By guest author George Arnett from Vogue Business
Brands are looking for ways to make hosiery and undergarments sustainable, but technical challenges stand in the way.
- Lingerie manufacturers are working to develop biodegradable fabrics as customer demand for sustainable products increases.
- Materials in undergarments are particularly scrutinised because of their proximity to the skin, but the complexities of production remain a challenge.
- As customers increasingly wear lingerie outside intimate settings, demand for sustainable pieces will continue to build.
For 140 years, Solstiss has manufactured lace on Leavers machines in northern France. When the company, which supplies brands including Givenchy, Alexander McQueen and Valentino, decided to create its first organic cotton range, it faced a significant technical challenge.
The looms, between 100 and 150 years old, process only extremely thin yarn like viscose, nylon and wool. The thicker organic cotton that was then available would withstand the loom but Solstiss clients, including French brand Fleur du Mal, demand a much more delicate fabric. It took two years of research and technical adaptation for the company to successfully produce the world’s first Leavers lace made out of organic cotton, which was completed in October.
The challenges encountered by Solstiss highlight the finickity nature of making premium-to-luxury undergarments eco-friendly. Thus far, the industry has largely centred on recycled fabrics, per Raphael Camp, CEO of body fashion network Eurovet Americas. But some manufacturers are pushing to integrate natural and biodegradable fibres into lingerie and undergarments as customers question the impact of synthetics.
Consumers are anxious about toxic chemicals in clothing. Victoria’s Secret, for example, faced allegations in 2009 that its bras contained formaldehyde after customers reported breaking out in rashes. A lawsuit was dropped after the label produced test results showing there was no trace of the chemical, but the furore shows the scrutiny that products in intimate contact with the body come under. Yet, in the fragmented lingerie market, no brand has emerged as a clear leader in sustainability.
Biodegradable products are a promising alternative since composting standards require no harmful chemicals to be released during the breakdown period. Wolford released its Aurora collection of compostable leggings and pullovers in September 2018, following four years of development. To create the collection, the Austrian hosiery manufacturer had to find a way to reduce the toxicity of black pigment production and rebuild 10 of its knitting machines to utilise renewable energy. The range uses modal, a fabric made from dissolved wood pulp, in addition to compostable polyester and elastane. Lyocell, modal’s sister fabric made through a similar process, is used in other products by Wolford. (The stretch of both materials make them good fits for bodywear.)
The Aurora collection earned Wolford the textiles industry’s first Cradle to Cradle certification, which recognises circular production standards. Wolford’s work has also created a roadmap for other brands in the sector. Premium male underwear firms CDLP and Hamilton & Hare have experimented with lyocell, while Marks & Spencer, Dolce & Gabbana and Howies have used modal in their underwear lines.
According to Edited, the number of products described as containing lyocell has increased by 36 per cent in the US over the last year. While potentially more expensive — Aurora leggings sell for GBP20 more than Wolford’s equivalent leggings made from viscose — the process has proven zero-waste garments are a possibility with the proper investment. The success of the material has led Lenzing, modal’s creator, to dedicate EUR 1 billion to Lyocell production facilities over the next few years.
While synthetic fabrics like elastane and polyester are easy to criticise, they also help give bras their shape and support. These undergarments need to be flexible enough to move with the rib cage, while strong enough to support the bust. Mark Sumner, a former fabric development technologist at Marks & Spencer who now lectures at the University of Leeds, describes them as one of the most highly engineered pieces of clothing.
“There’s a challenge there in terms of balancing sustainability requirements with the function of the garment,” Sumner says.
Compostable polyesters and elastanes have been developed but not deemed up to standard by most lingerie producers. In May 2018, Australian businesswoman Stephanie Devine launched a Kickstarter for funding the “world’s first zero-waste bra” that omitted these materials entirely. She had spent 18 months developing the bra using sustainable Lenzing products and tree-rubber elastic before launching the Kickstarter, which raised more than AUD 69,000 (about £36,500).
When placed in an industrial composting facility, the “Very Good Bra” would last about three months before it fully decomposed, Devine says. Wolford’s Aurora range decomposes in 60 days in similar conditions.
But while zero-waste products are an attractive prospect for sustainable consumers, durability can be a concern. “People ask me ‘If I lie down in the garden, will it start to disappear?’,” says Devine, stressing that the materials only degrade that quickly under composting conditions. (Wolford specifies decomposition only begins when products are treated with a natural enzyme in a facility maintained at a temperature of 60 degrees Celsius.)
Sumner remains unconvinced that a wire-, polyester- and elastane-free bra can offer the same level of support that customers expect. Despite gaining buzz from the Kickstarter and a primetime TV spot in Australia, the Very Good Bra is still a small DTC brand.
Durable or disposable?
Whether biodegradability is something bra manufacturers should aim to produce en masse is debatable. Bras, as they are currently made, are durable products that can be reused and recycled, according to Sumner.
An alternative to biodegradability is circularity. In practical terms, this means elements of a garment that do not decompose easily can be reintegrated into the production cycle. Rather than develop biodegradable products, more work could be done to encourage take-back schemes, such as offering discounts to those who donate old lingerie products, something Marks & Spencer does in the UK. Some brands are also integrating recycled fabrics into lingerie and underwear: Asos makes a range made out of polyamide, Reformation uses recycled elastane and polyamide across its lingerie line.
Still, some manufacturers are seeking out ways to make disposable products that resonate with customer demand for natural materials. Brazilian company Rosset manufactures biodegradable yarn and Hong Kong firm Hang Sang now sells elastic that will erode under the right conditions. French knit specialist D2P Billon showcased a delicate creation made out of polyamide produced from castor oil at the October Interfiliere bodywear conference in New York.
For Eurovet’s Camp, biodegradable lingerie is likely to grow in importance as shoppers shift away from bedroom-only pieces to intimate apparel that is versatile enough to belong in a number of settings.
“This is well-aligned with the adoption of more sustainable lifestyle habits, overall, and lingerie, swimwear and activewear brands are responding,” he says. “As an extension of this, we expect the interest and experimentation with natural and plant-based fibres… to continue to expand,” he says.