As a rule of thumb for ethical clothes, the mantra of ‘buy second hand’ almost always applies, but not for underwear. We are, therefore, forced to head to the high street or online shops, or wait to be given them as the infamously unimaginative Christmas gifts. But should we be thinking more about the first things we put on in the morning?
In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 29 underwear brands
We also look at supply chain transparency, price comparison, shine a spotlight on the ethics of Victoria's Secret and our recommended buys.
About 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.
What to buy
What to look for when buying underwear:
Is it organic? There are many problems associated with cotton production, from the use of child labour to the widespread use of toxic pesticides. Look for 100% organic cotton.
Is it Fairtrade? Many high street retailers rely on overworked and underpaid garment workers to continue to churn out fast fashion. Buy Fairtrade clothing to ensure you are supporting the livelihood of the person who made your clothes.
What not to buy
What to avoid when buying underwear:
Is it polyester? Over 70 million barrels of petroleum are used to make polyester each year. It is the single most common fabric used in our clothes. It has been linked with marine pollution, contributing to the 85% of human-made material found along ocean shores.
Is it silk? Silk is harvested from caterpillars inside cocoons, which are prevented from turning into moths. The process leads to the death of the animal, so avoid silk to protect animal rights.
Can you fix it? Darning will make those socks like new!
Updated live from our research database
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This guide includes a cross section of different brands, from lingerie specialists such as Victoria’s Secret and Triumph, to high-street underwear staples like Primark and M&S, and finally, some ethically conscious alternatives from smaller brands such as PICO, Nudie and Greenfibres.
Its main focus is on boxers, knickers, briefs and all things pants, but many of these companies also offer other underwear products such as tights, socks and bras.
See also the guides to High-Street Clothes Shops, Ethical Clothing brands and Designer Brands for even more brands, which we have not had space to cover here. Those guides also include more in-depth information on the clothing industry in general.
Please note, some of these brands do not cater for both men and women:
Men & Women (14) – Bamboo, Calvin Klein, Debenhams, Finisterre, Greenfibres, H&M, Living Crafts, M&S, New Look, PACT, PICO, Primark, Thought and sloggi.
Women only (9) – Agent Provocateur, Ann Summers, Figleaves, Freya, La Senza, Triumph, Topshop, Victoria’s Secret, and Wonderbra.
Men only (5) – Cock & Bull, HOM, Nudie, Topman, and Zara.
Supply Chain Transparency
Here at Ethical Consumer, we have reported extensively on complex supply chains in the clothing sector which are all too often riddled with workers’ rights abuses and environmentally damaging practices.
There are many different processes which go into every pair of underwear that is produced. PICO’s infographic on underwear production shows that even their simplified and directly managed supply chain has nine different stages of manufacture.
It appears to us that the best way for companies to tackle these issues is by proactively managing and auditing their supply chains on the basis of internationally recognised standards, such as those set out by the ILO (International Labour Organisation) and the ETI (Ethical Trading Initiative). And, wherever possible, reducing complexity and forming long-term relationships with a set of trusted suppliers.
Unfortunately, on the whole, the underwear industry is lagging behind other clothing sectors. In recent years, there has been a sharp increase in the number of clothing brands proactively managing their supply chains, as reported in our latest alternative clothing guide.
However, underwear specialists have not followed this trend, a point proven by the fact that out of the 11 companies which specialise in underwear in this guide only two – 18% – achieved a Best rating for Supply Chain Management (PICO and PACT).
However, there is a brighter outlook when we look at all 25 of the companies in this guide. 14 of them – 56% – achieved a Best rating, including big retailers such as M&S, Primark, H&M, New Look and Debenhams.
Alternative Underwear Brands
Brands which are no more
In our last guide on underwear back in 2014, we highlighted the positive work being done by small alternative businesses in this sector. Regrettably, since then, two of our Best Buys/Recommended brands, Pants to Poverty and Who Made My Pants? have ceased trading.
Who Made My Pants? Founder, Becky John, blamed an inconsistent supply and production for this collapse. Whereas Pants to Poverty’s business flaws came to the forefront after a significant number of customers did not receive products they had already paid for – a situation which prompted the Guardian to run an article slamming the once highly regarded ethical alternative for its failures.3 But fear not, ethically conscious underwear hunters have a plethora of options in 2017.
PICO and PACT are two excellent examples of small ethical underwear companies. Neither of these businesses drop a single mark against our rating system and both pick up positive marks for their keen emphasis on fair trade and organic goods. The other table-toppers come from our recent guide to alternative ethical clothing companies.
Judge for yourselves
It is also worth mentioning that there are a number of other underwear companies which we haven’t had time to include in this guide but offer ethical consumers even more choice. If you’re up for it, take a look and judge for yourself. Keep an eye out for:
- Cotton Policies – Look for the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) logo and proactive policies against sourcing cotton from Uzbekistan.
- Supply Chains – Generally, the shorter and simpler the better, but transparency is also a key factor.
- Fairtrade certification – Ensuring internationally recognised standards and third-party auditing.
- Use of Oeko-Tex/GOTS-certified dyes – These mitigate the damaging impact of dyes on workers’ health and the environment.
Here’s a short list of interesting companies to get you started; Ciel Lingerie, Woron, Swedish Eco, Thunderpants UK, Luva Huva, Naja and Kerala Crafts.
Price Comparison of Underwear Brands
It seems amazing that Primark are currently able to offer four pairs of women’s pants for £2 – £2! That’s a measly 50 pence per piece. Consumers have become accustomed to paying less and less for underwear. As intensive competition between fast-fashion brands continues to drive down prices, there is an evident race to the bottom. This trend is encouraging unsustainable and abusive supply chains as companies race to find cheaper labour and materials.
This prompted us to take a look at pant prices across our whole guide. The tables below compare the prices of the cheapest pair of pants for both women and men. As you can see, the prices charged by this guides’ table-toppers are comparable to those charged by lingerie specialists and fashion brands like Calvin Klein, Wonderbra and Freya.
Moreover, the prices charged by PACT for their cheapest pants, which are Fairtrade and organic, are highly competitive, although it must be considered that the company operates and ships from the US.
What’s in your pants?
Cotton is the main material used in the underwear industry. As such, the companies in this guide were expected to have robust cotton-sourcing policies that worked to mitigate the negative impacts that cotton production can have on the environment and workers. Only seven companies: PICO, PACT, Greenfibres, Cock & Bull, Living Crafts, Thought and Nudie were deemed to have positive cotton policies. Read our feature about cotton production for more information.
The stretch in your underwear is provided by elastane, sometimes called Spandex. This entirely synthetic material is currently very energy-intensive to produce, but a handful of Japanese material manufacturers are developing new fibres which use less energy, oil and water in their manufacture.
The often garish colours of underwear are made possible by dyes. During the dyeing process, 80% of the dye is retained by the fabric and the rest is flushed out into water systems. Look out for Oeko-Tex-certification when apparel shopping. This label regulates the use of dyes, mitigating potential harm to workers and the environment. Only four companies in this guide scored best in our Pollution & Toxics category.
Many underwear garments contain silk. Conventionally, this material is harvested from caterpillars inside cocoons which are normally prevented from developing into moths and are eventually ‘heat-treated’, which results in the death of the caterpillar inside.
In our last clothing guide, we explored the complexity of using bamboo as a fabric. The processing of bamboo is often much less environmentally sound than you might think. Look out for bamboo manufactured using the least damaging process, the lyocell process, branded as Tencel or Monocel.
Over 70 million barrels of petroleum are used to make polyester each year. It is the single most common fabric used in our clothes. It has been linked with marine pollution, contributing to the 85% of human-made material found along ocean shores.
The rise of Amazon
The US online giant has been flirting with the fashion industry for over a decade now, but recently the company has significantly accelerated its activity in this sector. Amazon launched seven of its own fashion brands in the US last year and, in May 2017, the company introduced its first UK brand, Find.
According to retail consultancy firm One Click Retail, underwear sales have been a major driving force behind Amazon’s success in the apparel industry. The group reported that all five of Amazon’s top-selling apparel items in the US were underwear; and the fastest growing item in the UK was also underwear. Its own-brand underwear is undercutting many of its competitors as it attempts to draw in consumers.
Market research group Mintel reported that, in 2015, 13% of UK consumers had bought underwear through Amazon. Amazon’s rise has a few contributory factors: increasingly, consumers are buying their undies online, 44% of us according to Mintel. But also, Amazon’s ability to undercut its competitors and provide next day delivery, has blinded many to its unethical business practices.
Ethical Consumer Amazon Boycott
Many of you will be well aware of Ethical Consumer’s ongoing campaign against Amazon, owing to its systematic disregard for workers’ rights, and avoiding tax contributions. It is one of very few companies which scores 0/20 on our Ethiscore ratings.
Make your own
Why not have a go at making your very own underwear. There are a whole host of instructional videos and underwear patterns available online for you to sew your own pants or knit your own socks. Is it time to make knitted socks the new ‘must have’ Christmas present? Is giving home-made knickers and underpants as a present a step too far?
The art of mending socks seems to have gone out of the window but, in many cases, a pair of socks only needs a hole to be darned to extend its life. Again, search the internet for videos and guides to mending socks. Greenfibres has produced a video on how to do it and sells darning mushrooms.
We have also found another video for mending cotton socks with embroidery thread from the Sustainable Living Lab.
Company behind the brand
American lingerie giant Victoria’s Secret is one of the lowest ranked company in this product guide. Although the company’s parent, L Brands, highlights some of the key impacts of its business practices, the company’s policies failed to address underlining issues or set out clear methods of confronting these problems.
Moreover, a recent feature on Trump shone light on the $4 million that L Brands’ CEO, Les Wexner, had contributed to the Republican party during the 2016 election cycle. Lastly, Victoria’s Secrets has been widely criticised for airbrushing its models, a process where images of women’s bodies were heavily edited to remove ‘imperfections’.
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