From Ann Summers to Victoria’s Secret, we’re spilling over in big-name brands. But look behind the push-up bras and lace-edged slips: underwear – a £3 billion market in the UK – is not so upfront about the sustainability of its fabrics or the ethics of its labour practices. Enter Green Knickers.
Sarah Lucy Smith, a recent graduate of Goldsmiths university’s Eco Design course, originated the label as a final course project (with website) in 2005. She uses environmentally-friendly fabrics – organic cotton, silk and hemp – to create sexy, comfortable knickers that make you think. For example, there is a range of ‘understatement’ knickers with ‘Stop Deforestation’ and ‘Cycle More’ embroidered on them, and ‘Love the World’ hearts on globes.
It was only when hundreds of emails began flowing in to ask when the knickers would be on sale, Sarah recalls, that it seemed ‘worth the while’ to put her designs into production. She recruited an old friend from secondary school, Rose Cleary-Southwood, whose background is in fashion merchandising. Together, they started Green Knickers.
‘Green Knickers proves that eco design doesn’t have to be about things you don’t do; it can be a giggle, if that’s all you want,’ Sarah says. ‘The hardest part was ensuring an ethical supply chain, which I hadn’t thought about when first designing. Now, every step of the production chain is considered.’
Four of her styles are made from organic cotton grown in India and made up there by small, fair trade women’s cooperatives. ‘Eighty to 90 per cent of the wholesale value goes to the suppliers,’ Sarah says. Six other styles – four hemp/silk blends from China and two of organic cotton from Turkey – are made in the UK by a Bristol women’s charity. Manufacturing in the UK is a nod to preserving traditional skills in the UK’s manufacturing industry and reducing knicker miles. But it is reflected in their retail price: £25 versus the £12 styles manufactured in India.
In September 2006, with their supply chain in place, Sarah and Rose began selling from their website. ‘Some customers say they are the comfiest knickers they’ve ever worn,’ Rose says. As of this month (April 2007), they will be in boutiques across the country.
Green Knickers’ size range goes from 8 to 18. Many lingerie lines only go up to size 14 – a bit silly, given that the average woman in the UK is a size 16. ‘So many of us feel unsexy in underwear designed for someone with a size 8 figure,’ says Sarah.
With a range of bras now in the works, Green Knickers is quickly pioneering a sustainable path out of the nether world of underwear.
This article first appeared in the Ecologist April 2007
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