The bottom line on the lace-panties absorption-rate issue

24 февраля 2014, 14:08

The global snickering over the Customs Union’s decision to ban lace panties on July 1 reminded me of the ridicule heaped on Japanese trade negotiators trying to defend non-tariff barriers years ago.

The public and news organizations inside and outside the Customs Union countries of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus have been scoffing at the panties decision, which the trade bloc’s officials say is rooted in hygiene. Panties are unsafe unless they have a 6 percent absorbency rate, those officials maintain.

The scoffing has included a lot of smart-alecky comments in blogs and social media and a protest by about 30 women in Almaty.

The line I loved best in news coverage of the issue was a European journalist’s contention that the Customs Union decision was “blatant lacism.” Some of my Kazakh readers will immediately grasp the humor, but for those who might not, let me note that the journalist was making a play on the phrase “blatant racism.”

The model is demonstarting the lace underwear at the fashion show. ©Reuters/Robert Pratta

This model is demonstrating lace underwear at a fashion show. ©Reuters/Robert Pratta

To me, the Customs Union’s 6 percent panties absorption figure looks like a non-tariff barrier designed to protect Russia’s domestic undergarment industry.

My assessment comes from experience. I obtained a first-rate education on non-tariff barriers as a journalist in Japan in the 1980s and 1990s.

The Japanese were masters at using them to protect their domestic industries from foreign competition.

Non-tariff barriers involve standards for safety or hygiene. Typically, the products of a country that erects a non-tariff barrier meet the standards while other countries’ do not. That means those countries’ imports are barred.

Between the 1970s and the 1990s, the United States and Japan engaged in rancorous trade wars stemming from Japan’s huge trade surplus with its biggest trading partner. Depending on the year, it ranged between tens and hundreds of billions of dollars.

The United States contended that the Japanese used an array of non-tariff barriers to keep American products out.
In one instance, Japanese trade negotiators maintained that Japan couldn’t let American skis in because Japanese snow was different from other countries’ snow.

The implication was that because Japanese snow was different, only skis made in Japan for Japanese snow should be sold to Japanese consumers.



The public and news organizations in countries around the world guffawed at this ridiculous assertion, just as the public and journalists are doing now over the lace panties absorption standard.

One of the most contentious items in the U.S.-Japan trade wars was beef. Japanese beef was of mouth-watering quality – but cost six times more than American beef. That’s because Japanese livestock operations were small, so there was no economy of scale.

In trying to defend Japan’s total ban on American beef imports, one of the country’s trade negotiators argued that U.S. beef wasn’t right for the Japanese because “Japanese intestines are different” from other people’s.

That silly line, unsurprisingly, set off a storm of ridicule worldwide

Over the years, under unrelenting pressure, the Japanese eliminated many non-tariff barriers, although some still exist.

The United States is now selling Japanese consumers close to a billion dollars a year in beef. Their intestines must have adapted.

The Japanese were so good at erecting non-tariff barriers that other countries borrowed from the Japanese playbook.

A number of developed countries have accused the Russians of using non-tariff barriers to protect their domestic industries, for example.

News coverage of the Customs Union’s panties brouhaha hasn’t said how large the Russian undergarment-making industry is.
Journalists have noted, however, that 80 percent of Russia’s $5.5 billion underwear market is imported, with panties accounting for 60 percent of the total.

In Kazakhstan the figure for imports has to be 100 percent because the country has no domestic clothing manufacturers.

InCity, the Russian retail clothing chain that has operations in Kazakhstan, said most of its lace panties have only 3 percent absorption. Please lower the 6 percent threshold, InCity executives have pleaded with Customs Union officials.

As I read about the panties row, a number of questions popped into my mind about the absorption standard.

Women protest against the ban of lace underwear in Almaty, Kazakhstan. ©Vladimir Tretyakov

Women protests the ban on lace underwear in Almaty. ©Vladimir Tretyakov

The first was: What does 6 percent absorption mean? Does it mean that a pair of panties has to absorb at least 6 percent of any moisture seeping into them – or what?

Another question: Who set the 6 percent standard? Russian scientists? If so, who are they?

Still another: How did the standard setters measure the panties absorption rate?

No news story anywhere, as far as I can tell, has delved into what the absorption-rate standard is, who set it and how they arrived at it.

One thing’s for sure: An absorption standard isn’t a major issue elsewhere.

If it were, the United States, the European Union and other developed countries would have adopted it years ago.

Billions of lace panties are sold around the world – and to my knowledge no country or trade bloc has ever banned them over an absorption standard. Until now.

In fact, when I Googled the term “panties absorption standard” to try to learn more about it, I could find nothing about the absorption rate of normal panties.

The only thing that came up was information about the rate of absorption of underwear made for those with incontinence – that is, chronic bladder failure.

I smiled as this smart-alecky thought came into my mind:

Those who are wetting their pants with laughter over the Customs Union panties issue can take comfort in the fact that there’s a product available to them with a much higher absorption rate than 6 percent.

And that, folks, is the bottom line on this subject.

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