The environmental cost of fashion is well documented. Despite a growing movement towards sustainable and slow fashion, some bleak facts remain: Australians buy an average of 27 kilograms of new clothing a year – a large percentage of which is made from synthetic fibres that take decades to break down once disposed.
Fashion’s supply chain is equally dirty. Pesticides and insecticides from some conventional cotton farms pollute nearby rivers, while garment factories release toxic dyes into waterways.
It’s good to know then, that a number of small underwear brands are trying to change old habits. They’re using materials including Lenzing Modal, bamboo and organic cotton, which are gentle on both your skin and the Earth.
Lenzing Modal has a luxurious feel and is part of a sustainable, closed loop process. The fabric is made from the pulp of Beechwood trees, grown in sustainable plantations. Most chemicals used to break down the material are then retained and re-used in the factory.
Bamboo fabric is similarly soft. The plant regenerates quickly without needing much water, fertiliser, herbicides or pesticides. Organic cotton is also grown without chemicals, which then makes the soil more productive in the long run.
The Brisbane-based label uses Lenzing Modal, bamboo and organic cotton to make staple bras and undies in black, white and grey in various cuts.
Environmental sustainability wasn’t NICO’s goal when Lis Harvey began the brand in 2012. But she became increasingly uncomfortable with the “shady practices” she saw in the supply chain. “It was mind blowing that it was the default to send work somewhere you didn’t know much about.”
Harvey admits that tackling the supply chain is a big task. “The real change to the industry is driven by consumers,” she says. “If they vote with their dollars then a brand will demand more sustainable practices and manufacturing will deliver.”
Ken the Label
This Melbourne based label makes sporty, sexy intimates with a ‘90s edge. Their signature high-cut briefs and bralettes are super soft, made from Lenzing Modal, with fibres knitted and dyed in Melbourne.
“I wanted to contribute to fashion in a positive way that’s both ethical and sustainable,” says designer Lauren Di Palma. “I started talking to manufacturers, researching fabrics and saw the types of waste that went into producing things. I wanted to change that, even if it would be harder to do.”
Di Palma dyes Ken fabrics at a Melbourne factory that recycles 80 per cent of its wastewater, and she urges her manufacturers to minimise fabric waste in the cutting process.
The Danish-French brand launched in 2012 and has developed a cult following for its intimates and loungewear, which look and feel good enough to wear as outerwear. Baserange designers Marie-Louise Mogensen and Blandine de Verdelhan favour natural fibres that are breathable and moisture wicking. These include organic cottons, bamboo and modal.
The brand’s Australian representative Karina Utomo describes it as “very Danish” and “problem solving”. “They’re not super trend-driven,” she says. “The girls want to be comfortable, so some pieces are seamless, and all the underwear is cut practically to fit under modern silhouettes.”
Kelly Elkin and Betony Dircks met in university, and together they built their final project with sustainable materials. Since then they’ve worked on Alas, a sleepwear and underwear label that follows the same thought processes.
“It was just common sense,” Dircks says. “It’s a designer’s responsibility to provide an alternative fabric to everything else out there.” Alas undies are made from certified organic cotton. “It’s breathable and comfortable. Cotton farmers do a better crop rotation to encourage soil to regenerate,” Dircks explains.
Alas makes undies and basic crop-tops with original prints that will make you smile. It’s currently working on new shapes to expand its underwear range.
Since 2008, Gabrielle Adamidis has been hand-sewing delicate intimates on a made-to-order basis for her brand Hopeless lingerie. Her vision has always been one of dark romance, with fetish-wear inspired shapes and hardware.
Back when she started, it was difficult to find sustainable and ethical fabric manufacturers in Australia. “Now, we’ve just started offering organic cotton for our basics collection,” she says. “But back then, bamboo was the only sustainable material I could find.”
Finding sustainable lace remains the biggest challenge. “Machines are complicated and expensive, so small brands such as myself don’t have the purchasing power to order it,” Adamidis says. “You would have to purchase thousands and thousands of metres to get a company willing to make sustainable lace.”
For now her efforts are concentrated on small-scale production. “Being made-to-order with custom sizing, we don’t have excess stock or fabric,” she says. “We really hope people treasure what we make for them.”