So guilt-free undies, do they exist? Are they hideous? Are they expensive? Well firstly i’m happy to report that they do exist and they’re not at all hideous (well most of them) and you seem to be able to get them for the same price as an average good-quality bra, which is very encouraging. As always the definition of ‘sustainable’ and ‘ethical’ is open to interpretation. I aim to give you all the information that you require to make your own decision on the issue, just remember sometimes all we can do it make the least bad choice.
Sustainability of Fibres
I’ve noticed that quite a few brands offer ‘sustainable’ underwear made from bamboo but there have been recent report that some farmers in China are clearing native forests to grow bamboo. Couple this with the fact that most bamboo is processed using chemicals know to be harmful to health and you really have to question its sustainability. Currently no certification for organic bamboo exists so if a company is claiming to use it probe deeper!
In relation to cotton organic is really the only way to go if you can afford it. This will help me avoid feeding into an industry where genetically modified (GMO) cotton seeds now account for 95% of the cotton market in India. GMO seeds lock farmers into a never-ending dependency on a GMO seed supplier, which some are claiming has led to more than 270,000 Indian cotton farmers committing suicide since 1995. Cotton has often been claimed to be the ‘dirtiest’ crop in terms of pesticide usage. Even the GM cotton, which is supposed to be more resistant to pests must be sprayed by chemicals that banned in the west. And if all that wasn’t bad enough child labour is often used at various stages of the cotton production process, and even after the plants have been harvested, the conditions under which workers refine and process the raw cotton can amount to bonded labour. But even if we buy fairtrade or organic we still need to reduce our consumption of cotton as it is a crop that requires a lot of water but is mostly grown in arid conditions. In India alone, a country where 100 million people have no access to safe drinking water, the water used in cotton production would be sufficient to provide 85% of the country’s 1.24 billion people with 100 litres of water every day for a year.
I’ve also seen some companies offering garments in Soy, which according to the 1 Million Womens’ A-Z Glossary of Sustainable Fibres is a by-products of soy foods (like tofu) that undergo chemical manipulation in order to be turned from plant into fabric. Although soy fabric is essentially a natural fiber, toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde are used in the production process.
I’m undecided about clothing made from recycled plastics. On the one hand it seems like a sensible way to address the mountain of waste we seem to be continually creating but it seems that breaking a plastic bottle into millions of fibrous bits of plastic might prove to be worse than doing nothing at all.
Also a lot of the underwear brands featured here use silk but make no reference to ethical harvesting of the fibre. Traditionally when silk is harvested the poor silk worms are boiled alive as part of the process and currently Irish owned Ethical Silk Company is the only company that i’m aware of that offers silk made without killing the silk worms.
If you’d like to read more on the sustainability and ethics of fabrics the Australian based organisation, Good on You, has very useful and informative Material Guides on their website. Also 1 million women have an A-Z Glossary on Sustainable Fibres
I am quite taken with the garments by French brand Do You Green (see image above). This company offers bras, knickers, lounge and yoga wear from organic pinewood fibres from sustainable forests, which the company says absorbs perspiration twice as much as cotton and is softer than any other cloth. All of their materials are made in France, as is the dying, and both are is done to the Oekotex standard. Their packaging is also plastic free. It’s interesting that the company uses the term organic pinewood fibres but doesn’t give any details on the process involved in converting them to fibre. I wonder if the fibre they’re using is actually Rayon, a very popular cellulose based fibre. There is nothing wrong with making Rayon from sustainably sourced forests to Oekotex standard, but if this is the case i wonder why the company haven’t declared it. I’ll contact them and update this post with what i learn.
UK based By Nature is an online department store selling underwear by French companies Peau Ethique and Do you Green (see above) , German company Living Crafts (see above). The image shown is from Peau Ethiques range, which is quite broad and very reasonably priced. Unfortunately the website of the parent company is in French, which i can’t read, otherwise i would have featured it here too. The website also sells nightwear by Living Crafts and yoga wear by Bamboo Bamboo Clothing.
Ceil Lingerie make select pieces of lingerie from certified organic cotton or alpaca, certified man-made fibres, sustainable fibres such as Lyocel and hemp. They use 100% Azo free dyes, work with local manufacturers in the UK and local development groups in India in accordance with the rules set out in www.labourbehindthelabel.com. The company also operates a Carbon Neutral offsetting programme with www.staro.org and their designer Sarah Ratty is an advisor to the Soil Association Textile Advisory Committee and works as an Eco-design consultant.
Danish company Woron is vegan, cruelty free and a slow fashion underwear brand. They use plant-based fabrics such as Lenzig Modal, organic cotton. They mainly work with a family owned factory in Hungary. The factory is ÖkoTex certified and until recently was also GOTS certified (but due to cost had to let the certification lapse. Woron claim that the factory are still working under the same clean and strict regulations. They also work with a smaller Indian based family-owned manufacturer that works under and supports the local development of sustainable practices in the small Indian village that they are situated in. Online orders are packed in a box made of recycled paper. And when buying an underwear set you you will find our signature wash bag enclosed in the box. Furthermore, the additional wrapping paper, postcard and stickers are also made of recycled paper.
German Company Living Crafts offer reasonably priced organic cotton bras, knickers, vests, t-shirts, long pants and pyjamas.
Uk Based Green Fibres sell underwear, nightwear and leisure wear for men, women and children, in organic cotton, organic wool, silk and hemp. They also have organic cotton tights (pantyhose) and organic cotton, wool and silk tights. Organizations that supply Greenfibres must comply with the Code of Conduct as contained in the Global Organic Textile Standards, and the company make every effort to use local and small-scale labour as much as possible. Furthermore they are against increasing disparities of incomes and undertake to never have the highest earner in the company making more than 5 times the wage of the lowest earner. They also use banks and phone companies that are ethical, renewal electricity companies and use a high post-consumer content recycled paper in all their stationary and catalogues. They also participate in the following forums: the Soil Association, the Fair Trade Foundation, Pesticide Action Network UK, Environmental Justice Foundation, Global Organic Textiles Standards, Labour Behind the Label, and the Organic Trade Board.
Finisterre is a UK-based company offering merino wool and organic cotton underwear. The wool is sourced from a small UK farmer and is processed in England and Scotland.
Underwear Concept is an online underwear retailer that offers organic cotton and organic bamboo knickers from Nukleus at very reasonable prices. Maylasian based Nukleus make underwear and basics from eco-friendly materials such as GOTS certified organic cotton, Lenzing Tencel and bamboo and all Nukleus core components are certified Oeko-Tex Standard 100. The boxes used by Nukleus are made from FSC-certified paper and printed with vegetable-based ink and have a fully recyclable PETE 1 plastic for its box ‘window’.
Patagonia is a high-street that makes thermal and normal underwear from recycled nylon printed with PVC- and phthalate-free inks. On their website they give details on how they work with factories and mills to ensure ethical work-practices, good working conditions and processes that are less harmful to the environment. They say they are particularly invested in protecting migrant workings and guarding against child labour and human trafficking. The company also gives 1% of their sales to support environmental organizations around the world. There is tons of information on the Patagonia website about the ethical and sustainable way they do business. I found the Environmental Assessment of Materials in Clothing particularly interesting. It talks about the reality behind some fabrics that are being sold as green.
UK company Thought (formerly Braintree) sells knickers, vests, tights and nightwear made from either bamboo or organic cotton. This company aims to ensure that their fabrics and how our garments are designed, made and delivered is carefully considered and done so ethically, with the greater aim of minimising their environmental footprint. The dyes they use are free from Azo (which they say is a harmful carcinogen) and they claim that their finishes are as environmentally friendly as possible. Each piece of their collection is made in the same country so never needs to be shipped from place to place and when it is time to transport them they claim to choose a slow option with great consideration for the environment. They’re also a founding member of the Ethical Fashion Forum.
Thunderpants UK is a subsidery of Thunderpants New Zeland. Their undies are made from certified organic cotton, processed to strict SKAL standards (International Standards for Sustainable Textile Production), knitted into fabric in New Zeland, either printed in New Zealand or Australia with organic inks and dyes and finally sown in New Zeland.
Sloggi underwear is made from a blend of cotton, lycra, polyester or spandex and are made in accordance with Oeko-Tex Standard 100. They also have an unlimited gaurantee on their Evernew garments. If their product does not deliver our quality promise, simply return it to them at any time for an exchange.
Luva Huva make ethical lingerie and loungewear in the UK from remnants, vintage and end-of-line fabrics and trims, including Bamboo, Hemp, Organic Cotton, Soy, Tencel.
Swedish Stockings produce tights (pantyhose for my American friends) from the by-product of other nylon products that is non-biodegradable. They say that their factories engage in sustainable practises including the use of environmentally friendly dyes, post-dyeing water treatment and, use solar power for much of the energy needed and is zero waste. They also offer a recycling program for all brands of stockings. Unfortunately the technology to separate the polyamide from nylon doesn’t yet exist so the old tights are ground down into fibre glass tanks for oil traps for the commercial industry.
Other Underwear Retailers
The Hemp Shop offer knickers made from organic hemp, organic cotton and spandex and a cami and shorts set made from 100% organic hemp.
Pure Natural are on online department store offering organic cotton knickers, vests, t-shirts, long pants and pyjamas from the German brand Living Crafts (see above).
Bamboo Bamboo Clothing is a UK-based company offering knickers and socks made from bamboo. The company say that they are committed to everyone being treated fairly and responsibly, from garment maker to customer but there they don’t appear to have any independant acreditation or certification.
Hejhog sell knickers, bras, vests, t-shirts, long pants, nightwear and sportswear in organic cotton, organic wool or organic silk.
Welsh company Howies offers women’s knickers and leggings made from modal and men’s briefs made from merino.
Cambridge baby sell women’s knickers, nightwear, vests, tights and long pants in organic cotton, wool and silk.
The Natural Store is an online department store selling women’s knickers in bamboo, fairtrade cotton and organic cotton including the brand Kerala crafts.
Uk-based Uorganic is an online department selling a range of products including organic bamboo knickers and socks by US company Boody. The underwear brand Boody says its organic bamboo is certified by Ecocert, that their clothing complies with the Oekotex standard for absence of harmful chemicals and that their factories are WRAP certified.
The Ethical Superstore and The Natural Collection are online retailers selling underwear and nightwear from the following brands; Thought, Peopletree, Patagonia and Nomads. These two websites seem to be run by the same company and I often find that you can pick up items cheaper here than on the home company’s website.
You could also do a search for organic cotton, bamboo or ethical underwear on Etsy for Amazon.