Is there a sustainable solution to the rise of sportswear?

This Earth Month, join us as we explore the personal steps and global movements that will work together to keep our planet healthy. Because, as we know, the well-being of the Earth directly impacts ours. read more

Since the start of the pandemic in 2020, sportswear has had what could be called a real moment. Not because we all collectively decided to get fit, although some people certainly did, but because sportswear as everyday clothing, even fashion clothing, became more normalized than ever. Luxury brands continued to collaborate with sportswear companies, supermodels like Kaia Gerber made leggings an urban style, and various fitness influencers launched their own lines. But even as things begin to return to normal, this boom shows no signs of slowing down. According to research from Technavio, the sportswear market is projected to grow by $157.1 billion over the next two years, reaching a total value of $547 billion by 2024. An interesting part of this change, as with many other spaces in fashion , is that the increase in sustainable options for sportswear seems to correlate with the increase in the market in general. According to Lyst data from 2020, searches for “sustainable sportswear” were up 150 percent in that same time period, and brands are answering the call.

Now, biker shorts and hoodies made from recycled plastic bottles are standard; Leggings and sports bras made from recycled materials are sold by brands big and small. Just searching for the term “sportswear” will return dozens of summaries of the most sustainable options for you to choose from. Even fast fashion brands that are notoriously on the wrong side of the sustainability movement seem to make some exceptions in the athletics and athleisure departments. The change is so palpable that seeing sportswear that is not marketed as organic raises an eyebrow.

The problem is that not all sustainable solutions are created equal. And more and more active garments entering the market, even if marketed as eco-friendly, result in more active garments causing damage at the beginning and end of their life.

So how can we cut through the noise to determine what is just competitive marketing and what is really innovative solutions? To begin with, it is important to understand what makes this type of clothing particularly harmful. Workout clothes are designed to be worn and washed often (especially if you work out in them all the time). That means chemicals and dyes go into the water with every cleaning. Polyester (PET), which is one of the most widely used fabrics in this type of clothing, will break down into microplastic particles that will then end up in bodies of water and ultimately our food supply. The most prominent solution used by many brands is recycled polyester, rPET, which is a mixed bag for plastic that becomes polyester. That’s why you’ll see ads that say, “this bra is made from plastic bottles.” The problem is that once the plastic becomes polyester, it cannot be recycled again. So while it turned out to be a better solution than, say, using virgin polyester, it doesn’t solve the problem of keeping plastics out of the equation. However, there are some technologies that are trying to improve it. Lifecycled, a technology developed by MAS Holdings, one of the largest manufacturers in South Asia, promises to make polyester biodegradable within five years of being in contact with compost, that is, only when it reaches the landfill.

Other brands use natural fibers like hemp. This is better than plastic from a recycling perspective, but unfortunately, it’s not the ultimate solution. Textiles made from natural fibers consume resources such as water and land, and there are often financial problems for the people who work with the plants. Hemp, for example, is expensive to grow, and that burden often falls on farmers, while brands raise prices and make a profit. What’s more, a lot of new clothing, even made from natural materials, isn’t achieving the change it seems to be marketing when there are no solutions to expand the lifecycle.

On the plus side, with those increasing searches for less shocking sportswear comes a shift in consumer mindsets that could actually be a form of change.

“Second-hand sportswear was once taboo,” Natalie Tomlin, a spokeswoman for online thrift store ThredUp, tells Well+Good. “But today, workout and leisure wear are some of the most popular categories to shop for.”

“Second-hand sportswear was once taboo,” Natalie Tomlin, a spokeswoman for online thrift store ThredUp, tells Well+Good. “But today, workout and leisure wear are some of the most popular categories to shop at thredUP, and brands like Lululemon and Nike are hot products. As the stigma around secondhand clothes fades, many people are turning to savings for all their wardrobe needs, even their sports bras!” Tomlin shared that among all the brands, Lululemon, Nike, Free People Movement, and Adidas have been some of the most popular recently. Outside of apps and resale sites, many brands have started implementing recycling programs to extend the life of their clothing. Lululemon, for example, recently launched “Like New,” a buy-back program in which customers earn credit to send in used clothing for resale.

Making sportswear and sportswear less shocking will require us to change our perspective. And if we can do that from an aesthetic perspective to make a tennis dress, good for both the court and the club, we can also do it with the materials. Yes, technological innovations are good, but longer life is better.

These products are independently selected by our editors. Making a purchase through our links may generate a commission for Well+Good.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.