Let’s Talk About the Unmentionables: Can lingerie be sustainable?

Without a doubt, the ongoing global health crisis has shaken industries in more ways than one. From record low revenues and great losses to missed partnership opportunities and canceled events, the negative effects of the pandemic on businesses are endless. However, if there is one good thing that has sprung from the decade’s greatest economic hurdle, it’s the growing awareness over the unsustainable and non-eco-friendly ways that most industries operate under. Unfortunately, this goes down all the way to the very basics: our underwear and lingerie.

Lingerie spending and waste generation

In recent years, the lingerie industry has been consistently gaining traction due to the inclusive, diverse and body-positive initiatives defining the sector. Based on a recent study spearheaded by Liam O’Connell, a typical American’s spending on intimate wear is likely to grow to $95.75 come 2022 – a $15 increase from the 2017 figure. While the great strides the lingerie market has taken into making the industry more diverse and inclusive cannot be denied, it doesn’t nullify the fact that these efforts have also encouraged brands to create heaps of unsustainable undergarments that usually end up in landfills when they go out of season.

As an example, earlier this year, the popular lingerie brand Victoria’s Secret faced criticism after the public found out that they discarded hundreds of undamaged bras when one of their outlets in Colorado closed. Victoria’s Secret is only one of the many brands that contributes to the swelling levels of waste the industry is generating. Every year, the entire apparel industry, including lingerie, generates 15 million tons of textile waste. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, of this amount, only 2.62 million tons were recycled, 3.14 million tons were combusted for energy recovery and the remaining millions of tons were sent to landfills.

The unsustainability of lingerie

Like much of the fashion industry, lingerie follows a linear supply chain model. Meaning to say, most brands operate as though there are unlimited resources, when the reality is that there is widespread scarcity. As explained by Rhonda P. Hill in one of our previous posts, the extensive use of a linear system is the reason why the field of fashion is responsible for about 10% of the global carbon emissions and nearly 20% of global wastewater. In order to curb the negative impacts of the lingerie industry on the environment, it is imperative for brands to focus on transitioning to a circular system. Unlike a linear system, a circular system aligns with the principles of a circular economy and focuses on making, using and returning/reusing garments. The first step to making an ideal circular system is sourcing renewable textiles. However, when most of the biggest brands rely on fabrics that are incredibly disastrous to the environment, this much-needed transition could be cumbersome. Here’s a list of some of the widely used lingerie materials that are doing the world great harm:

Cotton

Although cotton is a natural fiber that can eventually biodegrade at the end of its life, it is very water extensive. Based on Independent’s list of fabrics that have the worst environmental impact, a single pair of cotton jeans can use up between 10,000 and 20,000 gallons of water, while a simple t-shirt would need 3,000. In addition, cotton farming also requires high levels of pesticides and toxic chemicals, which eventually seep into the earth, thereby degrading soil health and water quality.

Synthetics (Polyester, Nylon and Acrylic)

Much like plastic, synthetic fabrics are harmful to the environment, mainly because they don’t biodegrade at all. They might not require agricultural use and only need little to no water, but they all rely on the petrochemical industries that are dependent on fossil fuel extraction, which in itself leads to a myriad of negative environmental impacts.

Animal-derived materials (Fur, Leather and Wool)

The biodegradability of animal-derived materials can be easily overshadowed by the huge methane outputs that they produce. From cattle raising to material transportation, animal-derived materials produce methane, which has been noted to be 20 times as strong as a greenhouse gas as CO2. Furthermore, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) detailed that livestock accounts for about 14.5% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The challenges of going sustainable

As mentioned, veering away from “traditional” lingerie materials can be quite challenging for designers and manufacturers. After all, these widely used materials are far cheaper than sustainable alternatives. Additionally, as Chrizelle Diaz explains in PrettyMe’s rundown of lingerie brands and types, consumers choose their lingerie based largely on the fabrics used and how comfortable they feel, especially since most lingerie brands are expensive. For example, the mixture of fabrics such as cotton and spandex is popular among consumers because they’re durable, comfortable and cheap to produce. Unless we find an alternative that’s better all-around, then we’ll have a hard time creating lingerie that is sustainable.

Fortunately, this hasn’t stopped some designers from trying. Instead, many have gone to great lengths to try and introduce sustainable, ethical lingerie to the common shopper. There’s Boody that creates sustainable undergarments made with viscose from organic bamboo and ensures that their entire supply chain produces as little waste as possible. Another great example of such a brand is Naja, which uses digital printing, reduces water waste and strives to include fabrics made from recycled plastics in each of their collections.

Supporting sustainable lingerie

Still, despite the emergence of sustainable brands such as Boody and Naja, the onus is still on the consumer to make sure that they’re supporting good brands and that they’re disposing of their lingerie in good ways. After all, consumers can force, or at the very least significantly influence, brands to go sustainable and subscribe to a circular system. Since lingerie isn’t one of those things you can just simply donate to thrift shops when you are done with them, you would need to be creative when it comes time to retire your older pieces.

For example, you can turn old undies into gentle, no-scratch washcloths for your car or compost 100% cotton or silk worn-out undergarments. Lindsey Rose Black also mentioned how you can turn old underwear into pillow stuffings, potpourri sachets, hair ties, plant holders, or even an unconventional quilt. For clean and good-quality nightwear, you can donate them to organizations that collect bras and menstrual hygiene products for girls and women in homeless shelters, such as the “I Support The Girls” initiative. It would also be a good idea to go to The Bra Recyclers, which distributes bras to women in need, and also funnels unwearable bras into proper textile recycling facilities.

The road to sustainability may be long and winding, but it is a path that brands must take to ensure relevancy and consumer support. As a consumer, the best way you can support sustainability is by going for brands that truly embody the same green principles that you do.

 

Image:  Designer, Maital Levitan’s collection What’s Left Behind – use of biodegradable and vintage upcycled materials. Photography- Rotem Lebel, Stylist- Haya Vider, MUA and Hair- Tal Davara, Model- Maria Shainer for R&R by Roberto and Rotem.

 

 

 

 

Jen Carnago

Jen Carnago is a stylist with a background in fashion technology. When she’s not working, Jen enjoys reading up on the latest trends and innovations, as well as rock climbing and listening to jazz music.