Our Guide to Ethically Made Underwear

So you're on your sustainable wardrobe journey, from head to toe including accessories – but what about the things that few people see? Lingerie, underwear and socks, while a crucial part of most wardrobes, often remain forgotten by those opting to make their wardrobes more eco-friendly. But underwear, just like any most other categories of clothing, has the potential to be damaging to the environment.

By Sascha Camilli: writer, speaker, activist, and vegan fashion expert. 

Globally, the underwear market has been predicted to hit $250 billion this year, which means that a staggering amount of lingerie is being produced. Very commonly, that underwear will be made either from synthetic materials such as virgin polyester – a material that, despite being extremely common in fashion, is an environmental hazard. Not only does the production of polyester involve harsh toxic substances, the finished product also releases microplastics into waterways when washed. These microplastics damage ecosystems and harm marine life – plus, they end up in the human food chain via fish (another reason to go vegan). As a petrol-derived material, polyester also doesn't biodegrade.

Underwear and especially socks are also often made from cotton. While cotton is a natural material, excessive use of it can prove problematic to the environment if the cotton in question is not organic. As cotton is so commonly used in fashion, it is responsible for 6% of the world's pesticides and 16% of its insecticides. It also uses huge amounts of water – 2,700 litres are used to make just one t-shirt made from non-organic, conventional cotton. And in countries like Uzbekistan and other parts of Central Asia, slavery is still common in connection to cotton farming. So, despite being a natural fabric, cotton is not so innocent.

Last but definitely not least, luxury underwear made from silk is not a friend to the environment – this is another case of a so-called “natural” material sounding too good to be true. Silk is the product of cruelty to animals: it is commonly made by boiling silkworms alive in their cocoons so that the silk fibre can be extracted from the cocoons. It can take 6.6k animals just to make one kilogram of silk. Research has also found that the production processes of transforming the fibre into finished silk are resource-intensive and polluting.

The solution to choosing better underwear when it comes to sustainability lies in material choice. For obvious reasons, it's not possible to choose secondhand shopping when it comes to underwear - so the very best we can do is support ethical brands and pay attention to material choice. Choosing organic cotton where possible makes a big difference: this material uses much less water than traditionally grown cotton, contributes to soil health and uses much fewer toxic substances, chemical pesticides and fertilisers.

Another eco-friendly material worth considering is bamboo. Underwear and activewear brand BOODY works with organically grown bamboo that's free from any chemical pesticides. When speaking about the brand's material choices, BOODY's Brand and Marketing Manager Stephanie Audino has said, “Organically grown bamboo is highly breathable, comfy and soft; making it perfect for garments that sit close to the skin like underwear, socks and everyday basics.”

Avoiding synthetic materials when it comes to lingerie may not be the easiest, as they are so abundant - but there is often the opportunity to opt for recycled polyester and the like. Recycled materials such as polyester and polyamide are not the ultimate solution to fashion's pollution problem – recycling is still quite an intensive process, and not many fibres that are discarded get recycled - but they are a step in the right direction.

As with any garment or accessory, workers' rights and the treatment of humans in the supply chain should be at the forefront of our minds if we want to shop ethically. BOODY, like many other ethically minded textile brands, is certified by WRAP – an organisation that ensures that sewn products are manufactured in humane, lawful and ethical conditions. When choosing to support a brand, ask questions about human rights in their practices, and what proof they have of ethical treatment.

After shopping mindfully, the next step we can take to ensure that the impact of our lingerie on the environment is as limited as possible is to prolong its lifespan – and here is where good care comes in. Be mindful of following the washing instructions on the label, choose the cold cycle where you can (this is a good eco-tip for laundry overall) and avoid the dryer, where underwear often rips. But due to the nature of these garments, we should expect their lifespans to be shorter than those of other garments, and make sure to shop ethically when making that unavoidable next purchase.

By Sascha Camilli

About Sascha

Sascha Camilli is a vegan fashion writer, speaker and activist. Her book Vegan Style is out now on Murdoch Books. For more about Sascha, you can read our interview with her. You can also follow her on Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn.

Images by BOODY 

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