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The Complete Guide to Sustainable Activewear

I love activewear and I’m sure you do too.

But everyday, I’m becoming more conscious of my impact on the environment, especially when it comes to clothes.

A recent industry report found that apparel and footwear industries account for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions. This is as much as the entire European Union! The forecast isn’t much brighter. By 2030, the climate impact of the apparel industry will be nearly equivalent to the U.S annual greenhouse gas emissions!

But telling people to stop buying activewear or clothes is unachievable. In a time when society values their health, wellbeing and appearance more than ever, it is definitely unachievable to say “stop buying activewear!”

However, we all can definitely do our bit to help the environment.

This is the complete guide to sustainable activewear.

What makes activewear non-sustainable

Most workout gear are made from synthetic materials such as polyester and nylon.

These man-made materials are popular as they don’t absorb moisture (compared to natural fibres) and promote evaporation of sweat from your skin.

The problem with these synthetics is they outlast our wardrobes and end up in landfill for up to 200 years while the manufacturing process of these oil-based synthetics contributes to a huge carbon footprint.

Combine the above with the classic economical cycle of demand and supply. We have been and are in the midst of the mass production of activewear. With athleisure becoming a norm, activewear has risen in the ranks to become highly coveted style of clothing.

This has resulted in

  • Long supply chains – from raw materials to the finished product contributes to high carbon emissions
  • Increased transportation – to accomodate that long supply chain
  • Poor labour practices – off-shore manufacturing is cheaper but at the expense of the environment and many locals
  • Non-eco packaging
  • Marketing and advertisements – influencer marketing and sampling can result in more waste, combine this with ever-changing trends and styles
  • Poor quality fast fashion – higher chance of damage and therefore, waste

When you think about all these factors combined, you realise that the planet isn’t too much of a happy chap.

Source: Chris Liverani (Unsplash)

What you can do

You can do so many things to keep the planet fit and healthy! Most of these are accessible, wallet-friendly AND stylish.

Remember that the planet has never compromised on your style, and it isn’t about to now.

  • Don’t throw away your current activewear (even if they are synthetics) just because you want to become more sustainable – more waste will be created, more demands and therefore supply will be created
  • Need less, want less – consume less overall, develop a mindset that less is more (I was a maximalist growing up and now I’m becoming more minimalist)
  • Buy second-hand – craigslist, gumtree, ebay, your local swap-meets, op-shops (they’re becoming more modern and trendy). I know a lot of people hesitate to buy second-hand activewear but if they’ve gone through a good wash, you can be sure they are quite clean!
  • Buy eco-friendly materials – more info below!
  • Buy it RIGHT – As Dame Vivienne Westwood famously said: “Buy less, choose well, make it last”.

Also spread love, spread knowledge and spread it kindly.

This is my mantra when there is a (often heated) discussion about societal issues. No one is perfect – we can clearly see that from our impact on the environment. But everyone starts somewhere! I grew up in an immigrant family where success and survival were the ideals. Worrying about sustainability or being eco-friendly weren’t a thing. But education is powerful.

I’m still on my journey to become more and more sustainable everyday. Part of this is researching how I can make my active lifestyle more sustainable and I love sharing it with you guys!

Source: Patrick Schneider (Unsplash)

Materials

Here are some materials that have been popularised with the sustainable activewear moment.

Recycled Materials

Recycled wool, nylon, down and polyester is the best way to re-use materials that have already undergone its processing.

This prevents the need for cultivating new trees, using more land and resources to produce more materials that are already part of the system.

Lyocell

What is it?

  • Lycocell is a form of rayon made from cellulose fibres
  • Brand names include Tencel, Newcell, Excel

How is it made?

  • Starts off with wood sourced mainly from eucalyptus trees
  • Wood is then ground into a pulp and dissolved by amine oxide producing raw cellulose
  • Raw cellulose is pushed through spinnerets to form lyocell fibres
  • Fibres are spun into a yarn and woven into a cloth

Why is it considered sustainable?

  • Fabric is biodegradable
  • Tree plantations can be sustainable
  • 99% of the solvent is re-used in their closed-loop process
  • Amine oxide solvent used is less . toxic
  • Less water and dye used compared to cotton
  • Consumers may find that it’s less smelly compared to cotton (due to lyocell’s breathability) and can wash it less, saving water and electricity

Any downsides?

  • Energy source of the process is not quite renewable or sustainable
  • Susceptible to greenwashing and down-grading of standards (especially with tree plantations)
  • More expensive than your typical activewear

Is it good for activewear?

Yes!

  • Soft, lightweight, flexible and wrinkle-resistant
  • Good for sensitive skin
  • Moisture-absorbent and anti-bacterial – 50% more than cotton
  • Aesthetically beautiful, smooth surface
  • Treated lyocell can be machine-washed

Activewear brands that use lyocell?

  • Target
  • Activn
  • Athleta
  • Tentree
  • The North Face

Organic Cotton

source: Marianne Krohn (Unsplash)

What is it?

  • Organic cotton differs from conventional non-organic cotton that has lots of social and environmental issue
  • Organic cotton is grown without using non-GMO seeds, pesticides, chemicals and fertilisers

How is it made?

  • Cannabis plants are grown and harvested
  • The stalks undergo ‘retting’ which is letting the fibres split and separate naturally from exposure to the natural environment
  • The fibres are spun to produce a thread that is woven into fabric

Why is it considered sustainable?

  • Fabric is biodegradable
  • Compared to non-organic cotton, organic cotton has shown to be much more environmentally friendly – less fertiliser run-off, less soil damage
  • Non-GMO seeds that can be re harvested and re-planted
  • Organic cotton impacts water pollution 98% less and produces 94% less greenhouse gas emissions
  • The impact of water pollution of organic cotton is 98% less compared to the conventional cotton production
  • Less toxic chemicals in contact with us and our skin
  • More safe and ethical workplace practices

Any downsides?

  • Organic cotton still requires an enormous amount of water
  • The processing of cotton is still very chemical-intensive
  • Since cotton is in such high-demand, issues such as fair working conditions and labour policies may trickle into the organic cotton industry
  • Conventional cotton has a higher yield than organic cotton

Is it good for activewear?

Yes only when blended with other types of materials. In this case, it would be great with lyocell. Otherwise, 100% organic cotton holds sweat and it takes longer to dry. However, it is perfect for loungewear and athleisure!

  • Comfortable to wear
  • Soft, good for sensitive skin
  • Good for sensitive skin

Activewear brands that use hemp?

  • Bhumi
  • Vege Threads
  • People Tree

Hemp

SOURCE: Khoa Tran (Unsplash)

What is it?

  • Marijuana’s ‘sober cousin’
  • Industrial hemp is from the same species of the cannabis plant
  • Low to none amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (the psychotropic ingredient) that gets you high since different parts of the plant is harvested

How is it made?

  • Cannabis plants are grown and harvested
  • The stalks undergo ‘retting’ which is letting the fibres split and separate naturally from exposure to the natural environment
  • The fibres are spun to produce a thread that is woven into fabric

Why is it considered sustainable?

  • Fabric is biodegradable
  • Cannabis plantations can be sustainable – no pesticides, easy planting, smaller land needed to cultivate
  • Cotton requires 4 times more water than hemp
  • The main reason hemp hasn’t been all that popular despite being an ancient resource is because of the negative connotations with marijuana

Any downsides?

  • Energy source of the process is not quite renewable or sustainable
  • Although the retting process is supposed to be natural, companies can now add in chemicals to fasten the retting process which usually takes 4-6 weeks
  • Susceptible to greenwashing and down-grading of standards
  • More expensive than your typical activewear

Is it good for activewear?

Yes!

  • Long-lasting and very durable
  • Soft, airy, natural and light
  • Good for sensitive skin
  • Breathable!
  • UV resistant
  • Can be blended in with lyocell and organic cotton to increase functionality

Activewear brands that use hemp?

  • Patagonia
  • Rawganique

Bamboo

Source: Ben Guerin (Unsplash)

What is it?

  • Marijuana’s ‘sober cousin’
  • Industrial hemp is from the same species of the cannabis plant
  • Low to none amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (the psychotropic ingredient) that gets you high since different parts of the plant is harvested

How is it made?

  • There are many ways to produce bamboo fabric
  • Depending on the type of process, you can produce bamboo linen and bamboo rayon
  • Most of these processes involves the use of chemicals that are highly-toxic
  • If you want to know more, you can read more on why I stopped buying bamboo activewear

Why is it considered sustainable?

  • Bamboo can self-regenerate, no need for re-plantation
  • The plant doesn’t require pesticides as it is usually pest-resistant
  • Bamboo is fast-growing and therefore doesn’t need fertiliser

Any downsides?

  • Although bamboo can be a sustainable crop, a lot of the plantations and sources are being questioned on their sustainability
  • Despite bamboo being pest-resistant, there is evidence that farmers are using chemical fertilisers to mass produce bamboo
  • China is the only country that grows bamboo on a commercial scale and there are lack of environmental and sustainability guidelines and transparency over there
  • Natural forestland are being cleared to grow bamboo, endangering the already critically endangered pandas
  • While the cultivation of bamboo is sustainable, the production process is not. The production process is both chemically and labour intensive.

Is it good for activewear?

No – I put this here because I want to raise awareness to the fact that bamboo isn’t as sustainable and eco-friendly as you thought!

Many companies will claim that bamboo fibre is anti-bacterial or UV resistant. However, the chemically intensive process most likely will have removed these properties in the bamboo fibre and there has been no conclusive evidence to support these claims.

Wool

SOURCE: Annie Spratt (Unsplash)

What is it?

  • Sheep wool
  • More specifically, we’re talking about fine merino wool that is better equipped for performance wear due to its finer properties (3 times finer than human hair!)

How is it made?

  • Mostly sourced from Australian sheep
  • There are a lot of treatment and manufacturing techniques that allow wool to be transformed into ideal activewear (not the classic wooly lining you see inside of jackets!)

Why is it considered sustainable?

  • Wool is 100% biodegradable
  • Highly renewable, recyclable
  • Can be produced organically
  • There are wool traceability standards as well as animal welfare standards

Any downsides?

  • Obviously not vegan
  • Wool requires vast amounts of land for grazing the sheep
  • High demands for energy, water and chemicals to convert wool from fleece shorn off the sheep into what we wear
  • There are concerns raised upon the ethical treatment of sheep
  • Many merino brands say they take steps and pre-cautions to only work with ethical farmers
  • As with any industry, an increase demand will result in less ethical practices to increase supply
  • Expensive

Is it good for activewear?

Yes, although not on its own. Usually wool is often blended with nylon and spandex in activewear to increase stretchiness and durability. Although it’s nicer use 100% natural fibres, this is the step in the right direction.

  • Absorbs moisture
  • Absorbs and locks away odour molecules
  • Thermoregulation – stay warm when the weather is cold, cool when the weather is hot
  • UV resistant
  • Highly durable, wrinkle-resistant
  • Flame-resistant and natural water repellent

Activewear brands that use fine merino wool?

  • iomerino
  • Jemala
  • Nagnata
  • Icebreaker

Certifications to Look Out For

source: Drahomír Posteby-Mach (Unsplash)

Have you heard of greenwashing? Greenwashing is NOT cool.

Greenwashing is a marketing strategy where companies FALSELY convey to consumers that their products or services are ‘green’ and ‘environmentally friendly’.

In a society where we are becoming more environmentally conscious, it creates a false idea that these companies are ‘better’ than their competitors.

To combat greenwashing, there are certifications created by independent third parties that authenticate a company’s sustainability claims. These help you identify whether the company has integrity and if you should be buying from them or start looking elsewhere!

Some of the certifications I look out for include:

  • B-Corp – requires companies to meet social sustainability, environmental and accountability standards
  • Ecocert – strives to balance production with respect for the environment. They advocate for better management of energy and natural resources, integrate environment protection at each stage of the production, promote social and ethical work practices as well as providing transparency
  • Fairtrade – this institution helps developing countries achieve better trading conditions in the production industry
  • Global Organic Textile standard (GOTS) – ensures integrity within the responsible and organic textile production industry. Ensures the entire process is organic from raw material harvesting to manufacturing to labelling
  • Oeko-Tex 100 – clothes carrying this label have been tested for regulated and unregulated harmful substances that may be unfit for wear
  • Social Accountability Standard International SA8000 – focuses on social welfare and encourages organisations to develop, maintain and apply socially acceptable practices in the workplace

So when you’re looking at a new brand, check if they have any of these certifications!

It also doesn’t hurt to do your own research into the brand. Read honest and real reviews (often from a third party website), read the company’s ‘about us’ page to assess their values and have a look at what materials they’re using in their activewear.

By Karen (MBBS VI, PT)

Thank you for visiting my blog! I'm a certified personal trainer and medical student with one more year (finally!) of study until I'm a doctor. I believe in a preventative and holistic approach to medicine which means I love sharing my passion for fitness and nutrition with you guys! I hope that we all can strive to be a better version of ourselves everyday.

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