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 labor, slave labor, and underpaid labor. 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, 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.
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.