As some of the most routinely worn clothing items, basics are indispensable to our closets. Unfortunately, the t-shirts, underwear, and socks commonly on the market are often made through harmful processes and with unsustainable materials that are toxic to our health and the environment. Luckily, sustainable men’s basics are on the rise, and prioritizing organic cotton t-shirts, eco-friendly underwear, and sustainable socks will also prioritize the wellbeing of yourself, your loved ones, and the earth.
What is the problem with conventional basics?
Common sock materials include conventional cotton, polyester, nylon, spandex (also referred to as elastane or the brand-specific term Lycra), wool, and bamboo. Similarly, common underwear materials include cotton, polyester, nylon, and elastane, and common t-shirt materials include conventional cotton and polyester. Conventional cotton brings a host of pesticides and insecticides that are detrimental to the environment, workers’ health, and our own health when we put on a nonorganic cotton garment. Despite only accounting for 2.4% of the cultivated land globally, cotton utilizes 6% of the world’s pesticides and 16% of the world’s insecticides. This chemical usage is not only harmful to the planet and drinking sources through chemical runoff, but it is also dire for the well-being of the workers who farm this cotton. In India, where over half of the world’s cotton supply is produced, countless workers are poisoned from pesticide exposure every year. While many die from the poisoning, many others survive but are afflicted with chronic illnesses. It is important to understand that when we choose to purchase conventional cotton clothing, we are also choosing to purchase the harmful pesticides that are maintained on the clothing, as well as the ugly past of these pesticides.
As for the common synthetic textiles, they bring issues of their own. Unfortunately, polyester, nylon, and elastane, three of the most common materials in apparel such as men’s basics, are extremely unsustainable. Synthetic textiles shed microplastics that invade our oceans and water-supply, are typically energy intensive and water intensive, require non-renewable resources in their creation, and aren’t biodegradable, so they sit in our landfills, polluting our environment for many years after their use. According to one study by Muthu et. al, which sought to quantify the environmental impact of both natural and synthetic textiles, nylon and polyester had two of the largest, most dire environmental and human health impacts on a range of measured factors. With regards to climate change and the thinning of the ozone, nylon is a material that you really want to avoid, as its manufacturing produces and releases nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas over 300 times the potency of carbon dioxide. Nylon is also known as polyamide, so be on the lookout for this alternative name on material lists.
Another cause for concern with synthetic textiles is the presence of BPA, a chemical that belongs to the larger family of bisphenols. An endocrine disruptor, BPA is linked to reproductive and developmental harm, and is also linked to adverse health conditions like breast cancer and diabetes. When examining socks, California-based Center for Environmental Health (CEH) found that there were concentrations of BPA present up to 19 times the designated safe limit of BPA in California. Though the CEH examined socks of polyester, spandex, and cotton, it was socks made of synthetic textiles of polyester and spandex, not socks made primarily from cotton, that were seriously impacted by BPA.
How do sustainable men’s basics offer a solution?
Sustainable men’s basics prioritize natural fibers like organic cotton, hemp, linen, and ethically sourced wool, as well as cellulose fibers with natural origins, such as Tencel and Pinatex. Once you start searching for ethical undergarments, you’ll find out pretty quickly that it’s tougher than you might think to find sustainable socks and eco-friendly underwear that use 100% natural fibers. Just as in other areas of fashion, the industry as a whole routinely prioritizes synthetic fibers over natural ones for reasons such as their affordability. However, the unsustainability problem is a bit more complex than mere cost concerns when it comes to stretchy clothing like socks and underwear. One of the reasons for this is found in spandex, also known as elastane or lycra. Simply put, there is currently not an eco-friendly material alternative to spandex on the market. Since it’s really tough to completely avoid spandex in your closet, we recommend purchasing items with only minimal spandex composition and buying BPA-free and phthalate-free spandex when the material is inevitable.
One last thing before we dive into recommendations: you’ll notice that one of our picks is made of merino wool. Although clearly not vegan, and thus not for the vegan shoppers amongst us, merino wool does have sustainable properties if it is farmed ethically with animal welfare, workers, and the environment at the forefront of its operation. One way to ensure that the merino wool you are getting is ethically-sourced is through partnerships with ethical wool suppliers and certifiers, such as ZQ Natural Fibre. As an ethical wool supplier, ZQ Natural Fibre’s farms are routinely checked by third-party auditors to ensure the highest ethical standards. When browsing wool brands, prioritize those that can be ethically sourced and traced through these types of ethical wool supplier partnerships.
Whether you're in the market for men’s organic cotton t-shirts, eco-friendly underwear for men, sustainable socks for men, or all three, this list has you covered so you can cleanly, sustainably revamp your basics. Without further ado, here are some of our top picks for sustainable men’s basics.
Men’s Organic Cotton T-shirts
1. Pact Softspun V-Neck Tee - $30
Photo Credit: wearpact.com
With a slightly fitted body crafted with layering in mind, Pact’s ultra comfy, ultra-lightweight Softspun V-Neck Tee is sure to please even the pickiest t-shirt shopper. And, even better, you can see exactly how much this 100% organic cotton t-shirt positively impacts the environment as opposed to a conventionally made cotton t-shirt—according to Pact’s website, one Softspun V-Neck Tee offsets 9.3 pounds of carbon and saves 25 gallons of water. Though this pick’s a v-neck, the brand also offers crew neck options for those who prefer it.
2. The Good Tee Fave and Fair Unisex Tee - $30.50
Photo Credit: thegoodtee.com
Coming in a gender-neutral, slightly-boxy fit, The Good Tee’s Fave and Fair Unisex Tee is a great basic addition to any sustainable closet. Made with super soft, ring-spun organic cotton jersey fabric, the Fave and Fair Unisex Tee is one you’ll never want to take off (you can feel free to leave it on, it’s crafted with durability at the forefront!). Another feather in the cap of this tee, it’s pre-shrunk, so you don’t have to worry about any laundry mishaps.
3. Outerknown - Sojourn Pocket Tee - $48
Photo Credit: outerknown.com
If you’re looking for a slightly-elevated look, Outerknown has you covered with this luxurious Sojourn Pocket Tee. With its chest pocket, rib trim, and relaxed neckline, no detail is left spared with this pick, making it a great option for any man’s sustainable closet. Not only will this tee look great, but it will feel great, too; the Sojourn tee is made with 100% Organic Peruvian Pima cotton, a material that is renowned for its softness and quality.
Eco-friendly Underwear for Men
1. Tentree The 5" Boxer Brief - $35
Photo Credit: tentree.com
For the man who wants the best of both worlds when it comes to his drawers, these slim-fit boxer briefs are a great pick. Made with 60% TENCEL x REFIBRA Lyocell, 35% Organic Cotton, and 5% Elastane (a small proportion as far as typical undies go), the materials in these boxer briefs ensure a soft, skin-hugging fit that you will love. Every single item purchased from Tentree initiates the planting of ten trees, so you can feel good about revamping your basics with Tentree.
2. Pact Knit Boxers - $14
Photo Credit: wearpact.com
The phrase “sustainable men’s basics'' seems to be pretty synonymous with Pact, and these Knit Boxers are yet another testament to this. Heralded as soft and breathable, these 95% organic cotton boxers (as well as 5% elastane) are great for men who want a relaxed fit for their underwear. As all of Pact’s products are, these boxers are made in a Fair Trade factory, and one pair of these knit boxers saves 13 gallons of water and offsets 5 pounds of carbon dioxide. Not bad for undies!
3. Wama Men’s Briefs - $28
Photo Credit: wamaunderwear.com
If minimalism is your game when it comes to your undergarments, then these eco-friendly Wama Men’s Briefs are for you. Constructed with 53% hemp, 44% organic cotton, and a mere 3% of unsustainable spandex, the material composition of these briefs is truly hard to beat, sustainability-speaking. Wama is on a mission to exemplify that hemp has incredible potential as a sustainable, healthy, and quality underwear material. Considering hemp’s natural antibacterial properties, and its numerous eco-friendly accolades such as its a soil detoxer and minimal water usage material, we don’t need any more convincing to get on board with Wama.
Sustainable Socks for Men
1. Pact Men’s Premium Crew Socks 2 pack - $17
Photo Credit: wearpact.com
For socks that will put the conventional crew socks in your drawer to shame, these durable, comfortable socks are just the perfect amount of thickness so that you can get foot and arch support without the sweat of typical socks. Not to mention that their material composition is pretty darn good as far as socks go—these premium socks are 78% Organic Cotton, 20% Recycled Nylon, and only 2% Elastane. You can feel good about picking up a pair of these socks, as one pair saves 14 gallons of water and offsets 4 pounds of carbon dioxide.
2. Isto Cotton Socks - $14.25
Photo Credit: isto.pt
A no-nonsense sustainable sock option, these Isto Cotton socks cover all the bases and are simple and comfortable. The specs of these socks are commendable: their primary material is organic cotton (70%) and their secondary material is recycled nylon (28%), with a mere 2% of unsustainable elastane rounding out their composition. With Isto, transparency is celebrated and what you see is what you get. In addition to their partnerships with ethical factories, Isto has a super useful site tool that shows you the comprehensive costs that Isto incurred from creating each product—that way you can transparently know that the entire process is fair, for both yourself and the workers.
3. Allbirds Trino Quarters - $14
Photo Credit: allbirds.com
Sustainable athletic socks seem to be the hardest to come by, as their stretchiness is often thanks to large proportions of unsustainable synthetics, such as nylon and spandex. With a little less than 10% of their composition being virgin synthetics, these Trino Quarters from Allbirds are a great pick for the eco-friendly athletic shopper. While it is true that these socks are partially made from merino wool, and are thus not a vegan option, Allbirds takes considerable strides, such as working with ZQ Merino, to ensure that all parts of their wool processing are held to high ethical standards with regards to the animals, the workers, and the environment.
Conventional t-shirts, socks, and underwear are made from materials that are taxing on the world’s resources, contribute to global warming, and threaten your health. By replacing the most-worn items in your closet with sustainable men’s basics, you can make a considerable positive impact on your carbon footprint and on your life.