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Fashion is one of the dirtiest industries in the world, where sportswear uses fabrics meant for performance but not necessarily are the most eco-friendly. What do we need to know to choose truly sustainable sportswear?
Where the sports industry promotes quality time spent outdoors, what’s behind the activewear industry is not necessarily aligned with environmentally-friendly values. What is the sustainability buzzword anyway and how does that intersect with our sportswear?
Sustainability nowadays can come in many forms. On the one hand, we have the internal operational departments of sportswear companies, which may or may not go through the extra effort of using renewable energy, installing solar panels, or even controlling the waste removal process from their offices. On the other hand, sustainability can be enforced through supply chains. This last one involves a thorough analysis of factory processes, sourcing materials that presume sustainability, using adequate shipping services, and planning in advance the end of each product’s life.
When it comes to sustainable sportswear, this is easier said than done. In the quest to deliver high-quality, durable products, companies have to use a lot of resources, and, as we all know, there’s a finite amount of these available on the planet. Nevertheless, the sportswear industry is becoming more and more aware of the importance of sustainability in their products, and an increasing number of dedicated platforms such as gym-expert have started raising awareness on this matter.
What is sustainability in the sportswear industry?
In the present, textile and clothing companies have a severe impact on the environment. The primary resources required for the sportswear manufacturing process come from fields, animals, and oil wells.
As for the processes themselves, they are transforming raw materials into the fabric that involves enormous amounts of chemicals, water, labor, and several other resources. In matters of sportswear sustainability, footwear and apparel companies are currently responsible for no less than 8% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Realistic forecasts predict that by 2030, these will end up matching today’s US total annual level of greenhouse gas emissions. It translates to a frightening equivalent of 4.9 gig tons CO2. It has to change, and producing sustainable sportswear has to become a top priority!
The main goal of all significant sportswear companies nowadays is that of creating and delivering high-quality, long-lasting products. However, sustainability should become a mandatory requirement in their processes and supply chain inputs.
For these sportswear companies, there are quite a couple of groups and tools available, such as Bluesign, Sustainable Textile Standards, ChemIQ, Sustainable Apparel Coalition, and the Sustainability Working Group by OIA to name just a few. All of these factions can help sportswear companies self-audit and make sure their processes respect chemical use, water processing, and animal welfare environmental standards.
Bridging the gap between sportswear sustainability and style
But the best way of leading the industry in the right direction is by example. And one of the best examples of how to mix sustainability and style ideally was given by an apparel company called Girlfriend Collective, back in 2017. They launched a campaign that offered incredibly stylish black leggings that were made from recycled spandex and micro-polyester free. It generated a huge reaction and support, setting the trend for future sustainable sportswear as well.
Sustainable sportswear seems to be a growing phenomenon, and with the blossoming of new eco-friendly textiles this is attracting more designers to perform their skills taking into account the needs of sustainability. Hopefully, this trend will continue and eventually set the standard for the entire sportswear industry.
What to look for to ensure we purchase sustainable sportswear?
To make a positive environmental difference and deliver genuinely sustainable sportswear, companies should place a great deal of importance and prioritize the following aspects:
1. Organic cotton: the growth process of organic cotton uses materials and methods with a lower environmental impact than other textiles. It means no pesticides, no GM seeds, and no chemical fertilizers at all, which supports the ecosystem by maintaining a fertile soil. Organic cotton is also a healthier material to put on our skin, absorbing well our sweat during the exercise period. We expect to see an increase in the use of organic cotton in sustainable sportswear also thanks to the better choices of consumers.
2. Less use of Lycra: Lycra is still a trendy material used in sportswear which is used for a higher performance of the activewear when practising sports. The problem with lycra is that it’s a textile that origins from plastic, so every time we wash the garments we are contributing to the release of harmful micro-plastic residues.
In the last Fashion Revolution report, it was stated that textiles are estimated to be the largest source of microplastics, accounting for 34.8% of global microplastic pollution. It has been estimated that 1.4 trillion microfibres are currently in the oceans. A single synthetic garment can release over 1,900 microscopic-sized microfibres in just one wash.
Lycra almost equals a profoundly negative impact on the environment, and as such, this material should be avoided and replaced with organic or plant-based fabrics. Check this guide of activewear clothing brands that are bringing new innovative materials to the sports industry.
3. Recycled Materials: Disposed clothes and scrap fabric usually end up being burned. It means a hazardous level of carbon emissions and an unnecessary waste of resources. Sustainable sportswear companies should commit to the use of recycled materials in their production processes, thus decreasing the negative environmental impact.
4. PFC Free: PFC stands for perfluorocarbons, which translates into chemicals used to make technical garments water repellent. Whenever producing or using such a product, these chemicals are released into the air. They harm both the environment and the people. Alternative sustainable methods should be implemented by sportswear companies instead.
5. Responsible manufacturing: sustainability also requires social responsibility and commitment to the manufacturing processes. It means creating a positive impact on society, stakeholders, and surrounding communities alike. How can then consumers purchase into their values ensuring a fair and more sustainable supply chain? Activewear brands can make good use of the tools and certifications mentioned earlier and communicate it to their potential clients to support in their purchase decision process.
6. Care and Repair: the first thing we look out for when purchasing sustainable sportswear is the quality and resilience of the fabric. We want our sports apparel to last as long as possible, but we can also increase its lifespan by taking great care and repairing it, instead of just throwing it away as soon as it suffers small damages.
The role of brands to embrace eco and social responsibility
In what concerns customers, it’s only natural for us not to take time to assess each product’s sustainability or the brand’s impact. We live in the digital ear of consumerism, where time is of the essence, so ideally, the products we lay eyes on should be already vetted for and ready to be bought.
In terms of sustainability, this places a greater responsibility on the shoulders of retailers, forcing them to focus exclusively on sustainable sportswear and to make sure to avoid any environmentally harmful products.
In April 2018, the Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI) laid out new products’ sustainability standards for absolutely all brands sold online and in its stores. These standards included brand expectations in social, animal welfare, and environmental categories, setting an example for all other retailers in the industry.
For the time being, it’s safe to say that there is no such thing as 100% sustainable sportswear. But fortunately, more and more companies and retailers are becoming aware of the importance of sustainability in their processes, and hopefully, it won’t be much longer now until we are able to eliminate all environmentally harmful elements in this industry completely.