Underwear may be a daily essential, but it’s probably one of the last things on your mind when thinking about how to live more sustainably. In fact, it’s estimated that we produce an astonishing six billion pieces globally every year—lasting one to two years on average, before likely ending up in landfill. As lingerie is often made of virgin polyester and nylon (environmentally damaging plastics derived from fossil fuels), our bras and pants can stay around for hundreds of years.
Luckily, there are brands out there that are on a mission to make underwear as sustainable as possible while still ensuring we look and feel good. Danish brand Underprotection, for example, produces lace lingerie using recycled polyester and nylon, while Los Angeles-based brand Proclaim offers timeless basics that are perfect for working from home. “Sustainability is the cornerstone of everything we do, from the fabric to the packaging,” Shobha Philips, founder of Proclaim, tells Vogue.
Creating lingerie that doesn’t impact our planet is still proving a challenge, though, due to the stretch needed for the fit and support. That’s why pretty much all of the underwear currently on the market contains a percentage of elastane, or Spandex, which is difficult to recycle and doesn’t typically biodegrade. “There are limitations at the moment,” says Phoebe Hunter-McIlveen, co-founder of UK-based label Pico. “We’ve found a compostable elastane, but it’s not necessarily that suitable for underwear. Our aim is to create 100 per cent compostable pants.”
While fully biodegradable underwear that you can throw on your compost heap is a way off right now, you can still ensure any new bras or pants you buy are as eco-friendly as possible, without sacrificing on style. We speak to the experts to find out how.
Opt for sustainably-sourced fibres
Looking up what materials your underwear is made from is crucial in order to make a more sustainable purchase. That means opting for certified organic cotton rather than conventional cotton (which uses significantly more water), and sustainably sourced viscose such as Tencel or Lyocell (conventional viscose can cause the destruction of ancient or endangered forests). Brands such as Alexander Clementine have also started using seaweed for its underwear, which uses significantly less water than conventional cotton.
Avoid virgin polyester where possible
Although the vast majority of underwear does contain some synthetic materials, it’s best to avoid virgin polyester and nylon to reduce your environmental impact. “A lot more brands are using recycled materials now,” says Sunniva Uggerby, co-founder of Underprotection. “The bases we use in our lingerie, for example, are made from recycled sources instead of virgin polyester, and the elastane we use is recycled.”
Go back to basics
Thinking about longevity is key when shopping for underwear, considering the challenges of recycling right now. “It’s [about looking for] products that are meant to be worn for a long time, and be a staple in your wardrobe,” Philips says. “We’re making [inclusive] nude pieces—I think every woman needs nude underwear, it’s such a wardrobe basic.”
Watch out for harmful chemicals
Given the intimate nature of underwear, it’s particularly important to avoid harmful chemicals—look for Oeko-Tex certified products and naturally dyed materials where possible. “As we all know, there are all sorts of issues with dyeing and waste being dumped into streams,” says Isobel Williams-Ellis, co-founder of Pico. “Our naturally dyed pieces are now prepared for dyeing using soap nuts instead of being bleached, and our charcoal pieces are dyed using a [Global Organic Textile Standard] GOTS-certified dye.”
Take care when washing
Washing your underwear with care is crucial to ensure it lasts as long as possible. Make sure you wash at low temperatures as well as using protective garment bags (a Guppyfriend bag can prevent harmful microplastics being released into our oceans). “We recommend washing at 30 degrees or using the hand-wash programme,” advises Uggerby, adding that you don’t have to wash your bra after every wear, if not necessary.
Recycle when you’re finished
To stop your worn-out underwear from going to landfill, look for recycling schemes run by the likes of Intimissimi. Although it’s currently difficult to turn old bras and knickers into new ones, the material can still be used for things such as insulation, mattress padding and cleaning rags. “Always try to recycle [your underwear]—never just throw it out,” Uggerby concludes.