Last I spoke about how difficult finding sustainable and ethical footwear can be, but underwear is another tricky area. Especially as most of us prefer to buy our underwear new (for good reason). So to help you shop for sustainable underwear I’ve asked Lara Miller co-founder of sustainable lingerie brand AmaElla to share her top tips.
Before shopping, get a good assessment of you have already and what you are missing. It is a good idea to clear out and detox your underwear.
Before throwing anything away, remember to dispose of your clothes responsibly (check recyclenow if you live in the UK). Some companies recycle clothes to make carpets or fillings for car seats.
Most lingerie is made from synthetic materials such as Lycra® and nylon. These fabrics have good stretch and do not lose shape over time although they are non-biodegradable and non-environmentally friendly. Unlike synthetics that hold moisture close to the skin, cotton is breathable and fresh. Most dermatologists recommend underwear made with cotton because perspiration is healthier for the skin.
The main problem with these traditional materials is the outrageous amount of water, harmful chemicals and energy they required to be processed.
“A single mill can use 200 tons of water for each ton of fabric it dyes. And rivers run red–or chartreuse, or teal, depending on what colour is in fashion that season–with untreated toxic dyes washing off from mills.”(NRDC 2011)
Organic cotton is a great alternative, better for the farmers, the environment and the consumer. Organic cotton farming and processing avoids genetically modified seed, the burden of hazardous pesticides, reuse 98% of the water and helps to combat climate change.
Quality is the golden rule of sustainable fashion. Good quality is expensive but worthwhile in the long term. While expensive brands do not necessarily guarantee great quality, a cheap price tends to be a sign of low quality.
When buying underwear look at the threads that make up the fabric. With cotton, you should see a regular pattern of smooth rows. Turn the garment inside out and check the seams for loose threads or irregular stitching lines. Fastenings, crotches, and straps should be properly reinforced. Elastics and trims should be strong and resistant. When you stretch elastic several time it should go back to its original shape immediately.
Country of origin can also be an indicator of quality. Without going into stereotypes, European lace is known for higher quality than Chinese lace for example.
From low impact materials to dedicating a percentage of sales to charitable causes, brands have different ways to articulate their ethical proposition. Broadly, three ethical areas can be observed in the underwear industry.
Organic Cotton and other environmentally friendly materials such as Tencel® and Bamboo make a real difference for the environment. It is always advisable to check the composition label. Look for certifications that guarantee the organic status such as GOTS or OCS. Fairtrade cotton also guarantees decent working conditions and a fairer deal for farmers.
With the use of less water, less energy and the ban on toxic chemicals, eco-friendly materials make a more responsible use of natural resources than traditional textiles.
A big portion of the cost of a garment is labour. This is especially true for lingerie because it requires special machinery and high level of workmanship. Most garments productions are carried out in East Asia where salaries are lower and working regulations are loose.
Brands with responsible manufacturing apply socially acceptable practices in the workplace. Things such as the right to associate, regulated employment, health and safety policies, the absence of forced labour and living wage significantly contribute to increasing the well-being of workers.
Unfortunately, a healthy working environment and treating workers with dignity comes with an additional cost. Higher wages than the legal minimum and necessary monitoring costs increase the cost and value of ethical underwear. This increase gets reflected in the final retail price.
Some lingerie brands use dead stock from other brands, which is called up cycling. Challenges for upcycling brands are the dependency of lefts over and quality consistency over time.
Thanks so much to Lara for sharing these tips. If you are looking for sustainable lingerie I highly recommend AmaElla. Check out this short video to see their beautiful designs for yourself.