With so many sustainable underwear brands claiming that their fabric is the most "eco-friendly” and the “most breathable” how can you be sure if you are making the right choice? In this guide to high-quality materials, you will find some of the most sustainable fabrics for women's underwear.... along with the worst, to help you decide which is the right fit for you!
We will be diving into the lifecycle analysis and the Higg's index parameters of the most common underwear fabrics on the market today, including:
- Modal - a semi-synthetic fabric made from beech tree pulp
- Lenzing Modal - created from a sustainably harvested forest in Austria
- Tencel - made from Lyocell and Modal, "regenerated cellulose" fibers.
- Cotton - made from the natural fibers of cotton plants
- Organic Cotton - grown using methods that have a low impact on the environment
- Nylon - a synthetic fabric that is derived from crude oil
- Polyestor - a synthetic fabric that's usually derived from petroleum
Eco-Friendly Lingerie: Why Choose Sustainable Underwear Brands?
We all know that textile waste is a massive worldwide problem. A staggering two-thirds of our clothing is made from fossil fuel synthetics, and 85% of this material is sent to landfills, unable to decay or decompose. Not only that, but according to a report on the textiles industry from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, clothing production approximately doubled from 2000 to 2015. Clearly demands for sustainable fashion are at an all-time high.
As we start to add more sustainable options to our wardrobe, it's only right that we should see that positive change in our underwear drawers too, by switching to sustainable and ethical undies.
What is Modal?
Modal is a “semi-synthetic” fabric that is commonly combined with other fibers to create a soft and long-lasting material. It's silky-smooth feel makes it more luxurious than other fabrics and it is usually found in higher-end sustainable underwear.
Lenzing™ Modal vs Modal?
Lenzing™ Modal is produced in Austria and mainly composed of beech wood pulp that is made into cellulosic fibers. In addition to the low environmental impact of the harvest and production process, the fibers are biodegradable and compostable, allowing them to eventually revert back to nature. Lenzing AG ensures for a fair trade process, harvesting their trees from sustainably managed forests and producers.
Impact on the Environment: Lenzing™ Modal
Modal is manufactured from cellulose using chemical processing, the same as bamboo, rayon (viscose) and lyocell. In the case of modal, the cellulose comes from softwood trees. The manufacturing process is closed loop, which means that the chemicals used in processing are captured and reused. The small amount of discharged is considered non-hazardous.
The finished textile is biodegradable and also takes well to natural dyes, eliminating the need for more harmful chemicals in your underwear.
When deciding if you are purchasing sustainable underwear, it's important to look at the life cycle assessment of the fabric. This is the comprehensive analysis that will tell you if you have sustainable underwear and it's negative or positive effects on the environment. The data collected includes:
1. Contribution to Acid Rain Emissions
Acid rain is caused by a chemical reaction that begins when compounds like sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides are released into the air. This can happen during the fabric manufacturing process.
Acid rain has been shown to have adverse impacts on forests, freshwaters, and soils, killing insect and aquatic life-forms, causing paint to peel, corrosion of steel structures such as bridges, and weathering of stone buildings and statues as well as having impacts on human health.
Lenzing™ Modal contributes 0.02 SO2-EQ (acidification potential) to the environment. This is one of the lowest scores across all usual underwear fabric choices, including cotton:
2. Bluewater Footprint
Bluewater Footprint refers to water that has been sourced from surface or groundwater resources and is either evaporated or incorporated into the fabric during production. This footprint helps us understand for what purposes our limited freshwater resources are being consumed and/or polluted.
Lenzing™ Modal uses 0.04 M2 per KG of water during process. Again, this another very low score across all fabrics tested, making it an ideal candidate for sustainable underwear.
3. Contribution To Climate Change
CO2 (carbon dioxide) emissions are the main contribution to global warming and climate change. Textile production is one of the most polluting industries, producing 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 per year. Around 5% of total global emissions come from the fashion industry.
Compared to other underwear textiles, Lenzing™ Modal's contribution to CO2 is very low at just 1.5 CO2-EQ per KG.
4. Cumulative Energy Demand
The Cumulative energy demand (CED) of a product represents the direct and indirect energy use in units of MJ throughout the life cycle, including the energy consumed during the extraction, manufacturing and disposal of the raw materials.
In the case of Lenzing Modal, that number is a relatively low 21 (MJ)
TENCEL™ is actually a brand name owned by the Austrian company Lenzing AG. They use it for a type of lyocell fabric, and also for their modal material. However, usually when referenced it is referring to their lyocell fabric.
TENCEL™ Lyocell is a cellulose fibre that comes from eucalyptus trees, which is made by dissolving wood pulp and using a special drying process called spinning. According to Lenzing AG, it is 50% more absorbent than cotton and less susceptible to odorous bacteria growth because of its naturally anti-bacterial properties.
Impact on the Environment: TENCEL™ Lyocell
1. Contribution to Acid Rain: TENCEL™ Lyocell contributes 0.01 SO2-EQ (acidification potential) to the environment. This is also one of the lowest scores across all fabric choices.
2. Bluewater Footprint: TENCEL™ Lyocell uses 0.02 M2 per KG of water during process. One of the lowest score across all fabrics tested, making it an ideal candidate for sustainable underwear.
3. Contribution to Climate Change: Compared to other underwear textiles TENCEL™ Lyocell's contribution to CO2 is very low at just 1.5 CO2-EQ per KG, exactly the same as Lenzing Modal.
4. Cumulative Energy Demand: 21 (MJ)
What is Cotton?
You know cotton as one of the most common undergarments fabric. Cotton is primarily composed of cellulose, an insoluble organic compound, that is spun into yarn and woven to create soft and durable fabric.
Conventional production practices for cotton involve the application of substantial fertilizers and pesticides (can you say toxic chemicals?), which threaten the quality of soil and water, as well as the health of biodiversity in and downstream from the fields. 4% of all world pesticides and 10% of insecticides are used in cotton-growing.
Cotton underwear is commonly prescribed to women as the most "breathable" option, but has fabric technology outgrown this old school recommendation?
Cotton vs. Organic Cotton?
In comparison certified organic cotton is equally as comfy, but grown using methods and materials that have a lower impact on the environment than conventional cotton. Organic production processes replenish and maintain soil fertility, reduce the use of toxic and persistent pesticides and fertilizers, and build biologically diverse agriculture, all while encouraging fair trade practices.
Impact on the Environment: Organic Cotton
1. Contribution to Acid Rain: Organic Cotton contributes a not-so-great score of 5.7 SO2-EQ (acidification potential) to the environment. However, it is significantly better than conventional cotton which has a score of 18.7!
2. Bluewater Footprint: Organic Cotton uses 0.75 M2 per KG of water during process. Low compared to 2.12 M2 per KG of conventional cotton.
3. Contribution to Climate Change: Compared to other underwear textiles Organic Cotton contribution to CO2 is very low at just 0.98 CO2-EQ per KG. Conventional cotton has a score of 2.12 CO2-EQ per KG.
Nylon is the name of a family of synthetic polymers often utilized to construct sheer panelling and lace found in lingerie, and often spun with a high count spandex for greater elasticity. Unlike other organic or semi-synthetic fibers, nylon fibers are entirely synthetic. The use of this type of synthetic polymer in clothing began with a desire to find alternatives to silk and hemp for parachutes in World War II. And even though you can find recycled Nylon on the market today that is made from plastic bottles, the biodegradability is still a major question mark.
Impact on the Environment: Nylon
1. Contribution to Climate Change: Nylon's contribution to CO2 is a whopping 22 CO2-EQ per KG!
2. Cumulative Energy Demand: 418 (MJ)
Polyester is a generalized term for any fabric or textile, which is made using polyester yarns or fibres. It is a shortened name for a synthetic, man-made polymer, polyethylene terephthalate.
Polyester fabrics don’t absorb perspiration, or other fluids, leaving the wearer with a moist, clammy feel. Polyester fibers also typically have a low level of wicking. Since it’s a man-made fiber derived from petroleum-based products, polyester is not sustainable, nor is it biodegradable, though you'll commonly find this fiber in lingerie stores and your own top drawer.
1. Contribution to Acid Rain: Polyester contributes 8.67 SO2-EQ (acidification potential) to the environment.
2. Contribution to Climate Change: Compared to other underwear textiles, Polyester's CO2 contribution is 2.13 CO2-EQ per KG.
3. Cumulative Energy Demand: 32 (MJ)
Higgs Index Score
Overall Outlook on Eco-Friendly Underwear Fabrics
The Higg Materials Sustainability Index (Higg MSI) is the apparel industry's most trusted tool to measure and score the overall environmental impacts of materials. It is essentially a summary measure of the overall performance of a fabric from the raw material to the fabric formation stage (‘from cradle to gate’). The lower the score, the lower the fabric’s impact.
Surprisingly, conventional cotton had the worst score of all the fabrics listed above. In order of best to worst, they were:
- Lenzing Tencel: 33
- Polyester: 45
- Organic Cotton: 41
- Nylon: 55
- Cotton: 90
In conclusion, it can be very tricky to find out if your are buying ethical underwear that uses sustainable fabrics. Being 100% sustainable is a rarity, but there are certain things you can look out for when researching brands.
Look for brands that are OEKO-Tex, TENCEL™, Lenzing or GOTS certified organic cotton to avoid brands that 'green wash' their products. Or use this guide as a reference when researching sustainable underwear brands and textiles in the future!
For a comprehensive list of fair trade certified lingerie brands with eco friendly supply chains, we recommend checkin gout Azura Bay. There you'll find plenty of size-inclusive women's underwear brands made from sustainable materials. Find a list to ethical underwear brands here.