From made-in-Britain bras to organic cotton pants, eco lingerie brands tell Sarah Blackman WHY retailers should buy into sustainable underwear.
Have you ever stopped and really thought about where your stock comes from, how it’s made and who makes it? With growing concerns over the scarcity of resources and social inequality on our planet, consumers want to know about the journey their products have been on, from the mill to the mall.
Nowadays, if your lingerie is ethically sourced and organically made, this is a unique selling point. But it’s not all about morals; eco-friendly lingerie is renowned amongst its own niche market for its luxurious and comfortable feel against the skin.
So what defines eco-friendly or sustainable lingerie? Well, it means different things to different brands. For some, it’s about producing products locally and avoiding a hefty carbon footprint. For others, it’s about reducing toxins, parasites and bacteria that are common in synthetic products. And for most, it’s about looking after their supply chain and making sure they think about the impact that every single decision they make has on the environment, without compromising on the quality of their designs.
Emily Huc, the designer behind In Bloom London – now rebranded as Augustine Lingerie as a tribute to her grandmother and a nod to French styling – has been devoted to environmental projects for most of her adult life.
“After graduating, I spent a year in Central America where I worked with banana and cacao farmers and learned a huge amount about agriculture and the impact of organic certification on the lives of people who actually produce the resources we need to eat. So that’s really where my inspiration came from,” she says.
“Sustainability was always a big element of the brand for me.”
Huc uses organic cotton, end-of-line fabrics and tencel – a silky textured fabric made from wood pulp cellulose – to make her garments, and sources most of these materials from Europe.
She also uses Leavers Lace in her lingerie, not because it’s particularly eco-friendly, but because she is trying to bring back to life a dying industry.
“It’s about safe-guarding the craft because there were so many mills producing that type of lace [in the UK] and now there are very few that remain.”
Ayten Roberts, creative director of British brand Ayten Gasson, is also committed to supporting the UK manufacturing industry. She launched the company shortly after graduating in 2004, when she found that most design jobs had moved to Europe, while the London factories she knew as a child had closed.
“I remember my grandmother working in a North London factory producing clothing for at least 30 different designers each season. There used to be 20 to 30 mills in Nottingham, but they’ve drastically reduced,” says Roberts, who is currently working with Cluny lace, the fabric manufacturer behind Kate Middleton’s wedding dress.
“I try and recycle as many laces as I can so that I can show people the skills we once had in the UK. I have a great agent – Simon Butler – who I buy large amounts of vintage lace from and use them in my designs.”
One material which is in high demand among consumers and lingerie buyers, but cannot be sourced in the UK, is peace silk. Ayten Gasson uses a UK agent to import the fabric, which is woven by fair trade producers.
Conventional silk is produced when an adult silk worm begins to spin a fibroin protein. The strain of silk is woven into a tightly enclosed cocoon. Next, the silk worm secretes a fluid which burns a hole though the weave, allowing it to emerge. In order to save the silk, the farmer kills the silkworm by boiling it alive.
“Peace silk is vegan because it allows the silkworm to emerge out of the cocoon naturally. Fibres from the damaged cocoon are then spun together forming a silk which has the same luxurious feel as organic silk, with a raw appearance,” says Roberts.
“Whenever I launch a new product, I try and produce an organic or peace silk version of it. They sell just as well as the conventionally-produced products,” she adds.
So why is it – other than the fact that eco-friendly fabrics tend to feel more luxurious – that there is a growing trend towards buying sustainable lingerie?
Gabriele Meinl, managing director of German lingerie brand AIKYOU, believes that consumers are becoming more aware of, and concerned about, where their products are produced.
“People want their underwear to be fashionable, have good craftsmanship etc, but now they are also interested in sustainably-produced products. This is in part due to the press reporting about working conditions in India and toxic substances being found in fabrics,” she says.
“There are also initiatives in the UK like the Livia Firth green carpet challenge and her company Eco Age. She is trying to persuade well-known actresses and couturiers to produce beautiful gowns from sustainably-sourced fabrics.”
AIKYOU was created to offer wireless bikini bras for women with a smaller bust, but the brand wanted to combine fashion-forward ideas with ethical thinking.
“Our fabrics are not only made from Fairtrade-certified organic cotton, but they are also very finely spun and very soft. What’s good about organic cotton is that you avoid pesticides and genetically manipulated seeds,” explains Meinl.
Organic cotton seems to be the most popular fabric among eco lingerie brands, including California-based Clare Bare. The founder of the company, Clare Herron, initially used this material in all of her garments, before expanding into bamboo jersey. But, in her next collection, she’s going back to her roots.
“Bamboo jersey works with the body really well and it absorbs a lot of bacteria,” she says. “But there’s a lot of debate about bamboo jersey because it uses a lot of water in the process of making the fabric. So, because of that, I’m going back towards using organic cotton in my designs.”
Clare Bare buys only raw materials, including organic plant-based dyes, and manufactures its products in a factory ran by Herron and four other employees. “I like to limit the amount of hands that actually work with the materials between the designer and the consumer,” Herron explains.
But sustainable lingerie isn’t always made in the Western world. All organic cotton used by British underwear brand Pants to Poverty is sourced from Orissa, India, and sent to a garment factory in the southern state of Tamilnadu.
“Ethics is dependent on what people’s priorities are and for us it’s about building an underwear brand that is basically a bit like the love child between Calvin Klein and Oxfam,” says Ben Ramsden, who founded Pants to Poverty in 2005 as part of Make Poverty History.
Organic farming helps to improve biodiversity in the fields where the cotton is produced, according to Ramsden.
“Proper farming techniques are used so there is not too much water consumption; it’s all rain-fed land. The farmers see a Fairtrade price for their cotton and premiums go back to the communities,” he says.
Over the next year, Pants to Poverty’s garment factory, Armstrong, aims to implement a new dying unit which will reduce the water consumption per pair of pants from around 100 litres per kilogram of fabric to less than half a pint. The knock-on cost savings will then go towards providing all workers with a real living wage.
In general, the extra work involved in sourcing and certifying sustainable fabrics can make eco-lingerie lingerie more expensive to produce, but retail prices tend to be comparable to those recommended by non-sustainable brands, says Meinl, “Our lingerie is slightly more expensive to produce, but we respect the price on the market.”
Herron agrees; “It should be more expensive, but I’m trying to give an incentive for people to actually buy it. I think as long as people start working with these sustainable materials the costs will lower.”
It seems that when it comes to buying sustainable lingerie, the value or credibility of your store needn’t be sacrificed. What you would be offering, however, is an extra option for your worldly-wise customer.