sustainability

Cleaning Out My Underwear Drawer Threw Me Into the World of Sustainable Lingerie

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photos: Retailers

A little over a year ago, I started to notice 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 undies had been with me since high school — the rest, since college. It was way past time for an overhaul, and I was ready to feel cute in my undergarments once again. I also wanted to make sure that, in addition to being cute, my underwear was non-irritating and sustainable. Which meant that I was willing to make the investment in underwear that costs more than I’ve ever paid for it.

My personal biggest priorities are fair pay and good working conditions for garment professionals followed by the lowest possible impact on the planet, and that generally translates to more dollar signs. It costs extra money to implement and continually ensure sustainable practices and to keep investing in sustainability improvements. Higher wages for workers in particular are nonnegotiable for me, and I don’t mind paying more when I know that more of my money is going toward paying the professionals who make my clothes.

There are a lot of factors to consider when looking for sustainable clothing: longevity, fabric, production process, etc. I shop secondhand for a lot of my clothing, but for underwear, that’s not really an option — which also means it’s important to purchase underwear I know can biodegrade or be usefully recycled. My search was loosely separated into three categories: everyday basics, for which the priority was affordability since I would be buying a lot of them; house undies, which needed to be cute and offer good coverage for the days when I simply cannot wear pants; and confidence caffeine, for when I needed to walk through the world with the extra pep that comes with knowing I’m wearing very cute and/or sexy underwear. Here’s what I found.

Considerations

A lot of what I look for when purchasing underwear can apply to all my clothing — but there are also some lingerie-specific things to think about.

Breathable, nontoxic fabric: For people with vulvas, the fabric you choose is extra important when buying underwear. Put simply, your underwear is in direct contact with your vagina, and for me, the possibility of absorbing any toxic compounds in the fabric directly into my body isn’t worth risking. 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 the bare minimum, cause irritation — and for those prone to yeast infections, it certainly doesn’t help.

Laundry label: All lingerie should be washed on the cold cycle and air-dried, but some of the more expensive pairs I’ve bought are hand-wash only, which is something I didn’t pay as much attention to at the time. Knowing the extra time and energy their laundering will require, I find myself thinking twice before putting on a hand-wash-only pair.

Life cycle: Since there’s no way to completely sanitize a used pair of underwear, the life cycle of this particular garment is usually limited to one person’s use — so it’s especially important to ensure that it’s well made enough to last at least a few years, and that, once it does wear out, you can donate it to a textile recycling facility or allow it to biodegrade.

Everyday Basics

Knickey

When you consider that you can get a six-pack of Fruit of the Loom undies for about $10, give or take, depending on style, $80 for a five-pack of underwear does sound a little bonkers, particularly because this is one of the more affordable brands on the list. But when you consider that Knickey is certified climate neutral, uses responsibly produced organic cotton, ensures fair labor standards from manufacturers, has an underwear recycling program (where you can send any underwear!), and annually releases a detailed impact report that covers sustainability improvements … when you consider all that, the cost, at least in my eyes, seems fair. And I can attest that they are durable; I’ve been regularly wearing my Knickeys for more than a year, and I find them as comfortable as ever — no holes, snags, or rippling waistbands. I tried out its starter pack, which includes one of each style, and also bought three of my preferred style, the thong, which goes for $17.

Pact

While I didn’t end up purchasing Pact underwear myself, it’s slightly more affordable than Knickey, at $75 for a six-pack of underwear, and offers a larger 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 does work with fair-trade-certified factories and organic cotton, and it partners with the Give Back Box program, so customers can use the boxes their order came in to ship their used clothing to nonprofit organizations. A solid choice for long-lasting undies.

TomboyX

With three-packs that range from $50 to $75, TomboyX is the most expensive brand for everyday wear — but it’s also the most inclusive, with sizes that range from 3XS to 6X and nongendered styles. TomboyX is B Corp certified — meaning it meets B Lab’s rigorous standards for social and environmental impact as well as continued accountability and transparency about its practices — and while its cotton isn’t organic, it has been tested for harmful materials. Some of its underwear styles are made with TENCEL Modal, a biodegradable fiber made from beechwood trees, and it even offers period underwear. Its website’s sustainability page comprehensively overviews its current practices as well as where it plans to make improvements, and that kind of transparency is something I’m always looking out for when shopping online.

House Undies

ARQ

I am deeply — and I mean deeply — obsessed with ARQ underwear. I’ve got three pairs of the high-rise style (and the matching tank tops). The quality of these is incredible; the organic cotton (plus 8 percent spandex) just molds comfortably to my body, and the seams are sturdily stitched and never irritating. I love to prance around my home in these, and in the year I’ve had them, they haven’t visibly aged at all, and that’s with consistent machine washing. The price for a pair ranges from $24 to $34, so these are more of an investment, but they’re worth it, especially since the company works with a small, family-owned sewing factory using sustainably dyed fabrics.

Pansy

Pansy is probably the most holistically sustainable underwear brand I’ve come across in my research. Of the four underwear styles offered, three are entirely compostable. Every aspect of production, from the organic-cotton farms to the small-batch dye factory, takes place in the U.S. — which means no air or freight shipping of materials if you’re in the U.S. too. It’s also the only brand I found that uses elastic made from rubber and cotton, not a synthetic fiber. I don’t have a pair (yet), but the stretch shorts look especially appealing for a day spent hopping between my bed, the fridge, and the couch, and I love the earthy color palette. The brand recommends hand-washing its underwear but says a cold machine cycle is okay too.

WAMA

When I think of hemp, I think of scratchy burlap-esque fabrics that I wouldn’t want anywhere near my vagina. But this is not that. Since it’s an immensely sustainable fiber, hemp is being used more and more in softer weaves, and like linen, it continues to soften with age. WAMA’s underwear is straightforward and prioritizes comfort, and it’s made with a blend of cotton, hemp, and elastane. The brand prioritizes fair wages and good working conditions as much as it does climate impact; because its factories are in China, it has an employee based there whose job is to continually audit factories and ensure every manufacturer it works with follows its supplier code of conduct.

Confidence Caffeine

Oddobody

Like Pansy, all of Oddobody’s underwear styles are completely compostable, and they’re made of buttery-soft sheer pima cotton that is truly a joy to wear. I especially love the string bikini style, which feels both sexy and wholesome; whenever I need to feel like a main character, I reach for one of my three pairs. Although they’re listed as machine washable, I’ve found that they are sensitive to a machine cycle — the few times I’ve machine-washed them, I’ve noticed a loose thread or two. Still, the material holds up beautifully and fits well without any sag or stretch, an impressive feat with no elastane involved. The company uses a family-run manufacturer in Peru and regularly visits the factories and farms that create the underwear.

Botanica Workshop

Against my better judgment, I am obsessed with Botanica Workshop underwear. It’s incredibly expensive; a three-pack of its high-waisted briefs goes for $195. However! I was desperate to find truly sexy underwear without any polyester-based lace, and Botanica Workshop achieves that. I love the stretch silk thongs, which are slightly less expensive than the briefs and are made from durable silk georgette with a small amount of spandex; I see them as long-term investment pieces. Botanica’s garments are locally produced in small batches by artisans in the Los Angeles area, where the design studio is based. I love the pearly button featured on all its underwear, and I love the fit and comfort — they do feel as expensive as they are. And yes … they’re hand-wash only.

HARA the Label

I am currently coveting the Moana high-waisted G-string from HARA. A high waist and a thong make for a flattering fit with no possibility of panty lines. Based in Melbourne, Australia, HARA uses organic bamboo-based fabric that is locally dyed and sewn, although I wasn’t able to find information on where it sources the fabric from. Its website does state that it supports fair labor practices and supply-chain transparency. Because the garments are naturally dyed, they need to be hand-washed in cold water before the first wear, which isn’t ideal. Still, the styles are hot and creative.

9 Sustainable, Ethical Underwear Brands