Ethical shopping guide to underwear, from Ethical Consumer.

Ethical shopping guide to underwear, from Ethical Consumer.

This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

This guide includes:

  • Ethical and environmental ratings for 59 underwear brands
  • Best Buy recommendations

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Score Ratings

Our ratings are live updated scores from our primary research database. They are based on primary and secondary research across 23 categories - 17 negative categories and 6 positive ones (Company Ethos and Product Sustainability). Find out more about our ethical ratings


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The score table shows simple numerical ratings out of 20 for each product. The higher the score, the more ethical the company.

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The Full Scorecard shows the 'black marks' for each product, by each of the 17 negative categories. The bigger the mark, the worse the score. So for example a big black circle under 'Worker Rights' shows that the company making this product has been severely criticised for worker abuses.

Scores start at 14.  A small circle means that half a mark is deducted, a large circle means that a full mark is deducted.

Marks are added in the positive categories of Company Ethos and the five Product Sustainability columns (O,F,E,S,A).  A small circle  means that half a mark is added, a large circle means that a full mark is added.

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Best Buys

as of May 2014

As our ratings are constantly updated, it is possible that company ratings on the score table may have changed since this report was written.

We recommend certified organic or Fairtrade underwear from the following companies: Peau Ethique, Living Crafts, Do You Green, Greenfibres and Cock & Bull.

These brands all make men’s and women’s underwear.

Braintree is a Best Buy for socks too.

From the high street we recommend Zara or Marks & Spencer.

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Poor supply chain management


It was reported in 2013 that discount retailer Poundland was selling bras for a pound, highlighting how cheaply underwear is being sold. At the same time, popular underwear brands have been eclipsed by sales of cheaper underwear from high street clothes shops and supermarkets. As many conscious shoppers will have recognised, the lowering in price of underwear is in part due to manufacturing processes being outsourced to countries such as Bangladesh, China, and Turkey.

Image of shop mannequins in shopping guide to underwear


Despite increasing pressure from campaigners, non-governmental organisations and consumers for clothing companies to improve labour standards within their supply chains, the underwear sector has received very little attention and therefore policies addressing these concerns have been slow to develop. Many of the well-known underwear brands in this report, such as Victoria’s Secret, Wonderbra, Bravissimo, Triumph, Armani, Ultimo, Freya, and Pretty Polly receive Ethical Consumer’s worst rating under supply chain management. Several of the companies didn’t have any publicly available information mentioning workers’ rights in their supply chains which is a worrying trend.

Of the mainstream brands, Marks & Spencer, Primark, Topshop, Zara and Calvin Klein receive a best rating for their supply chain management.



Environmental reporting


Marks & Spencer’s was the only mainstream brand in this report to receive a best for its environmental reporting and toxics policy. All other brands received a middle or worst Ethical Consumer rating for environmental reporting.



Toxic chemicals


In 2012 Greenpeace found that underwear made by Victoria’s Secret contained high levels of phthalate – a chemical which has been found to disrupt hormones. In 2013, L Brands – the parent company – committed to eliminate all hazardous chemicals from its supply chain and products by 2020. Along with Marks & Spencer and Benetton it received a best Ethical Consumer rating for its toxic chemicals policy.



Alternative underwear


Finding organic bras or boxer shorts on the high street is difficult, if not impossible.
Several of the organic underwear companies in this report, Peau Ethique, Living Craft and Do You Green? are European based and sell online. Bamboo Clothing offers standard pants made from bamboo. Gilda & Pearl offer luxury women’s underwear which is made in the UK.

Pants to Poverty is a company which promises to “rid the world of bad pants” by selling Fairtrade and organic underwear that’s “truly ethical from grain to groin”.

Founded after Nelson Mandela came to the UK in 2005 to launch a global campaign urging the G8 to Make Poverty History, the underwear company works with farmers and factory workers across India to produce pants which provide sustainable solutions to poverty. Central to its business is the importance of “beauty from cotton to bottom”. This means long-term business relationships linking the farmers, factories, retailers and consumers as part of the same company.

In 2012 Pants to Poverty launched the Bonk of Pants crowdfunding campaign to raise funds for their work supporting various social projects in the garment factories they work with  – from no child labour to farmer-owned seed companies, real living wages to empowerment models.

Pants to Poverty sell in over 20 countries around the world, supporting over 5000 farmers in India. The company not only produces pants but also runs campaigns. Within its first week of launching ‘Pants to Bayer’, it succeeded in making the company commit to pulling the killer pesticide endosulfan off the market.



How we rated the companies



Cotton sourcing

All clothing companies using cotton (almost all do) have been asked for a cotton sourcing policy.
Pesticides: Companies receive negative marks under the Pollution & Toxics category if they use conventionally-grown cotton with no plan to reduce pesticide and herbicide use in the near future.
GM cotton: Due to its prevalence, companies which have not made a commitment that they will avoid Genetically Modified (GM) cotton receive a mark under the Genetic Engineering column. The exception is organically grown cotton which is GM-free.
Uzbek cotton: Companies receive a negative mark under the Human Rights category if they have not banned the use of cotton from Uzbekistan in their supply chains. Companies which scored a score of 50 or over in the Cotton Sourcing Snapshot (by Responsible Sourcing Network) receive a positive mark in the Company Ethos category for making solid efforts to keep Uzbek cotton out of their supply chain. Two companies in this product guide receive that mark – Marks & Spencer and Phillips-Van Heusen (PVH, owner of Calvin Klein).

See how the companies scored on Uzbek cotton.

Animal rights

Companies which sell products that involve the killing or harming of animals are marked down under Ethical Consumer’s rating system.

Blobs in the Animal Rights column appear for:
Silk: (see below)
Leather: a slaughterhouse by-product
Australian merino wool: which can involve the use of ‘mulesing’ where a chunk of skin is cut from the un-anaesthetised animal to prevent maggot infestations.

We have not marked down companies which use wool in this guide.


Product sustainability

In this report, companies which scored in the top band of the following two reports were awarded extra marks under our rating system, due to the critical importance of these issues in the clothing sector:

Greenpeace: The Detox catwalk

  • Companies leading the way score the best rating in our pollution and toxics column – Benetton, Fast Retailing, Inditex, L Brands, Marks & Spencer.
  • Companies doing something receive a middle rating in our pollution and toxics column – Primark and H&M.
  • Companies doing little or nothing receive our worst rating in our pollution and toxics column – all the other companies on the score table.


Companies to score middle they must be doing at least two. For companies to score worst there was no mention of hazardous chemicals or there was vague promises.

  • Company identifies a priority list of hazardous chemicals (HCs).
  • Company sets clear targets to remove discharge of all HCs (with dates).
  • Company requires that suppliers disclose data on release of HCs.
  • Company publicly discloses data on the HCs used and progress towards removing them.
  • Company discusses alternatives to current HCs used (ie. not reducing their use, but replacing them).
  • Companies that provide environmental alternatives and have a turnover of less than £8 million were not rated.


For companies to score best they must be doing four or more of the things listed below. For 

Clean Clothes Campaign: Tailored Wages



Supply chain management


For a ‘Best’ rating in this category we look for a combination of a good policy or ‘Code of Conduct’, alongside monitoring and working with factories to improve working conditions in cases where standards aren’t met. Companies which engage with a range of stakeholders on supply chain issues, including non-governmental organisations and trade unions, receive a better score. Also, transparency is rewarded under our ratings system, so companies publicising their list of suppliers and results from factory audits get a better score too.






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