Monika Zilionyte, Environmental Impact Assessment and Management student, reports on sustainable and ethical underwear.
5 min read.
‘From 5,000 tones of textiles diverted from landfill in the UK each year by Bristol Textile Recyclers, 0.5% are bras – that’s 320,000 bras per year’ (WRAP, 2016)
The Brassiere evolution
The exact date of the invention of the bra is hard to pin down. Bras or their equivalent have been utilised throughout history for practicality and function as well as fashion. Materials, shapes and styles have been continuously evolving. The modern bra franchise, however, have found ways to intertwine and conjoin a plethora of textiles with a variety of functions to promote a variety of benefits. Cleavage booster. Ultimate T-shirt Bra. The No-Move Strapless Bra. The Multi-Way Bra. Endless opportunities for the bra business.
Here’s the catch. As fantastic as it is to have so many different choices that match desired needs and purposes, the use of all these materials in one piece of lingerie makes it hard for them to be separated again for recycling. One single bra can be made from cotton, polyester, satin, silk, mesh, lace… the list goes on. And let’s not forget the metal wiring, hooks and plastic strap adjusters. That’s a lot of resources.
Fast fashion – Bra movement
Alongside resources, an additional issue needs to be considered: fast fashion. As technology has increase and our ability to produce cheaper materials and textile blends improves, we have opened a new door of opportunity. Producing cheap options and variations. We now have bra seasonality – peachy pinks for the spring and mustard yellows for the autumn.
Variation is good right? Being size and style inclusive to make sure every person who purchases a bra gets what they were looking for, in quality and comfort, right? Don’t we wish this was the case. The bra industry, much like the rest of the fast fashion industry, has exploited natural resources and workers to create quick turnover sales. This means discarding worker safety and rights, purchasing the cheapest quality material that often has the worst impact on the natural environment. And with every new design displayed in the glossy shop window, brings new customers that perpetuate that cycle.
‘8 out of 10 women aren’t wearing the right size bra’ (The Bra Recyclers, 2021)
Quality, standard and consistency
We all have that dreaded experience of going bra shopping and having to be measured to decipher torso and cup size. A tailored experience you’d think, but that’s hardly ever the case. Because you need to do it all over again in every single shop. Sizing inconsistencies plague our bra shopping habits, the majority of the time we grab what size we were once measured to be, or even better, whatever looks like it would fit when we hold up against our breasts.
The bra industry, by design has immense creative freedom. That also appears to be the case in their sizing guides as well as quality and standard of materials. There is so much variation in between brands let alone bras which can create so much unintentional waste from purchasing the wrong size.
How many bras have you got in the back of that drawer that pinch uncomfortably or your breasts topple out of? How many bras have you forgotten to return or exchange? And the real question – how many do you actively wear? Let me guess: two.
‘The average woman owns 6 bras but only wears 2’ (The Bra Recyclers, 2021).
Bras: Recycling, donation and sustainable disposal (image created by Monika Zilionyte)
But this is where, as consumers, we can practise our purchasing power and invest in companies with the right idea! Companies that are purchasing materials from sustainable sources that don’t deplete precious resources, that empower their workers and pay them a fair wage and care for their safety. Companies that have limited or rotating stocks and designs that minimise waste and make enough for the demand. Even better, hand-made companies.
Here are a few sustainable and ethical underwear companies you can check out:
- AmaElla – Organic cotton, affordable underwear
- Ayten Gasson – Luxury, hand-made silk lingerie and nightwear
- Green Fibres – Organic, affordable clothing
- Buttress & Snatch – Bespoke, vintage lingerie
There are so many options that can match your price range, size and style. All you need to do is to have a little look.
An old bra, a new life
Not to worry, there are some things that we can do about our bra ‘waste’. First things first- address your buying habits! Buy what you need and ensure you buy quality to obtain longevity of your product. Avoid buying excessively and consider where you’re buying from and what this means for the people who made it, the environment it was made in and the environment it will end up in.
Before treating yourself to a new bra, re-acquaint yourself with your existing bras. Try them on again and decide whether they serve your purpose. If not, consider the following options to ensure they don’t end up in landfill.
Are your bras in good shape and do they have some more life left in them? Donate them! Bras are considered expensive luxuries in some parts of the world and can help people gain status and safety by just wearing them. Never forget the privilege of being able to no longer have a use/need for something. Consider donating to charities like ‘Smalls for All’ that provide underwear and bras for communities that have had to go without. Similarly, you can donate to charities such as ‘Against Breast Cancer’ who recycle your bras to fund their research for the cure of breast cancer.
There are a variety of high street shops that either collect for charity or recycle your bras for you. M&S collect bras in store and Bravissimo use their bra recycling income to donate to the charity ‘Mind’. Once you have rediscovered the bras you want to give another life to, take a minute to access the knowledge at your fingertips and Google the nearest bra recycling collection point near you!
Against Breast Cancer (no date) Bra Recycling. Available at: https://www.againstbreastcancer.org.uk/recycling/bra-recycling/ (Accessed: 13th May 2021)
Bravissimo (no date) Bra Recycling. Available at: https://www.bravissimo.com/bra-recycling/ (Accessed: 13thMay 2021).
Marks and Spencer (2019) Love your Boobs and recycle your Bra. Available at: https://corporate.marksandspencer.com/media/press-releases/5c2f8d617880b21084450f5e/love-your-boobs-and-recycle-your-bra (Accessed: 13th May 2021).
Smalls for All (2021) Donate Underwear. Available at: https://www.smallsforall.org/get-involved/donate/(Accessed: 13th May 2021).
The Bra Recyclers (2021) Why Recycle? Available at: https://www.brarecycling.com/textile-recycling-facts (Accessed: 13th May 2021).
The Exploress (no date) Shaping the Ladies: A Brief History of the Bra. Available at: https://www.theexploresspodcast.com/episodes/the-evolution-of-the-bra (Accessed: 13th May 2021).
WRAP (2016) Love your clothes: don’t throw your bra in the bin. Available at: https://www.loveyourclothes.org.uk/blogs/don-t-throw-your-bra-bin (Accessed: 13th May 2021).
This blog post was originally posted on Monika Zilionyte’s AgeofEco blog, where you can find more of her eco insights and research!