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Making a material difference

Posted by Nicole Neaber on

Various studies have reported that women in the US, UK and elsewhere in the developed world now commonly own 30 to 40 pairs of panties, and - despite the fact that they only wear two or three of them in heavy rotation - an average approaching ten bras.

Multiplying up by the number of women (and growing number of men) shopping for lingerie and the frequency with which we tend to update our smalls draws, it is probably unsurprising to discover that the global lingerie retail market is now worth an ever increasing US$40bn per annum.

Wow - that's a lot of moolah!

Yes, it is. And wait until you try to wrap your head around exactly how much material the global textiles industry needs to churn out to support the manufacture of the hundreds of millions of pairs of bloomers, the bras and babydolls, the bikinis, basques and bodysuits we are buying. Take a deep breath, because the answer is pretty frightening.

Considering how much fabric the global apparel industry produces each year and the proportion of apparel retail sales by weight that lingerie represents, we can surmise that in excess of 5 billion square metres of fabric is being manufactured to keep our most intimate bodyparts warm and well-presented.

That's enough fabric to recarpet New York, London, Paris and Tokyo, with more than a little to spare, every single year. Gulp!

 

Rolls of fabric

 

So we know how much fabric we are using. (A lot!) But what is actually involved in creating each of the hundreds of millions of rolls of material used to construct our lingerie?

We hear that second only to the oil industry, apparel is the second largest industrial polluter in the world, but how much of a mess can manufacturing fabric really make?

Manufacturing cotton jersey

Let's take cotton as an example.

Pick any pair of cotton panties out of your top drawer and, if we start from scratch, the chances are that the plants that they ultimately derived from had a pretty intensive upbringing.

These plants:

  • Were treated with toxic herbicides, liable to impact human and animal health, increase weed resistance and pollute waterways
  • Were treated very heavily with pesticides (as cotton is one of the most pest-bothered monoculture crops in industrial agriculture), which not only exacerbate those same problems caused by herbicides, but also threaten pests' natural predators, reducing biodiversity and threatening ecological balance
  • Were fed with inorganic industrial fertilisers, which own a huge carbon footprint courtesy of the high energy use associated with their production and the dangerous greenhouse gas (nitrous oxide) steadily released after their application
  • And required huge amounts of water in irrigation, which as well as leaving its own carbon footprint, leads to a reduction in soil fertility (which in turn reduces the carbon sequestration capacity of the soil) and commonly leads to freshwater shortages in the developed and developing world alike.

 

Cotton field irrigation

 

And that's just the start.

Having been picked by a gas-guzzling automated monster harvester, your cotton is likely to have travelled thousands of miles - quite likely crossing oceans - from its farmstead birthplace to the factory in which giant industrial pulling, combing, twisting and spinning machines, powered by carbon-heavy electricity (over 80% of such machines are installed in Asia and Oceania), will, step-by-step, have turned the bales of raw material into yarn.

Next, there's a good chance that your cotton, now stored on a giant bobbin, took another overland journey to a second carbon intensive mega-factory where it was knitted into fabric by a machine looking like something out of the engine room of the original Starship Enterprise. (Okay, that bit is at least pretty cool, in a way.)

 

Industrial cotton knitting machine

 

Are you getting tired yet? We're only half way, and I sure am.

So the rest we'll cut short to get to the point a little more quickly: Your cotton, having been knitted, will then have been transported again, run over gas-fired jets to remove lint and other surface impurities, bleached with hydrogen peroxide, treated with various other toxic chemicals to remove oils and wax, immersed in caustic soda to give the fabric a nice sheen, and dyed with reactive synthetic compounds, before being transported yet again to the place where fabric eventually became garment.

Phew...

So what have we learned?

So far, two things:

1. The textiles industry needs to produce a mindblowingly huge amount of fabric each year to satisfy the shopping habits of the globe's lingerie enthusiasts and its more reluctant undercracker shoppers.

2. The environmental costs associated with the production of all of this fabric are scary. From start to finish, the processes involved require huge amounts of (primarily very dirty) energy, water, and exceedingly dangerous and damaging chemicals.

Given this huge amount of fabric, and the net ecological pain associated with harvesting the raw materials used to create it, yarn production, knitting, cleaning, finishing, dyeing and transporting countless times, it should hardly need stating that we have an obligation to consider carefully the true value of the undergarments we are purchasing and the processes that shape them from seed or synthesis to storefront.

So what can I do about all this?

You probably won't find too many lingerie designers telling you this, but firstly, you can buy less lingerie, and less clothing in general.

Next time you are umming and ahhing about whether to buy a fourth or fifth scarlet lace balconette bra to add to your as yet unworn collection of beautiful but lonely scarlet lace balconette bras, think twice about whether it will actually get any weartime.

 

Stack of bras

 

Secondly, do a bit of research on your materials.

The example above might not have have filled you with excitement about continuing to shop for cotton underwear, but your bog-standard cotton jersey isn't actually the worst of all evils as far as the environment is concerned. There are more damaging fabrics out there, including PVC, leather, rayon and virgin polyester.

The good news is that there are affordable and high-quality alternatives available, such as organic cotton and organic bamboo jersey, which we are particularly excited about using at ColieCo.

Finally, buy to last.

Buy high-quality, well-constructed lingerie that you won't need or want to replace the following month. 

Think about the reputations of the brands you are considering purchasing from, and those of their products. Go for the Rolls Royce option, rather than the budget sportscar that'll end up consigned to the scrapheap when its bodywork falls apart after a few hundred kilometres.

And what is ColieCo doing about it?

Consideration for the wellbeing of the planet is at the heart of everything we do at ColieCo Lingerie, and we are particularly careful to source materials with low carbon footprints and which in other respects have a very limited impact on the environment.

We use organically grown bamboo jersey in place of cotton, reclaim line end fabrics consigned to waste by fast fashion, use digitally printed fabrics (minimising water waste and the use of toxic chemicals, and reducing energy use), and use RPET fabric made from recycled plastic.

Our production processes are also optimised to minimise fabric waste. In cutting, fast fashion commonly loses 20%+ of the material from each roll. We have reduced our fabric waste to less than 5%.

And to help our customers understand more about the materials the items they are shopping for are made from, we've also introduced our own Ethical Product Attribute badges.

 

ColieCo's ethical product attribute badges

 

Six of these badges relate directly to the materials each garment displaying the badge is made from:

  • This product is made from locally sourced materials
  • This product is made primarily from organic fabric
  • This product is made primarily from recycled fabric
  • This product is made primarily from fabric with a low carbon footprint
  • This product is made primarily from digitally printed fabric
  • This product is made using processes designed to minimise fabric waste

I'll be writing more about each of the badges and exactly what they mean to us at ColieCo in a series of future blog posts.

In the meantime, if you'd like to join the ethical fashion conversation, connect with us on social media and let us know your thoughts.

See you there, and thanks for reading!

Nicole x