Written by Adam
We’ve taken a look at GreenKnickers before in out reviews and shop section so we thought as it’s nearing Valentine’s Day and you might be thinking of buying underwear for a loved one, we’d have a chat to Sarah Lucy Smith. She set up GreenKnickers with friend Rose Cleary-Southwood.
Tell us about how you came to start GreenKnickers – you are an underwear designer by trade right?
Before Rose and I started GreenKnickers I studied Eco Design and also worked for a textile designer. I began making underwear from the pieces of scrap fabric that would end up on the cutting room floor. I fell in love with making undies at this point. Having studied eco deign and wanting to use my ethical position to inform my design I began to understand more detail around the issues surrounding exploitation, organic cotton and other ecological fabrics. Once you know even a little bit about these things there is no turning back – it can make you feel quite radical. The next step for me was to share what I knew and try to use my designs to inspire so I created a little website with all my quirky knicker designs called GreenKnickers. The website got a huge response and so I went about radicalising my best friend Rose who was disillusioned working in buying and merchandising. The rest is history.
Why did you become an underwear designer in the first place?
I tried all kinds of design before settling on Underwear (which has come in handy running a business) including textiles as well as web design and illustration. When I began experimenting with underwear I began asking people about their relationships with underwear and it was fascinating. I came across secret identities expressed by underwear. There seemed to be surprising and subversive things going on making it, for me, the ideal way to get involved in a new kind of self expression and activism.
What made you specialise in ethical and organic underwear?
The ethics came before the underwear, my mother is a gardener by trade and is in love with nature. She taught me about the wonders of nature surrounding us even in Brixton, South London, where I grew up. Rose and I both had mothers who taught us about having a holistic approach to living and when fair trade organic fashion came along it just made sense to us.
What’s important to you in the underwear you choose and design?
It has to be perfect. It has to fit perfectly, it has to make you smile every time you pick it out of the drawer and it has to have done some good in the world before it gets to the end user and then carry on doing good.
Does the fact your products are environmentally friendly impact the design and ergonomics of your products?
Eco design makes SO much sense when it is done right. There is so much beauty and relief if designing something ethical and we try to reflect this in both the humour and aesthetics of the designs. We spend a lot of time making our garments fit really well measuring real people and making a pattern for each size individually. Apart from this though the organic fabrics we use are just more comfortable. Conventional cotton is typically only 73% cotton (the rest being chemicals and resins) and most underwear today is made from entirely synthetic fabrics. There is a huge number of people who can’t wear synthetics, half of them manage to seek out natural alternatives and the other half suffer in silence in itchy synthetic fabrics.
How has your business changed over time? And what about consumers?
As we have grown we have been able to get involved in different kinds of production. To begin with we worked on our low carbon knickers with a local producer in London. We still work with him on half the collection but now we also work with a Womens co-op in India. The co-op do amazing work with disabled and disadvantaged women in Tamil Nadu and have also funded health and education projects. We became the first underwear brand to receive the Fair Trade Mark in the summer for our work with the co-op.
Consumers have begun to change, and to ask more questions. We rely on customers being informed or at least interested enough to read the information on our website about what we do. The customers we have are amazing, they are so intelligent and dynamic – real innovators. For us being customers to other ethical businesses is as important as running our own. It is consumers who will make change happen, ethical products like ours just facilitate them.
What’s your best selling item?
In the summer it was our padded cycling knickers with removable padding (men and women) but our all year round best seller is our Global Warming knickers and boxer shorts. These are printed with heat reactive
globes and as the pants warm up the land is overcome by the sea to show the effects of global warming.
As you say you do stuff for men too – are men more conscious about their underwear these days?
I don’t know, the men who buy from us seem to be those who take an interest in ethical and environmental issues in the rest of their lives. In our experience men like to find a pair of undies which suit them and then buy one for each day of the week.
What would you recommend if you were buying something for your partner?
For Valentine’s Day we are giving all customers Divine Fair Trade Chocolate with their Knickers and Boxer Shorts in their usual recycled Fair Trade gift box. I think if you are buying for a lady it is nice to get her something frivolous that she wouldn’t get herself like our silky hemp knickers. Likewise buying for a man who would never buy himself colourful undies I would give him turquoise Global Warming or green Eat Organic Boxers. If he is too scared though maybe go for a black Green Man pair.