

For example, bamboo is relatively easy to grow and therefore doesn’t generally require herbicides and pesticides so it can be grown organically, but it requires a lot of water to turn it into thread because it is quite a tough, fibrous plant and needs a lot of manipulation to make it into the soft thread you may be familiar with. And there in lies the ethical dilemma.

And then there are animal fibres. Silk especially has the potential to raise ethical issues, as some types of silk require the cocoons to be boiled with the pupae still inside to reel the silk thread in one continuous strand. For some people, the treatment of a silk worm is probably not of huge concern, but if you are vegan for ethical reasons for example, it is likely to be a far bigger issue.

I asked Prae from Australian-owned woven wrap company Oonlamoon for some information about the eri silk that her company uses to make handwoven wraps in Thailand. Prae explained that eri silk is a discontinuous fibre that needs to be spun together to make thread, so it is possible for the silk worm to turn into a moth and leave the cocoon without compromising silk thread production. However, the weavers that weave eri silk wraps for Oonlamoon in Thailand farm the silk worms for food consumption in addition to farming tapioca, with the silk worms eating the tapioca leaves that would otherwise be discarded. The additional income from silk worms and silk thread helps keep tapioca farmers on the land when there is increasing pressure to move to the cities for factory-type work.

While for some vegans this may still pose ethical issues, it is clear that this complete cycle and usefulness of the silk worm for other farming practices and food consumption is a better ethical outcome than silk worms that are simply boiled to reel their thread. Prae is not aware of any woven wrap manufacturers using Ahisma silk in their products (Ahisma silk is eri silk where the worm has been allowed to mature and leave the cocoon as a moth).

Even wool has ethical considerations. PETA has recently released media commentary about the treatment of sheep in the shearing process, which is worth a look if you are a wool lover.

Working conditions

As with any textiles, it is worth investigating the working conditions under which wraps and carriers are manufactured. Do workers get paid adequately? Are factories and warehouses suitable working environments? Are western business owners exploiting workers in third world economies? As the babywearing industry moves from small cottage industry to larger commercial manufacturing industry these questions are worth considering before making your next purchase.

Counterfeiters

With the rise and rise of the babywearing industry, so follow the counterfeiters trying to make a quick buck off of someone else’s success. Ergobaby is the biggest victim of this, though there are others, notably Freehand mei tais and Manducas. Counterfeit Ergos are sold on eBay for what seems like a great price – sucking in many a first-time babywearer.

Not only should you be concerned about a lack of quality control and testing of a counterfeit carrier, you should also consider the ethical issues around supporting counterfeiters. Counterfeiting is illegal, and buying a counterfeit product puts money in the hands of people involved in criminal activities. Companies like Ergobaby have invested a lot of time and money into making one of the most popular baby carriers on the market and can be credited with helping make babywearing mainstream. Every counterfeit carrier sold is taking money away from them, not to mention the money they spend trying to fight counterfeiters. While most people would never deliberately buy from a counterfeiter, it is important to be aware the problem exists and thoroughly investigate the legitimacy of the product you are buying, particularly when purchasing through sites like eBay.

Cultural appropriation

Cultural appropriation is where people from the dominant cultural group exploit the culture of less privileged groups, generally with a disregard and poor understanding of the history of that culture. A current example is where the feather headdress associated with First Nation cultures in North America has become a fashion statement among hip young things at music festivals across North America, Europe and Australia. Taking a culturally symbolic item and turning it into a fashion accessory is cultural appropriation, and doing so raises serious ethical issues.

In the babywearing world, cultural appropriation can be seen in the use of certain patterns and symbols on wraps and carriers. Culturally significant patterns and symbols being used on wraps manufactured by companies not associated with that culture is ethically questionable. It would not be appropriate, for example, for a company owned by people from the dominant white culture to use a traditional Aboriginal design on a wrap or carrier without considerable consultation with an appropriate Aboriginal representative. But unfortunately, this type of cultural appropriation has happened on occasion in the babywearing industry, so it pays to be mindful of this when choosing a wrap or carrier. The pattern might look amazing, but is it really appropriate for that company to be using that pattern in that manner?

Overall, I think the babywearing industry does a wonderful job of considering its social responsibilities, but as it continues to grow it is definitely worth making yourself aware of any potential issues around what you’re buying. I hope I haven’t made things too complicated for you by raising these issues – here’s some Calvin and Hobbes to lighten things up!

Cartoon strip

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