Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Pictures: Retailers
A little over a year ago, I started noticing that every time I opened my underwear drawer, I felt something between embarrassment and boredom. I was 24 at the time and about a third of my underwear had been with me since high school – the rest since college. It was high time for an overhaul and I was ready to feel cute in my underwear again. I also wanted to make sure that in addition to being cute, my underwear was non-irritating and durable. Which meant I was willing to invest in underwear that cost more than I ever paid for.
My highest personal priorities are fair compensation and good working conditions for apparel professionals, followed by the lowest possible impact on the planet, and that usually translates into more dollar signs. It costs extra money to continuously implement and ensure sustainable practices and to continue to invest in sustainability improvements. Higher wages for workers in particular are non-negotiable for me, and I don’t mind paying more when I know more of my money is going to pay the professionals who make my clothes.
There are many factors to consider when looking for sustainable clothing: longevity, fabric, production process, etc. underwear that I know can biodegrade or be usefully recycled. My research was loosely separated into three categories: everyday basics, where the priority was affordability since I would buy a lot of them; home underwear, which had to be cute and provide good coverage for those days when I just can’t wear pants; and confidence caffeine, for when I needed to walk the world with the extra pep that comes from knowing I’m wearing really cute and/or sexy underwear. Here is what I found.
Much of what I look for when shopping for underwear can apply to all of my clothes, but there are also lingerie-specific things to think about.
Breathable and non-toxic fabric: For people with vulvas, the fabric you choose is very important when shopping for underwear. Simply put, your underwear is in direct contact with your vagina, and to me the possibility of absorbing toxic compounds from the fabric directly into my body isn’t worth the risk. Synthetic fabrics made with polyester not only tend to contain toxins from the production process, but they also trap heat and moisture which can, at a minimum, cause irritation – and for those prone to infection yeast, it certainly does not help.
Linen label: All lingerie should be machine washed cold and air dried, but some of the more expensive pairs I’ve purchased are hand wash only, which I hadn’t paid as much attention to. ‘era. Knowing the extra time and energy washing them will require, I find myself thinking twice about putting a pair on for hand-washing only.
Life cycle: Since there is no way to completely sanitize a pair of used underwear, the life cycle of that particular item of clothing is usually limited to the use of one person – so it is especially important to ensure that it’s made well enough to last at least a few years, and that once it’s worn out, you can donate it to a textile recycling facility or allow it to biodegrade.
If you consider that you can get a six-pack of Fruit of the Loom underwear for around $10, give or take, depending on the style, $80 for a five-pack of underwear. Is sound a bit bonkers, especially since it’s one of the more affordable brands on the list. But if you consider that Knickey is a Certified B Corp — meaning it meets B Lab’s rigorous standards for social and environmental impact as well as ongoing accountability and transparency in its practices — it uses responsibly produced organic cotton, ensures fair labor standards from manufacturers, has an underwear recycling program (where you can send any underwear!), and releases a detailed impact report every year that covers sustainability improvements…when you consider all of that, the cost, to me at least, seems fair. And I can attest that they are durable; I’ve been wearing my Knickeys regularly for over a year and still find them so comfortable – no holes, snags or rippling waistbands. I tried her starter pack, which includes one of each style, and also bought three of my favorite styles, the thong, which is $17.
Although I didn’t end up buying Pact underwear myself, they are slightly more affordable than Knickey’s, at $75 for a six-pack, and offer a wider variety of styles, colors , embellishments and prints. And while the brand doesn’t offer as much detail about its sustainability practices as Knickey does, Pact works with fair trade-certified mills and organic cotton, and it partners with the Give Back Box program, so customers can use the boxes their order came to ship their used clothes to non-profit organizations. A solid choice for durable underwear.
With three-packs ranging from $50 to $75, TomboyX is the most expensive brand for everyday wear, but it’s also the most inclusive, with sizes ranging from 3XS to 6X and gender-neutral styles. . TomboyX is B Corp certified, and although its cotton is not organic, it has been tested for harmful materials. Some of its underwear styles are made with TENCEL Modal, a biodegradable fiber made from beech wood, and it even offers vintage underwear. Its website’s sustainability page provides a comprehensive overview of its current practices as well as areas where it plans to make improvements, and that kind of transparency is something I always look for when shopping online.
I am deeply – and I mean deeply — obsessed with ARQ underwear. I have three pairs of high waist style (and matching tank tops). The quality of these is amazing; the organic cotton (plus 8% spandex) fits my body comfortably, and the seams are tightly stitched and never scratchy. I love strutting around my house in these, and in the year I’ve had them, they obviously haven’t aged at all, and that’s with constant machine washing. The price of a pair varies from 24 to 34 dollars. So it’s more of an investment, but well worth it, especially since the company works with a small, family-run sewing factory using sustainably dyed fabrics.
Pansy is probably the most holistically sustainable underwear brand I’ve come across in my research. Of the four underwear styles offered, three are fully compostable. Every aspect of production, from the organic cotton farms to the small-batch dye plant, takes place in the United States, which means there is no air shipping or material freight if you are also in the United States. It’s also the only brand I’ve found that uses rubber and cotton elastics, not a synthetic fiber. I don’t have a pair (yet), but the stretchy shorts are particularly appealing for a day spent jumping between my bed, the fridge and the couch, and I love the earthy color palette. The brand recommends hand washing their underwear, but says a cold machine cycle is also fine.
When I think of hemp, I think of scratchy burlap fabrics that I wouldn’t want near my vagina. But it’s not that. As an immensely durable fiber, hemp is increasingly being used in softer weaves and, like linen, it continues to soften with age. WAMA’s underwear is simple and comfort-first, and it’s made with a blend of cotton, hemp and spandex. The brand attaches as much importance to fair wages and good working conditions as to the impact on the climate; Because its factories are in China, there is an employee whose job it is to constantly audit the factories and ensure that every manufacturer they work with adheres to their supplier code of conduct.
Like Pansy, all of Oddobody’s underwear styles are fully compostable, and they’re made from buttery-soft sheer pima cotton that’s truly a joy to wear. I particularly like the string bikini style, which is both sexy and wholesome; whenever I need to feel like a main character, I grab one of my three pairs. Although they are listed as machine washable, I have found that they are sensitive to a machine cycle – the few times I have machine washed them I have noticed a loose thread or two. Still, the material holds up perfectly and fits well without sagging or stretching, an impressive feat with no spandex involved. The company uses a family-run manufacturer in Peru and regularly visits the factories and farms that create the underwear.
Against my better judgment, I’m obsessed with Botanica Workshop underwear. It’s incredibly expensive; a three-pack of her high-waisted briefs is $195. However! I was desperate to find really sexy underwear without any polyester-based lace, and Botanica Workshop succeeds. I love stretchy silk thongs, which are slightly less expensive than briefs and are made from durable silk georgette with a small amount of spandex; I consider them as long-term investments. Botanica’s garments are produced locally in small batches by artisans in the Los Angeles area, where the design studio is based. I love the pearlescent button featured on all of her underwear, and I love the fit and comfort – they feel as expensive as they are. And yes… they are hand washable only.
HARA the Label
I’m currently coveting HARA’s Moana High Waist Thong. A high waist and a thong for a flattering fit without the possibility of panty lines. Based in Melbourne, Australia, HARA uses organic bamboo fabric that is locally dyed and sewn, although I couldn’t find any information on where the fabric came from. Its website says it supports fair labor practices and supply chain transparency. Because the clothes are naturally dyed, they should be hand washed in cold water before first use, which is not ideal. Still, the styles are warm and creative.