How to Buy Eco-Friendly Lingerie

Next Friday, April 22nd, is Earth Day, but since it’s also Bettie Page’s birthday, we’ll be celebrating Pin-up Week instead. However, there’s been a lot of interest in eco-friendly and ethically-produced lingerie lately, and I wanted to make sure we talked about it on the blog. So I asked Josh Verleun, environmental lawyer and co-founder of Between the Sheets to share his expertise with us here. He and Layla are also appearing on Sundance channel’s “All on the Line” tomorrow night so be sure to check them out!
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They say “green” is the new black. The world is changing and more and more companies are introducing “eco-friendly” products into their lineups. Although the thought of environmentally friendly apparel may evoke nightmares of scratchy hemp and drab colors, this perception couldn’t be further from the truth. Thankfully some of the softest most comfortable, luxurious fabrics are eco-friendly, and many eco-lines have a vibrant color palate.

With so many companies jumping on the green bandwagon and throwing around terms like “sustainable”, “eco-friendly”, and “green” in a seemingly interchangeable manner it can be almost impossible to sort out what it all means. The fashion and lingerie worlds are no different with new eco-lines introduced every season.

With so many terms floating out there I think it is important to start the conversation about “eco-fashion” from a baseline understanding of what these terms mean. It’s also true that no matter how “green” a new line may be, there are always tradeoffs and environmental costs of some sort. For example a line of “eco” undies could be made from organic cotton or modal, but use spandex or other non-sustainable stretch fibers in their fabric. Even though spandex may not make you think of saving the planet, using a fabric with high spandex content makes the garment last longer and wear better, keeping it in your drawer and out of the garbage.

Apparel companies who set out to create eco-friendly lines must make countless numbers of these types of decisions and have to decide where their fabrics, trims, and other materials are sourced, as well as where the line is manufactured. This makes it very important for companies to be transparent with their customers about these decisions.

What does “green” mean?
It can be a challenge to sort out what each “green” term means, and figure out which terms have real meaning and are more than just marketing buzzwords. For example “Certified Organic” products are regulated by the US Department of Agriculture and must follow certain standards, Fair Trade Certified apparel (which recently was introduced to the US) is certified by several affiliated not-for-profit organizations around the world and works to guarantee fair wages and labor conditions. On the other hand products that call themselves “green” or “sustainable” are using vague and poorly defined terms that could mean a whole range of things.

Even if a garment is made of organic or another eco-material it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is environmentally friendly. This is why transparency from a company is so important. For example—a shirt could be made of organic cotton, but be dyed in a polluting dye-house in China , or could be sewn in a factory that does not pay a living wage. This same organic cotton could come from China, be cut in Mexico, and sewn, in India—adding up to a large carbon footprint.

How to tell “real green” from “greenish”
Even though many lines call themselves green because they use “sustainable” materials, not all “green” is created equal.

Bamboo: Fabrics made of bamboo have been touted as natural, green, and environmentally friendly, but are produced using a non-natural chemical process that leads to air and water pollution. The bamboo plants are broken down to be spun into fibers using acetate (not so different from nail polish remover). These deceptive eco-claims led the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to crack down on companies who were “Bamboozaling” consumers by falsely marketing their clothing made of bamboo fabrics using terms such as natural, and environmentally friendly-when the fabric was in fact Rayon.

Cotton: Other fibers used in fabrics can be more environmentally friendly—although there are still eco-pluses and minuses. Cotton is considered the world’s ‘dirtiest’ crop-even though it covers 2.5% of the world’s cultivated land traditional cotton production uses 16% of the world’s insecticides, more than any other single major crop. Organic cotton is grown in a manner that doesn’t use harmful pesticides, thus sharply reducing the environmental impact. Despite these huge reductions in impact, like all cotton, organic cotton uses an enormous amount of water to grow, which in and of itself is an environmental impact.

Modal: Another eco-friendly fiber is modal. Made from sustainably harvested beech trees-the wood is broken down using chemicals in a “closed-loop” process that reuses much of the chemicals. The fibers are then spun and knit into fabric. Although similar, this process is far more environmentally friendly than the process that turns bamboo into fiber as the chemicals are reused and not discarded.

Polyester: It may surprise you, but Polyester is now emerging as an “eco friendly” fabric. With advancements in production and recyclability, polyester’s environmental star is on the rise, even though it is made from a non-renewable resource.

Environmentally friendly and affordable:
Even though the desire is often there to buy products and support companies who help protect the planet, cost can sometimes get in the way. As more and more companies introduce environmentally friendly lines the price points for these offerings has started to broaden from basic to contemporary to luxury. Although you don’t often find eco-friendly lingerie at bargain basements prices there are lines that hit price points from $15-20 for bottoms and $30-$50 for bras. At most price points the added benefit is often that the lines are produced in the US, supporting our local economy and keeping jobs from vanishing overseas.

It’s Easy to Go Green:
With so many companies offering “green” or “eco-friendly” intimates and other fashion, going green is not so hard or expensive. All that it takes is a little time to become an educated consumer on the things to look for and a dedication to buy from companies who are transparent and market “eco friendly” products real information and not just vague ill-defined buzzwords.

Bio: Josh Verleun lives and works in New York City as an environmental lawyer and business advisor.  He currently holds the position of Staff Attorney at Riverkeeper, a not for profit tasked with protecting the waters of New York and serving as a global model for watershed stewardship and protection.

Josh is also the Vice President of Between the Sheets, a designer Loungewear and Intimate apparel manufacturer. In his role at BTS Josh provides legal counsel and contributes expertise in environmental and sustainable business practices. You can learn more about Josh at www.joshuaverleun.com 

Photo Credits: Between the Sheets, Sandmaiden Sleepwear, Hopeless Lingerie, Purrfect Pineapples, ClareBare Lingerie

11 Comments

  1. famous lingerie
    11/04/11 at 20:51

    Your are right,environment protection element should be taken into consideration when the lingerie design and production, we should love our planet when we do something.

  2. Petra Bellejambes
    12/04/11 at 5:20

    Terrific work here Josh. Green is very multi-dimensional and full of subtleties.

    Yes, a locally produced high synthetic content pair of knickers can be greener than an all silk pair dyed wastefully and flown 10,000 miles to get to market.

    Thanks for sharing. Nice to see that Layla has great instincts about men as well as lingerie.

  3. Ellen
    12/04/11 at 11:34

    Thanks Treacle for this insightful and necessary information. It's a pleasure to see someone profiling the elements that make great Lingerie product and not just the beauty.

  4. Shell
    23/04/12 at 6:31

    FINALLY! I’ve recently become very interested in the cradle to cradle concept and as a textile design student i am constantly learning about sustainable fashion however many people do not quite understand what they are talking about. Thanks to greenwashing words like “organic” “sustainable” and “green” being thrown around way too much, many do not know the full impact of the processes, bamboo and cotton are very deceptive when in comes to being “green”.
    Thankyou for giving a brief overview of what it actually means for a textile to be sustainable.

  5. 04/04/13 at 19:05

    Just some notes about Bamboo – which I have used consistently in my collections – and am a huge supporter of. While everything you noted is true – I feel like you are giving it a pretty bad wrap when there are some other significant benefits…..

    From personal experience my bamboo underwear lasts about twice to 3 times as long as cotton underwear. It is anti-bacterial and holds less moisture, making it much more pleasant to wear for longer periods of time – therefore less washing.

    Bamboo crops are one of the fastest growing plants in the world, are a very resilient crop, need fewer pesticides than cotton, and have many other benefits as te source product.

    I know there are a lot of arguments on both sides for Bamboo textiles – and completely agree that buzz words are thrown around without proper knowledge of what they actually mean – but I just think there are so many other things to consider.

  6. Amaryllis
    23/03/14 at 18:56

    Interesting stuff. Often if you’re going to really be conscious of the impact of your choices, you have to work out what matters most and realise that there isn’t ‘an answer’ with sustainability or eco friendly produce in any field. For me, it’s mostly the labour that is in issue – fairly paid and in safe conditions. Upcycling and using fabric to minimise waste is my second concern. Hence, I like to support companies that are transparent about where they manufacture and source fabrics, but I don’t blanket ban buying anything from x country or made with y fabric… It’s more important that the entire picture is considered when you decide where to purchase. The fact that Kiss Me Deadly use upcycled fabrics and are clear in describing where individual product lines are made is always something that has pleased me. Likewise, Who Made Your Pants (also UK based) are a great place for those with concerns about labour conditions, and the do the fantastic ‘year of pants’ too – great for happy surprises.

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