Navigating Sustainable Activewear
Until recently, it’s been very difficult to find high-performance, aesthetic activewear that is also ethical and sustainable. It’s possible that you might not have even given it much thought, but there are immense human, health and environmental consequences of your sports bra buying decisions.
Here is a useful guide to help you navigate your next activewear purchase consciously.
Much of mainstream gym gear is made from synthetic plastics, such as:
Polyester, which is made of fossil fuels and is non-biodegradable.
Lycra (aka spandex or elastane), a synthetic fabric made from segmented polyurethanes from the reaction of a di-isocyanate with polyethers or polyesters.
Nylon, a petroleum-based synthetic fiber.
The production of these fabrics is incredibly energy and water intensive. Further, each time you wash a pair of leggings made from synthetic plastics, micro-plastics are emitted into the ocean, which then end up in fish bellies and therefore our food supply.
The good news is that there are a few companies making huge strides in creating recycled materials that can be used in place of these toxic textiles. A few to look for:
TENCEL™ Lyocell, a biodegradable fabric that is made from tree fibers in a closed loop. In 2002, the company won a European Award for the Environment from the European Commission in the category “The Technology Award for Sustainable Development.” Vyayama uses TENCEL™ in their sleek yoga line.
Recycled polyester, made from plastic rather than petroleum is usually made from old water bottles. Girlfriend Collective makes beautiful leggings made from this material. One problem to note is that since this material is made from plastic, albeit recycled, it still emits microfibers into the environment when you wash. That being said, recycled polyester is better than virgin polyester and you can increase the sustainability of your garment by reducing the number of washes.
Recycled Nylon, an innovative material made namely by brand ECONYL® is made from recycled fishing nets and other waste that would otherwise be discarded into oceans and landfills. This perfect-for-the-gym Stella McCartney backpack is made out of 100% ECONYL®.
The clothing dyeing process, athleticwear included, uses vast amounts of water and pollute local rivers and streams with chemicals that are hazardous to the environment and to human health. Dyes are a bit more complicated to navigate because most brands do not reveal where, how or with what they dye their clothes. One thing you can do is look for STANDARD 100 by OEKO-TEX®, a certification that has rigid standards around harmful chemicals. If you buy gear with this certification, it will ensure that you are steering clear of some of the most harmful chemicals, such as azo dyes, which are known carcinogens. London-based Silou is a beautiful brand whose fabrics are OEKO-TEX® certified.
Activewear is certainly not exempt from the clothing industry’s pervasive exploitation. The best way to ensure that your clothes have been made in ethical factories is look for third-party certifications like Social Accountability Standard International SA8000, which reviews factories for issues like child and forced labor, health and safety, the right to collective bargaining, and more or Fairtrade international, which vets for employee empowerment, living wages, health and safety standards, and more.
Most athletic shoes are made with extraordinarily toxic materials. Here’s what you might find in your sneaks:
Plastics that pollute the environment (PFCs found in shoes have also been found in Polar Bear livers and global air samples). PFCs are also thought to cause a slew of terrible health issues.
Cotton, which is one of the most harmful crops in the world. 16% of global pesticides are used in cotton production.
Rubber, another synthetic material made from petroleum that utilizes a long list of chemicals in production.
Leather, which is usually tanned with a with highly toxic Chromium VI.
There are a few beautiful sport shoes that have been designed with sustainability in mind. Adidas has partnered with Parley to create Adidas x Parley athletic shoes made from reclaimed and recycled from marine plastic waste and illegal deep-sea fishing gillnets. French brand Veja makes beautiful sneakers that are made from responsible leather, upcycled materials, organic cotton, recycled polyester, wild rubber and more.
Look for reputable third party certifications to ensure that your activewear is made with the environment, health and fair labor in mind. Here’s a recap of the certifications to look for:
STANDARD 100 by OEKO-TEX®, which ensures there are no harmful chemicals.
bluesign® Certified, a system that guarantees that products were manufactured with responsible use of resources and the lowest possible impact on people and the environment. Canadian brand Lolë offers some products that are bluesign® certified.
GOTS Certified, an organic textile certification with both ecological and social criteria. You’ll often find this certification on clothes made from organic cotton.
Standard International SA8000 for fair labor.
Fairtrade International for fair labor.
The environmental, health and ethical impact of the activewear industry is immense. We must be mindful and diligent when selecting gear for the gym. Because awareness around these issues is still fairly low, make sure to support the cause by sharing what you know with your friends and loved ones.
This is a guest post by Jacqui Somen of VIVAMA