If you buy bikini briefs or boxers from the startup the Big Favorite, when the underwear eventually wears out, the company wants you to send it back. The brand is aiming for true circularity: After your undies are cleaned and sanitized, the cotton will be recycled into yarn that can be used in new products.
“We’re looking to change the way people see their worn-out undergarments and teach them that instead of [being] trash, it can actually be a future resource,” says founder Eleanor Turner. (The brand itself is also recycled—Turner is reusing the name of an undergarment company led by her great-grandfather in the 1930s.)
While recycled content is becoming more common in apparel, it often comes from sources such as plastic bottles, which can be turned into yarn for jackets, rather than from a brand’s own used products. A handful of companies, from Levi’s to Patagonia, are pushing consumers to return old products so they can be refurbished and resold to extend their life. But the secondhand market obviously isn’t an option for underwear, which just ends up in the trash. Turner says that about 11 million pounds of T-shirts and underwear are thrown out each day in the United States—an estimate based on the fact that the average American throws out 81 pounds of clothing a year (per EPA data) and the startup’s guess that T-shirts and underwear account for 15% of someone’s wardrobe.
To divert that waste, the Big Favorite devised a system: When a product wears out, consumers scan a QR code to create a free shipping label, give the underwear one last wash, and send it back to the startup, which sorts and sanitizes it before sending it to textile recyclers to shred and turn into new yarn. (The company also sells circular undershirts.) The challenge, of course, is whether customers will be willing to participate in any of that process—sending their used undies back or buying ones made from other people’s recycled underwear—but Turner says that people are increasingly realizing that they have to do more to help shrink the massive problem of apparel waste. “Consumers are ready to do their part,” she says. “And what I always tell people is that it is totally anonymous to our warehouse—nobody’s looking at your worn-out under-stuff.”
The Big Favorite’s underwear is made from Pima cotton, a fabric that is easier to recycle than some lower-quality cotton because of its long fibers. That quality also means that the underwear is durable, so it should last longer than other undies before it needs to be recycled. Eventually, the company is likely to partner with companies pioneering new ways to recycle cotton repeatedly without losing quality.
Since the company just launched, it doesn’t yet have a supply of old undies to use in its manufacturing. That means the underwear you buy now won’t be made of any recycled boxers or briefs. But by 2023, the startup is aiming to have recycled 15,000 pairs. “Eventually, we want to work that into our own supply chain,” Turner says. “The goal is to close the loop for the Big Favorite.”