Parade, the underwear startup that 22-year-old Cami Téllez cofounded in 2019, also uses various recycled yarns to produce virgin nylon for its underwear; its packaging is compostable and biodegrades in less than a year in a composting environment. “Of course it costs us more [to produce], but it was a no-brainer when thinking about the ethical implications of making packaging that stays around on earth forever,” Téllez says, addressing the problem that many small brands — without the scale or resources that larger companies have — encounter when deciding whether to shell out for more responsible processes in favor of cheaper but wasteful business practices.

Another lingerie company, Between the Sheets, is a certified B-corporation in the U.S., meaning it is a brand that aims to do its part to solve social and environmental problems through commitments like “One Percent for the Planet,” where the company donates at least 1 percent of its yearly revenue to support environmental causes. U.K.-based Playful Promises has not yet developed an in-house recycling program, although it does devote a page on its website to outlining how consumers can recycle and repurpose their old underthings.

“Another way of being sustainable that’s often ignored is using deadstock fabrics,” says Cora Harrington, an intimate apparel expert and author. “While these aren’t always recyclable in the sense we usually think of, it is a way of ensuring entire bolts of clothing aren’t sent directly into the dumpster. Smaller brands like ClareBare and Kiss Me Deadly have both used deadstock fabrics to create garments.”

When purchasing intimate apparel, consumers should do as much research as possible about the materials a company says it uses in its products, considering that undergarments sit directly on the skin.

For example, Thinx, a brand known for its absorbent menstrual underwear, claims its materials are sustainable (in particular, its organic cotton line) and its manufacturing processes ethical. As recently as January, however, a report surfaced that a University of Notre Dame scientist discovered toxic materials in Thinx underwear after being asked to test a few pairs by a reporter for Sierra, a magazine run by the Sierra Club. The chemicals, PFAS, are used by a variety of industries and have been linked to certain cancers and infertility. Thinx declined to comment to Teen Vogue, but the company vehemently denied the scientist’s findings to Fast Company, saying they go through multiple rounds of testing to ensure safety standards and, “Based on these third-party tests, PFAS chemicals were not detected in Thinx products.” (In 2012, a Greenpeace report found that Victoria’s Secret, among other companies, used toxic materials that harm the environment in its products, the result of what the organization says was “little or no policy or program for chemicals management.” In the years since, Victoria’s Secret has vowed to discontinue its use of those materials.)

For as much noise as eco-friendly intimates brands like Parade and others make as “disruptors” in the lingerie space, they still represent a fraction of the market share that giants like Victoria’s Secret hold. For its part, Hanes, the $5 billion company behind its eponymous brand as well as Maidenform and Playtex, is a founding member of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, an industry alliance with over 250 member organizations across 35 countries committed to sustainable production, and says on its website it plans to “expand its use of sustainable materials in its products, including cotton yarns made from spinning technologies that require less energy to manufacture, recycled cotton fibers derived from cut fabric waste, and recycled polyester filament yarns and fibers, both from plastic bottles.”

“I do believe sustainability will become a more popular topic in the future, but it would require consumers to think differently of brands that rely on unsustainability, like Fashion Nova,” Harrington says. “So long as consumers would rather have a lot of cheap clothes with questionable manufacturing practices rather than fewer, more expensive clothes with a more ethical supply chain, we won’t see sustainability take off. True sustainability will require a massive, large-scale shift in consumer priorities.”

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