Helping low-income women, one bra at a time

Toronto’s Michelle Cinapri is providing literal support to low-income women, while also doing a small part to reduce the amount of discarded clothing that winds up in Canadian landfills.

Earlier this year, the self-described “marketer + instigator” launched “Lift: The Bra Project,” which is working to provide new and gently used bras to low-income women.

The project began simply enough, with what Cinapri describes as a “Marie Kondo-esque” closet clean-out. It turned up gently used bras that the city’s charity organizations were unwilling to accept.

“There was nowhere for me to send them,” she says. “Donation centres that take clothing usually throw bras out, and there’s no company in Canada that is giving them to women living in poverty.”

According to 2016 data from the Canadian Women’s Foundation, there are more than 2.4 million Canadian women and girls living on a low income.

Subsequent discussions with organizations that work with low-income and other at-risk women discovered an “overwhelming” need for bras for their clients, says Cinapri. “I was totally taken aback by how much they’re a necessity, and there was absolutely no way for them to get them.

“My heart just broke thinking about a woman who didn’t have access to a bra, especially living in low-income or a housing-insecure situation,” she says. “She’s dealing with a lot, and the last thing she should be having to deal with is not having a bra if she needs one.”

Cinapri, whose career has included stints as account director with the boutique PR firm A&C and work with Evergreen Canada, WE, Microsoft and Electronic Arts, decided to use her expertise to create Lift.

The program goes beyond undergarments providing low-income women with much-needed confidence and dignity. “If they have that, they can handle the challenges in their life much better,” she says. “If a bra’s part of that equation, let’s get them bras.”

But while addressing a personal need, Cinapri says that Lift is also tackling, albeit on a small scale, the growing problem of clothing waste in an era of “cheap and cheerful” fast-fashion retailers. According to a recent study by Value Village, North Americans send 9.5 million tonnes of clothing to landfills each year, 95% of which could be recycled. And the Recycling Council of Ontario says the average Canadian throws away 37 kilograms of textiles each year.

Cinapri launched Lift on April 22, with a goal of collecting 100 bras in the first month, asking for bras that passed the “best friend test” (would you give it to your best friend to wear?). It collected more than 650 bras in its first four weeks, and recently donated its first 300 to Sistering, a Toronto drop-in centre catering to at-risk and socially isolated women.

The organization has since expanded its scope to include Elizabeth Fry Toronto, which provides services to women in conflict with the law, and Jessie’s Centre, which provides services for young pregnant and parenting women.

Lift has collected 2,100 bras since its inception and has partnered with area businesses like yoga studios and clothing stores to create 17 drop-off locations across city, as well as Markham, Mississauga and Vaughan.

“All of the key objectives in our business plan were achieved in the first month, so I had to go back into business planning,” says Cinapri, who hopes to expand the program nationally.

Cinapri is working with Toronto boutique PR agency CLEO on public outreach, but she built the Lift brand and website on her own. “I did not like doing my own branding,” she admits. “I’m proud of the work I did, but there’s definitely something to be said for hiring experts who can provide that external viewpoint.”

Lift’s future success will be heavily reliant on corporate partnerships, says Cinapri. “It’s all about finding the right partner, but I think we have a really compelling story for people to get involved with.”

While much of Lift’s marketing outreach is focused on social outreach via channels such as Instagram, Cinapri is keen to share the personal stories of women who have been impacted by the program.

“That’s where we’re going to get the most traction from corporate partners,” she says. “Women who live in poverty in the city are virtually invisible because it’s so dangerous, so it’s really about telling their story.”

It’s also a challenge that will require an agency partner at some point. “If we’re going to grow, I’m going to need people to come on board who believe in what we’re doing and are willing to help us,” she says. Think of it as literal marketing support.


Chris Powell