Undie Investigation

Small Clothesmakers take Underwear in Green Directions
Mention the word “organic,” and most people think of food. But organic clothing is also a rapidly growing industry. A small, creative group of eco-minded entrepreneurs are seeking to tap into this burgeoning market by making more environmentally friendly underwear.

It’s a classic story of designers responding to the growing green awareness of American consumers. Big companies like Patagonia and American Apparel sell their own eco-friendly briefs, but E asked me to try out—or rather, try on—the wares of three small clothing start-ups. In the spirit on full exposure, err, disclosure, here are the results.

First, though, why organic underwear? Fortunately, there is no evidence of pesticide residues seeping into anyone’s private parts. Conventional undies won’t make you sick, but they can hurt the environment as well agricultural workers. Most underwear, after all, is made of cotton, which is heavy on pesticides, water intensive and grown in regions known for poor, even inhumane working conditions.

These worthy brands cut the pesticides while taking steps to protect workers and minimize their resource footprint—all without compromising comfort.

© PACT

PACT is the best-established of these three brands and hence has the most products to offer. It espouses social as well as environmental causes, with lines “inspired” by charities—a Portland, Oregon, center for homeless families, for example. PACT gives a portion of the proceeds to the charities it partners with.

I found PACT the best designed of the three brands, with a hip aesthetic reminiscent of Banana Republic. In fact, some of their products are arguably overdesigned; my wife call the quilt-pattern briefs “not very manly,” which wasn’t the response I was looking for. Still, PACT offers a satisfying combination of style and comfort. I expect to wear my cozy PACT blue T-shirt for years to come. But every single item, from undies to shirts, came in its own disposable plastic bag. Perhaps PACT has yet to hear of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

Price for basic undies: $20 for women; $22 for men. Made in Turkey.


© bgreen

bgreen is a relatively old hand at organic clothing. The L.A.-based company is run by an Iranian-American family that has been in the textile business for generations. It came to the U.S in the 1980s and started using organic cotton in 1997.

“At the time, it seemed a crazy decision,” says Mike Farid, bgreen’s vice president. “But if the goal is to make the same or better product while saving the earth, why not do it?”

The company’s underwear are simply designed in mostly solid colors, à la American Apparel. It made the men’s underwear I liked best, a no-frills boxer in soft gray fabric luxuriously thick but still breathable. The women’s were equally straightforward, empha-sizing comfort more than chic.

Price for basic undies: $11 for women; $17 for men. Made in the U.S.


© Uranus

“Uranus” is more than just the favorite planetary pun of middle-school boys. It’s a tiny but smart company with a mission to “promote sustainability with a sense of humor.”

Uranus was founded by two cousins, Natalie San Andres and Lauren Golik. They run the company in their free time; Natalie is currently in grad school, and Lauren works as a graphic artist. “We’re hoping it can become a full-time gig at some point in the future,” Golik says.

Unlike most underwear, which is 100% cotton, Uranus makes its undies from soy-based fabric. “Soy fabric uses materials that would otherwise be considered waste,” says Golik. She also says it’s softer and warmer than traditional cotton undies. By reusing a waste product and avoiding cotton, Uranus may just help push the whole industry in a more sustainable direction

Uranus has a very small product line consisting mainly of panties, although it will soon unveil more, including a line of men’s briefs. I tried them and they didn’t feel any different than regular cotton briefs. But my wife loved the “soyshorts,” a cross between boxers and panties, and plans to order more. Uranus ships its products in cool little biodegradable burlap sacks that can be reused around the house.

Price for basic undies: $29 for a set of three panties or two men’s briefs. Made in the U.S.

CHRISTOPHER WEBER is an environmental journalist living in Chicago. He writes The Built Environment blog for E.