Each new year brings an increased awareness of unethical materials and manufacturing processes used to create the everyday garments we wear. Unethical clothing is not just rampant, it is the norm. The majority of people wear chemically laden clothing produced by child labour, slave labour, and underpaid labour. As a lingerie blogger, I am keenly aware of the difficulties facing women and men who wish to buy ethical undergarments.
Ethical lingerie is somewhat of a vague term – in that it means different things to different people. For some, ethical is all about the manufacturing process: whether workers are paid a living wage and provided decent working conditions. However, terms such as living wage and fair trade are difficult to quantify. What wage is acceptable? Enough money for food and housing; enough for food, housing, and clothing; or more? Fair trade stipulates a better price for the farmer, yet hardly tracks whether that extra money is distributed to all the workers.
For others, ethical lingerie is primarily about the components of the product:
- The materials used are synthetic
- The materials used are crop-based and/or
- The materials used are organic
Crop-based materials include plants such as bamboo, cotton, and hemp. These are considered sustainable as they can be replanted. Synthetic and crop-based materials are considered less harmful than animal-based products such as leather, fur, and sometimes silk and wool (neither silk nor wool require the death of an animal – in fact it is preferable they live – therefore there is conflict over whether or not these animal by-products are ethical).
Ethical labour and ethical material are quite difficult to ensure when buying lingerie. A bra is composed of wires, fabrics, hook and eye closures, rings, and sliders. Many different fabrics can be used to make one bra: cotton lining inside the cup, a stronger fabric outside the cup, foam, lace overlay, extra-strong mesh for the band, elastic straps, ribbons, and more. All of these parts are generally sourced from different factories. How does one ensure that each and every component of such a complex product was made of sustainable materials and sourced from factories that participate in fair wages and work conditions?
When our understanding of ethical lingerie is simply material or labour based, there are some limits.
Decorative lace may be made of synthetic or crop-based organic materials (thus avoiding animal cruelty and increasing sustainability) but most lace goes through a chemical bath to dissolve away the layer on which it was produced. Furthermore, dyes used in lingerie are generally toxic – not just to us (the skin is the largest organ and it absorbs what we put on it) but also to the environment.
Therefore, many people believe that ethical lingerie must consider the environment: material must be produced in a non-toxic fashion that minimalizes environmental pollution from chemicals, dyes, and excess fabric. Dyes must be non-toxic, excess fabric recycled or reused, and chemical use kept to an absolute minimum.
Under an environmental model of ethics, fabrics such as bamboo (a renewable resource often used for ethically produced clothing) become questionable as the chemicals used to breakdown bamboo into a useable fibre (for making fabric) are toxic and the volume of water used in the process is formidable. This does not even take into consideration the amount of deforestation occurring to plant bamboo for our use (not for the endangered panda), which in turn has further ramifications on the environment.
Bamboo is not alone in its problems. Organic cotton is pesticide free: as a result, organic cotton crops have a higher waste output than non-organic cotton crops due to infestation. Part of organic cotton’s price is not just the pleasure of wearing pesticide free underwear; it is also to cover the cost of crop damage resulting in a lower yield and a higher waste.
Now, I am not here to tell you whether your definition of ethical is correct as I feel that any step towards buying ethical is a step in the right direction. If that means starting with labour practices and moving to organic fabrics later – that is admirable. We all change at our own pace.
Whatever your definition of ethical lingerie, now is a great time to start substituting ethical brands for everyday basics. The following is but a small compilation of resources to help you wear healthier undergarments: healthier for you, healthier for the environment, and healthier for the people who make them. As an intro to ethical lingerie, I have concentrated on companies with accessible price points.
PACT is featured in our ethical lingerie post, read more about it here.
PACT believes in ethical clothing for the entire family. Besides clothes, they also manufacture undergarments including socks, panties, underwear, camisoles, and more. They use fair-trade certified, non-GMO, organic cotton that is pesticide free. This brand is also budget-friendly: For example, a two-pack of Women’s Bikini Underwear is only $22.99 USD. They also have a strict policy against child labour.
BTS Lingerie manufactures in the USA and they use fabrics sourced locally from New York or other USA based suppliers. While they make underwear, Between the Sheets also makes lingerie, loungewear, and sleepwear from a variety of fabrics including mesh, bamboo, and modal. You can view their Sustainability Statement here and learn where their fabrics come from and why they use them. The price point is quite reasonable with many babydolls and loungewear pieces under $100 USD. Their sale section is a beauty as well!
Naja is devoted to eco-friendly manufacturing processes as well as elevating the standard of life for their factory workers. Naja’s garment factory pays above market wages with healthcare benefits to its staff. The Factory workers are primarily single mothers or female heads of households. Furthermore, Naja uses digital and sublimation printing technologies to substantially reduce water waste, therefore reducing environmental pollution.
Bluestockings Boutique has an ethical manufacturing and sustainability policy for all the brands that they carry. This is the only boutique I am aware of that does the work for you by curating a collection of ethical brands in one online store. While Bluestockings Boutique carries many brands that are manufactured overseas, each brand ensures that those factories adhere to strict labour standards and treat their employees ethically. Furthermore, the boutique stocks plus-size ethical lingerie: a combination that is quite difficult to find elsewhere.
Toru & Naoko via Bluestockings Boutique
All of these companies have sustainability or ethical manufacturing policies on their websites. I picked these four as they cover the main essentials at an affordable price point. Naja sells wired bras, wireless bras, and underwear. In my view, they are an optimal substitute for La Senza or Victoria’s Secret. PACT has the lowest price point so they are the best alternative to basic underwear you might purchase at Walmart, Macy’s, Victoria’s Secret, and more. Between The Sheets Lingerie is a wonderful destination for beautiful lingerie that you might buy in any lingerie or retail outlet – but theirs is ethical.
Lastly, Bluestockings compiles boxers, panties, robes, lingerie, wired bras, bralettes, and more from many different ethical lingerie companies that fit a variety of shapes and sizes. It is a one-stop shop for all your ethical lingerie needs.
This is just a start! Ethical lingerie is becoming easier and easier to find in a digital world. Simply use your good friend Google and explore all the other wonderful ethical lingerie companies that are trying to make a difference in this world.
About the Author
With a BA in English, Avigayil works as a freelance writer by day and a lingerie blogger by night. She is the writer behind the plus-size friendly lingerie blog Lingerie Detective in Canada. Her lingerie blogging is fuelled by a desire for women of all sizes to be represented and to enjoy lingerie as an extension of self-love and self-care. When not typing her fingers into an early grave, she loves playing with her pudgy cat, driving her car a little too fast, and watching BBC Earth documentaries religiously. She dreams of traveling to every single place David Attenborough has ever been.