My Desperate Search for Environmentally Friendly Underwear

The apparel and textile industry is one of the world’s biggest polluters. But can consumers shape a greener fashion industry with our shopping choices?

YES! Illustration by Jennifer Luxton.

I’m in the market for a new pair of underwear and somehow Facebook knows it. Just this morning, my newsfeed accosted me with a GIF of a man repeatedly pulling his jeans off to reveal a series of differently patterned but identically form-fitting briefs.

Despite the virtual bombardment of clothing items, my recent shopping attempts have ended in disappointment. You see, I’m not just looking for clothing that’s gentle on my nether regions; I want a pair that’s gentle on the environment.

The apparel and textile industry accounts for about 20 percent of the world’s industrial water pollution.

So when I stumbled across an ad for MeUndies, a new underwear line that boasts unmatched comfort woven from sustainably sourced modal fabric, my credit card practically jumped out of my wallet. But a look at the company’s website made my reporter’s eyebrow twitch. How do I know that their “facility is carbon neutral,” as they claim? What about the materials generated outside their facility? Is their “Italian” elastic shipped from Italy? Do they treat their wastewater?

Before I start sounding like an episode of Portlandia, I should clarify: These questions are critical to our planetary health. In 2010 alone, the apparel industry produced 150 billion articles of clothing, reported a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And in 2015, estimates suggest that enough square footage of fabric was produced to cover the entire state of California. Production of a typical undershirt requires about 700 gallons of water, according to a report published in the journal Current Biology. Overall, the apparel and textile industry accounts for about 20 percent of the world’s industrial water pollution and 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The rate of textile consumption is going up, not just globally but per capita.

Legend has it that we consumers have the power to shape a greener fashion industry with our shopping choices, but that hinges on us knowing how companies source, process, and distribute their materials. This information is incredibly difficult to find, not only for us, but for the companies themselves.

“Even the most diligent companies struggle to track their closest suppliers, let alone their more distant relationships,” said Lynda Grose, associate professor of fashion design at California College of the Arts. Retailers are selling products that have sometimes passed through five or six different hands before they get to the shelf. “Each step is a crack in the system that info and people can fall through,” she said.

While companies don’t always have that information, they do have control over how they advertise. Knowing full well the power of message, in 1992, Grose cofounded a clothing line with more transparent vision for multibillion-dollar manufacturer Esprit.

We consumers have the power to shape a greener fashion industry.

“I forbade the PR team from using terms like ‘environmentally friendly’ or ‘green’ because they’re clearly marketing terms and didn’t educate the consumer,” she said. Instead, they clearly spelled out their production objectives in layman’s terms. She named it the Ecollection.

Since then, other companies have also improved transparency. Grose admires the decades of work by the pioneering outdoor clothing company Patagonia, in particular. It not only has a rich history of environmental activism, but also a system for tracking production, which includes an interactive map of everything from the locations of its cotton farms to the industrial practices of its textile mills.

Meanwhile, MeUndies boasts products made from sustainably harvested beechwood spun into soft modal fabric that is “good for the earth.” While certainly better than nothing, the lack of detail is suspect. After repeated calls to the company, I got nothing but an answering machine and a polite yet deflecting salesman, who declined to provide any more information. My search continued.

Enter Patty Grossman, blogger and co-owner of a small but obsessively eco-friendly Seattle textile business called Two Sisters Ecotextiles. In 2004, Grossman’s sister, Leigh Anne Van Dusen, was looking to reupholster her couch. Her search for sustainably sourced fabric was stymied by what seemed an industry-wide disregard for the environmental impacts. But Van Dusen was an interior designer and Grossman had an MBA from MIT. So, they created Two Sisters.

Grossman and Van Dusen researched everything they could about the environmental and health impacts of making textiles, from the growing of cotton to the toxicity of dyes and solvents. They insisted that their production partners (mostly small- to medium-sized textile mills outside the U.S.) followed suit. Their standards were hard to meet and easy to ignore. More than once, they chose to sever ties with a partner that cut corners.

As it turned out, the sisters weren’t alone. People from all over the world were trying to standardize best practices at the same time, and Grossman found herself in global collaboration with other eco-conscious manufacturers that ultimately led to the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS).

To earn a GOTS certification, a product must meet a series of environmental and social criteria. Among them, it must contain a minimum of 70 percent organic fibers, its chemicals and dyes must meet environmental and toxicological criteria, and its wastewater must be treated. Most importantly, as far as Grossman is concerned, the product must be reviewed by an independent committee of GOTS specialists to limit conflicts of interest. She’s proud to say that almost every Two Sisters Ecotextiles product is GOTS-certified.

When I asked Grossman what she thought of MeUndies, she immediately looked for evidence of certifications on their website. We found none.

This doesn’t mean that the company is a complete hoax. An unknown portion of the fabric is spun from Lenzing Modal, which Grossman says is a gold standard for sustainability. Lenzing responsibly plants and harvests beech trees in the Austrian Alps, a net carbon neutral process. Then it pulverizes the wood and extrudes the pulp into fibers in a process Grose explained is “like forcing pasta dough through a pasta maker.” Lenzing meticulously treats its wastewater, the major source of pollution from this system.

However, as a consumer I had no idea what percentage of the underwear was made of Lenzing Modal. I could not find any information on the dyes, the nylon, polyester, lycra, the transportation, or the biodegradability.

The more I looked, the more I found products for which some materials were traceable while others were not. These products were probably more sustainable than your average six-pack of Fruit of the Loom. Yet, without an itemized list of all the materials in an article of clothing, it’s hard to know more than that. Is it even possible for large companies to make such a list?

I know that pretty much any product is a step backwards for the planet.

In 2009, Patagonia made unlikely bedfellows with Walmart in an attempt to standardize how they evaluated the sustainability of their products. Other companies joined the effort and they named themselves the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC). According to CEO Jason Kibbey, SAC now accounts for about 40 percent of the worldwide apparel revenue.

The SAC has spent the past several years making a new impact calculator called the Higg Index. SAC members nominally use the Higg to score the impacts of their products and the business practices of their partners.

“The end goal is for Higgs to function like the ingredients and nutrition label for different products,” Kibbey said. They hope to make the calculator public by 2018.

While the idea excites me greatly, not everyone is convinced that the SAC is living up to its promise. As reported in the Guardian earlier this year, the coalition has precious little to show the public for its first seven years of work. In Grossman’s words: “They’re moving excruciatingly slowly and calling it fabulous.”

So far, I haven’t found a product that I can fully trust. Praising my research, Grossman promised that demand for these products would eventually bring more transparency, but I’m unsure of what to do while I wait.

Besides, when it comes to environmental degradation, Grose reminded me, these certifications are only part of the puzzle. “Let’s say you improved the impacts by 30 percent, but your business is doubling. You’re actually losing ground,” she said. “You can’t keep pace with a business model dependent on exponential growth. The larger system also needs to change.”

So, though I intend to find a product I can trust, I know that pretty much any product is a step backward for the planet. This makes me question just how much it matters that my underwear is in tatters. If it bothers me that badly, wouldn’t a needle and thread do the trick?

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