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The sustainable future of your underwear drawer

Whether it be granny pants or garter belts, choosing underwear is a very individual practice in the art of everyday dressing. Despite people’s pantie preference usually existing on a scale from Agent Provocateur to Primark, the current lockdown restrictions have the majority of us reaching for our Bridget Jones over our Barbara Palvin’s (sometimes ditching the rest of the outfit all together.)  

And while the dawn of 2021 is already showing signs of being progressively greener, from the shade sage to brands putting sustainability centre-stage, it appears that the lingerie industry as a whole still has some way to go. We spoke to the industry experts and designers planting sustainable seeds in their growing brands.

“Sustainability and public awareness about the impact of sustainable practices has certainly brought a noticeable impact on the fashion industry in the last five years. The lingerie industry has been no exception to consumer scrutiny and increasing demand for transparency,” lingerie specialist and influencer Madison Hill told us. 

From working alongside burlesque performances or boudoir stylists in a boutique since 2017, to now creating content on TikTok, Hill centres her videos around the impact that wearing the right bras and lingerie can have on wearers. She is also engaging with the brands pioneering sustainability practices, size inclusivity and overall how bras and lingerie can be adapted and changed for the better. 

“We’ve been seeing an increase in lingerie brands disclosing the locations and conditions of their factories, how their workers are compensated for their labour, and the environmental impacts of their productions. I think we’re also witnessing more brands that seem to be more willing to discuss their ethos and missions directly with consumers. They are more open to sourcing various sustainable materials and offering eco-conscious packaging, and more transparent on the ethics of their labor practices.”

She continues, “In many of my product and brand review videos, I’ve received requests to go further into the sustainable practices within the said brand, or questions asking if they offer recyclable packaging. Others have prompted discussions on how long items will last before they become unwearable or uncomfortable. There’s a common sentiment that if you’re to spend the money and invest in a bra, you would hope it could last as long as possible. I believe consumers are finding that while fast fashion options may be convenient in the moment, more sustainably made and slow fashion pieces may be the option with greater longevity. Both a personal and environmental investment.”

University of The Arts London Fashion Contour course leader and lecturer Nicola Johnson, who has worked within the global fashion industry for over 30 years, highlighted how students and emerging designers are incorporating new wasteless practices into their work and how sustainability has become embedded in her course at equal value to creativity and innovation. 

“At London College of Fashion, we want sustainability as well as creativity to be at the forefront for our students. Young designers are wanting to create designs and brands that align with their own values and sustainability is one of them.”

“The Contour industry had looked at adapting but found the consumer was not yet ready to put the additional money towards this requirement despite research, which is now not the case, as consumers are looking more for transparency and sustainability. The industry is reviewing future strategies into how this can be communicated and deliver what this new informed consumer wants, so we will see the larger brands looking at this opportunity.”

“However, new independent brands are certainly leading on the innovation, creativity, and the marketing of their messages, using new platforms to do so. It is exciting to see new and innovative brands successfully launch and we are delighted that LCF Contour students and Alumni are part of leading this change within the industry.”

She also explained how students have used new innovative textiles from recycled plastic bottles to fishing nets.

“Students have focused on using materials that already exist and creating innovative designs from them. They have also researched alternative innovative textiles such as bio silk, organic cotton, hemp, banana fibre and pineapple fibre textiles for intimate apparel alongside using natural dyes. Some have looked at amazing compostable garments, so when no longer required the garments can leave no trace.”

Céline Marie Wenninger, Fashion Contour graduate and bespoke lingerie designer for Hervé believes that sustainability should be the core value of any fashion house. From sourcing her materials and componentry to her local in-house manufacturing, made-upon-order production and biodegradable packaging, Wenninger refused to launch her brand without resolving all ethical and sustainable hurdles that arose.

“Having a sustainable mindset most definitely requires to think more creatively, not only during the design process but across the entire business operations. I’d like to say it is a very challenging process, but in a highly beautiful and rewarding way.” 

Hervé by Céline Marie photographed by Sally Sparrow

“As my products feature a high attention to technical detail and construction, the complexity of the product itself does make the sourcing process more challenging,” she continued to explain that this can be seen in as little as a single bra. “Taking one of my best selling bras as an example, the sourcing process includes 5x different fabric qualities and 10x additional qualities of trimmings and componentry. As minimums can be challenging to reach for smaller brands including myself, it is merely impossible to fully source such a complex product pool exclusively locally. At the same time, it pushes to re-think and evaluate traditional bra construction.”

“Even though lingerie has undergone an incredible innovative growth in many areas such as textiles and fabrications, fundamental components like metal underwires have remained untouched in over 120 years which inspires me to innovate within my product offer and approach traditional lingerie with modernised eyes.”

UAL alumni Lauren Finn, whose business plan for developing the brand “Dear Planet” won third place at the 2020 Enterprise Challenge has spent the last year developing her entirely zero-waste brand. And while her plan is far from simple, her dedication to eradicating plastic from her production has not been a wasted effort.

“The lingerie industry is very reliant on plastic. Even the trends you see in lingerie are predicted from womenswear trends so we are always that one step behind. Lingerie is hard to make, in some bras there can be thirty plus components; making every single one of them sustainable is a huge task. For example, compostable materials do not have stretch and therefore making a bodysuit just would not work. There is no such thing as a compostable underwire yet. Straight away you can’t have underwired bras and then be zero waste.”

According to Finn, it would be very easy to just add plastic and use standard industry methods however this is not something that the sustainable designer is willing to compromise on.

“99% of lingerie has some kind of plastic in it that means every time you wash your clothes microplastics get released into our water systems and then into our oceans. 99% of lingerie you can’t buy second hand for hygiene reasons, meaning it will end in landfill. 99% of lingerie will doesn’t decompose. Polyester takes 200 years to decompose, Spandex takes 200 years to decompose Elastane takes 50 years to decompose, Nylon takes 40 years to decompose. These are all common fabrics used in lingerie. A cotton t-shirt however will decompose in just five months.”

However, the list of brands tackling this is ever growing. Alexander Clementine created underwear from recycled seaweed; their breathable fabric is naturally antibacterial, anti-odour and wicks moisture away from the body providing the perfect fabric for underwear. It is enriched with vitamins and minerals that are absorbed through your skin. 

Image courtesy of @AlexanderClemetineLtd via Instagram

Madison, who has now hit over 800,000 followers, also went onto highlight some of the independent designers she has discovered in her sustainable journey. “Naja, a Latina owned US brand, only employs female workers in their factory who are paid above market salary and receive school supplies and resources for their children.” She also named Girlfriend Collective, TruNude, NYC’s Cherri, The Very Good Bra, Luva Huva as some of the other brands making waves in the zero-waste and environmentally conscious underwear scene. 

“I’d love to see more brands promise more sustainable and ethical commitments long-term like working towards being zero-waste, carbon-neutral, or using 100% recycled packaging, in addition to utilising sustainably sourced fabrics and materials more often. 

“Many brands in the US are philanthropic partners with organisations that donate used bras to womxn experiencing homelessness and womxn have escaped domestic abuse or sex trafficking, and I’d also like to see more collaborations like these (from brands on the full spectrum of “sustainable”) to both help bra-wearers of all genders and to help keep items in rotation and out of landfills for longer.”

While there is a still fast-fashion future in the near sight, it is clear that the lingerie industry is amongst the most innovative of them all.

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