Finding activewear that supports your goals and the environment is much easier if you consider these four factors in your purchasing decision.

By Megan Falk
April 22, 2020
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When your favorite leggings show the world your underwear (or bare butt!) with every deadlift and your matching sports bra’s elastic band no longer gives your girls the support they need on a run, you know it's time for some new activewear. As you scour online retailers, a budget-friendly price tag and a squat-proof fabric are definitely at the top of your mind, but there may also be another important factor on your mind lately: the environmental impact.

Each year, the textile industry, of which clothing manufacturing represents nearly two-thirds, relies on 98 million tons of non-renewable resources—such as oil, fertilizers, and chemicals—for production. In the process, 1.2 billion tons of greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere, more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a charity focused on accelerating the transition to an economy that aims to eliminate waste and continuously reuse resources.

But most significant is the industry’s impact on the carbon budget, or what the International Energy Agency has determined is the largest amount of carbon dioxide that can be emitted before global temperatures will rise 2°C (3.6°F) above those recorded pre-Industrial Revolution. While a few degrees might not seem like a lot, if the textile industry continues on its current path, it could produce more than a quarter of the world's emissions in the carbon budget by 2050, according to the foundation. If emissions exceed this budget, communities across the globe will battle the continued impacts of global warming such as dangerous forest fires, extreme weather, drought, and other climate impacts, per the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Although activewear can make you feel strong AF and ready to tackle any workout, it brings about major problems for the environment. For starters, most activewear is made with synthetic materials like polyester and nylon—textiles that shed microplastics when washed, says Tara St. James, founder of Study New York and an adjunct professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Microplastics are essentially plastic debris that have degraded over time into tiny pieces, roughly the size of a sesame seed. Something that small might seem like NBD, but half a million tons of plastic microfibers from washed garments end up polluting the ocean each year, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. How? Well, when you toss your workout tank in the wash, it sheds these microplastics, which pass through water filtration systems and make their way into rivers and, ultimately, oceans.

“The world is coming to an end soon if we don’t make some serious changes,” says St. James. “I know that’s really depressing, but if we don’t find solutions, we’re going to run out of options.”

What’s more, you know that spandex that gives your nylon leggings that signature compression and stretch? Well, that synthetic fabric makes it a lot more difficult to recycle the garment when you're done with it. The materials in blended fabrics need to be mechanically separated in order to be recycled, and because spandex typically makes up a smaller percentage of the total fabric used in a piece of activewear, it usually isn’t economical to separate and recycle the clothing, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Even if a piece of clothing can be recycled, it rarely makes it to that point: Only 13.6 percent of textiles used in clothing and footwear are recycled annually, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 

One step in the right direction: sustainable fashion. The term "sustainable" has taken on a lot of interpretations over the years, as its definition isn’t set by a singular organization. But in terms of the fashion industry, St. James defines “sustainable” as “making and producing in a way that doesn’t deplete the earth and the population of its resources.”

If you consider it on a deeper level, however, sustainability also encompasses issues surrounding social welfare, labor, inclusivity, and waste and consumption, says St. James. This is in line with the holistic view on sustainability that's being adopted by many activewear companies that are prioritizing sustainability—Merrell, Girlfriend Collective, and Patagonia among others.

Luckily, there are steps you can take to reduce your individual impact and promote a sustainable fashion industry and, within that, activewear. Along with informing those around you about the problems at hand and advocating for organizations working to overcome them, you can start making changes to your own life, including by purchasing from brands that follow sustainable practices, says Lauren Fay, founder of The New Fashion Initiative, a non-profit dedicated to raising awareness of the environmental and social impacts of the fashion industry. “Everybody wears clothes, so everybody has some agency and ability to start changing their habits around this,” says Fay. “Not everyone can lead a 100-percent zero waste lifestyle, but millions of people can start being better.”

And that begins with taking the time to learn what exactly makes a clothing item sustainable in the first place. Considering these four factors will help you decide if a garment is truly sustainable, and while the examples used are focused on activewear, you can apply the same principles to your work apparel, everyday wears, and beyond to shop your way to a greener closet—and promote an eco-friendly fashion industry along the way.

Manufacturing and Working Conditions

This element is rooted in the social welfare component of sustainability. Due to cost and time pressures, garment workers can often suffer from poor working conditions with long hours, low pay, and dangerous environments with unsafe buildings, hazardous processes, or a lack of safety equipment, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. While these dismal conditions can be found in most countries, they're more common in those with developing economies in order to keep costs low and production levels high.

Though the manufacturing component of the supply chain can be murky, it’s generally easier to track the production practices and working conditions if the clothing is made in your local area, region, or country, says St. James. (Meet the ultra-stylish activewear brands that were founded by women.)

However, just 2.8 percent of the total apparel consumed in the United States in 2016 was produced domestically, according to the American Apparel & Footwear Association. Translation: You’re probably not buying much activewear with a “Made in the USA” label. (Some U.S.-made activewear brands include Avocado, Alexis Mera, and Beyond Yoga.)  If you aren't wearing activewear made in the U.S., your next best bet is to look for brands that are certified Fair Trade, a marker of quality working standards among a company's workforce, says Fay. In order to be a certified garment by Fair Trade USA, which accredits products from different countries to be sold in the U.S., factories in the apparel industry must commit to upholding internationally-recognized labor standards and providing greater benefits to workers, along with maintaining conditions of employment that are in line with sector regulations and establishing health and safety measures to avoid work-related injuries. Another benefit? Certified factories must be making efforts to protect and restore the environment and continuously work toward cleaner (aka less wasteful) production.

Materials

Due to their microplastic impact, polyester and nylon fabrics, often used in activewear for their breathable, sweat-wicking qualities, aren’t considered very sustainable. For sustainable activewear (and fashion in general), the first and best option would be natural fabrics, says St. James. Look for products that are made from organic cotton; lyocell, a material produced from the cellulose in wood, cotton scraps, and other plant-based materials; or TENCEL, a branded type of lyocell produced from sustainably sourced wood pulp. 

Compared to plastic-based fabrics, lyocell-based materials have less of an impact at the manufacturing stage: The production solvents used to extract and treat the cellulose are non-toxic, the closed-loop production process ensures any water used is recycled, and more than 99 percent of solvents are reused to minimize waste. TL;DR: These plant-based fabrics are made with high resource efficiency and low environmental impact. Although garments made from these sustainable materials often have some spandex incorporated into them, they’re still a more eco-friendly option to manufacture than polyester- or nylon-spandex blends. Organic cotton and lyocell are both natural, biodegradable sources that will break down in 11 to 27 weeks, compared to the 20 to 200 years it can take to degrade a polyester shirt

What's more, lyocell-based materials offer the same high-performance qualities as their plastic counterparts. This balance between sustainability and durability is what drove outdoor gear company, Merrell, to start using TENCEL in its apparel, like its tees, tanks, and jackets, back in 2018. "The fiber is really close to polyester in structure, so it’s super durable," says Laura Zimmerman, apparel and accessories merchandising director at Merrell. The name TENCEL actually stands for Tenacity and Cellulose combined, and because it’s a natural fiber, it has anti-microbial benefits along with a smooth finish, adds Zimmerman.

As for green materials that are shaking up the activewear industry, St. James points to wool, which is naturally antibacterial and can be washed less than polyester and other materials. Breathable, moisture-wicking, and highly durable, wool fibers can be found in Nagnata’s knit bike shorts, sports bras, and leggings; Athletic Propulsion Lab’s hoodies and tees, and Icebreaker’s year-round leggings. Recycled ocean plastics are also having a moment, with fabrics such as Econyl, a branded type of recycled nylon, leading the charge; Econyl’s production company rescues fishing nets, fabric scraps, carpet flooring, and industrial plastic, restores the nylon to its original state, and turns it into a fabric that can ultimately be recycled again when the customer is done with the garment. You can find the material in Outfyt’s metallic sports bras, bike shorts, and leggings; Kaira Active’s yoga and hiking wear; and a pair of Free People leggings and a crop top

And yes, St. James recognizes that you can’t tell consumers to give up spandex entirely, especially because the sustainable alternatives on the market are more expensive. Plus, some of the materials used to create these innovative, eco-friendly fabrics still come with a few environmental-, time-, and labor-related drawbacks: Cotton doesn’t absorb dyes well and must be treated with chemicals in the dyeing process, and wool must be treated to remove dirt and pests before use, for example, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation

This is where the advocacy component of sustainability—like calling out textile companies and activewear brands for the need to innovate and improve the existing eco-friendly options available, or doing something as simple as asking a brand about its materials—becomes important. “Even if you don’t get an answer, they will likely see the question and know that their customers are interested and paying attention, and that spurs more change,” says St. James. And when major brands make these changes, the cost of doing so can decrease, ultimately making sustainable materials and practices more accessible to more manufacturers, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

This ingenuity within the sustainable apparel sphere—and push to make eco-friendly products readily available to consumers—is something Merrell is already committed to. "We believe sustainable innovation and design are the keys to a better future," says Rachel Horos, corporate social responsibility and sustainability manager at Merrell. "We are continuously adding and experimenting with more sustainable materials in our products and designs, such as recycled, organic, and regenerative materials, and ways that we can reduce our water and energy use through the materials and manufacturers we work with." By 2021, the company is aiming to incorporate environmentally-friendly features into every piece of its line.

If you simply can’t do without a nylon workout tank in the meantime, look for activewear made from recycled fabric. The conversation surrounding recycled polyester (think plastic bottles) is divisive, as recycled materials tend to shed more microfibers than virgin materials, but as long as people are using these goods, it’s still better than using more resources to make new polyester, says St. James. Plus, you can reduce the product’s environmental impact during its wash-and-wear phase. To minimize microfiber shedding and microplastic pollution, both St. James and Fay recommend using a Guppyfriend washing bag or Cora Ball, which catch microfibers in the wash before they go down the drain. (Related: The Right Way to Wash Your Workout Clothes)

Dyes

Simply put, “dyes are one of the biggest issues when it comes to the environmental crisis in fashion,” says St. James. In fact, 20 percent of industrial water pollution globally is attributable to the dying and treatment of textiles, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Natural dyes are rarely used with activewear because they can change in sunlight and with frequent washing, so it’s best to shop for fabrics that are made with waterless dyeing techniques, says St. James. Although they can only be used with synthetic materials like polyester, these methods still reduce water and energy usage. It’s usually up to the company to tell consumers if they use this method, which Adidas and Nike have both done by sharing their practices on their websites, but more often than not, they’ll do so to explain the higher price tag, adds St. James. (Related: Patagonia Is Making Clothes Dyed with Bug Poop)

Certifications

If you’re ever unsure of a brand’s environmental impact, look for established certifications with websites (a sign of legitimacy,) says St. James. She recommends the Global Organic Textile Standard, known as the fashion equivalent of the USDA organic certification, and the Global Recycle Standard, a standard for tracking and verifying the content of recycled materials in a final product. And if you’re struggling to figure out an activewear brand’s overall level of sustainability, Fay and St. James both suggest turning to Good on You, an app and website that has an ethical brand rating system considering the environment, labor, and animal welfare. (You’ll love the all-natural fabrics in this fitness gear.)

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