Do you want to make the switch to sustainable fabrics for your sportswear? You've made the right decision! Ethical and eco-friendly fashion is much more than a trend. It's a necessity.
The fashion industry is the second-largest polluter worldwide. It's responsible for huge textile waste, greenhouse gas emissions, water, air, and soil pollution with toxic chemicals and plastic micro-fibers.
Fortunately, the green movement is booming. More consumers are becoming aware of how buying clothing is endangering human health, ecosystems, and the planet as a whole.
If you are committed to an environmentally friendly and socially fair lifestyle, you also want ethical and sustainable workout clothes.
With the rising consumers' demand for sustainable fashion, many sportswear, activewear, and athleisure brands are turning to eco-friendly materials for their new collections.
But ethically produced and environmentally friendly sportswear remains a niche market. Designers and brands should make more efforts to push sustainable clothing to high-stores and online marketplaces.
If you're new to the conscious fashion movement, you are probably wondering where to begin. There are so many terms and different labels to pay attention to. How do you tell if your workout clothes are sustainable?
One solution is to buy only from ethical brands. Check out my ultimate guide on how to check if a fashion brand is ethical.
Excellent sportswear is very important for your training to feel comfortable, confident, and motivated to stay active at all times. You don't want to be worried about your clothes while you work out.
If you are thinking about buying a new workout outfit made from sustainable fabrics, look for the following features:
- Sustainably, socially and fairly produced fashion without animal materials
- Ecological, significantly economical and resource-efficient manufacturing processes
- Water, energy, and CO2-emissions saving supply chain
- Reusable, recycled, biodegradable or recyclable garments
When it comes to sustainable materials for activewear, you have the choice between natural organic fabrics and synthetic recycled fabrics.
Buy clothes made from high-quality materials that last a long time. Buying less and higher quality is the most sustainable habit you can have to minimize your environmental impact.
If you’re looking for sustainable workout gear, here are the top 10 sustainable fabrics for sportswear.
1. Recycled cotton
Recycled or upcycled cotton is one of the most sustainable fabrics for sportswear. It's even more environmentally friendly than organic cotton. It limits additional textile waste generated during virgin cotton production.
Cotton is an extremely resource intense crop in terms of water, energy, labor, pesticides, and insecticides. Recycled cotton, however, demands much fewer resources to manufacture than conventional or organic cotton.
Recycled cotton is made from post-consumer and post-industrial cotton waste. It minimizes the environmental impact of cotton production drastically. Recycling one ton of cotton can save 765 cubic meters (202,000 US gal) of water.
Recycled or upcycled cotton is made from post-consumer and post-industrial cotton waste. Unfortunately, it's still expensive to produce and quite hard to find, especially for workout clothes.
Some notable characteristics of recycled cotton are:
2. Organic Hemp
Organic Hemp is a great substitute for cotton and is much more ethical than cotton or bamboo. Hemp is a very sustainable fiber that has been used for clothing for thousands of years.
Organic Hemp is one of the most sustainable and durable choices for activewear as a natural fabric. The hemp plant doesn't require a lot of water to grow.
Hemp is grown without the use of herbicides, pesticides or chemical fertilizers. It is also very resistant compared to other natural fibers.
Hemp grows very fast and in the most sustainable way, much more than cotton. In many regions like China, Korea, the Netherlands, and Chile, hemp farming goes back for generations.
Hemp has been a source of fabric for Korea since ancient times. North Korea was the largest producer of industrial hemp worldwide in 2018, with 14,891 tons produced annually according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
A lot of sportswear brands are turning to hemp to make sustainable garments and accessories. However, it's still difficult to find hemp applications in the textile industry as fibers tend to be quite short for fabrics.
Many companies are researching new technologies to improve hemp fibers' qualities. The demand for hemp textiles is very likely to grow in the next few years.
Organic hemp is a fast-growing wonder material with the following qualities:
- natural and bio-based
3. Organic linen
Organic linen is the most expensive and sustainable clothing fabric worldwide. It's a woven fabric using natural fibers made from a renewable plant-based resource: flax plants. Linen fabric is sold at a higher price than cotton because it's difficult to manufacture and has a lower availability.
Linen is a very old fabric that has been used for a very long time (over 6,000 years). It was already used for wrapping mummies in ancient Egypt to help with preservation. More than 85% of the world's production of flax fibers are originated from Europe. And flax remains a rare product as it represents less than 1% of all textile fibers consumed worldwide.
In hot and humid weather, linen is often preferred to other organic fabrics. It stays exceptionally cool and fresh as it releases moisture into the air effortlessly. It's also up to three times stronger than cotton.
Organic linen is a very sustainable resource. The flax plant requires less water than cotton to grow. Similar to hemp, the flax plant is a very versatile crop. Every part of the plant can be used.
Organic linen is a great sustainable fabric for sportswear since it has amazing properties:
4. Recycled polyester
Recycled polyester is a high-performance sustainable material for activewear. It's usually blended with spandex or elastane to add some elasticity.
Recycled polyester is also known as rPET. It's manufactured from PET bottles, industrial polyester waste, or used garments. Notable producers of recycled polyester fibers include Unifi with Repreve fabric and Carvico with Vita or Renew fabric.
Synthetic fibers are the most used materials to make sportswear. They are durable, cheap, and offer many functional advantages over natural fibers.
However, their fabrication requires synthesized polymers compounds made from petroleum-based chemicals or petrochemical products using a process called polymerization. Synthetic materials have a huge negative impact on the environment.
They contribute to plastic and micro-fiber pollution, threatening marine, land wildlife, and human health. They aren't biodegradable and will take thousands of years to decompose in the oceans.
The better alternative is to use recycled synthetic materials such as recycled polyester made from circular sources, waste materials.
Natural fibers require a lot of resources such as land and water to produce. Recycled polyester can reduce energy consumption by 30-50% and carbon emissions by nearly 60%, as well as reduce impacts on land, air, and water. Recycling also prevents waste to end up in landfills or emit toxic gases while being incinerated.
However, the recycling process is very costly, a lot more than virgin polyester production. The collection and distribution of textile waste are also challenging. That's why only a few athleisure brands use it.
Polyester is the most widely recycled plastic in the world. In theory, polyester can be recycled indefinitely without altering its quality.
It's a great sustainable fabric for sportswear because it's:
- water repellant
5. Recycled nylon
Recycled nylon is a synthetic fabric often used in the fabrication of sportswear, swimwear, and athleisure garments. It's an amazing example of high performing technical fabrics that are environmentally friendly.
Recycled nylon is manufactured from post-consumer and post-industrial wastes, such as carpet flooring, fishing nets, fabric scraps, and industrial plastics from landfills and oceans.
It's very similar to recycled polyester and is often blended with spandex or elastane.
The production of recycled nylon uses far less energy and water compared to virgin nylon. For every one ton of raw material, recycled nylon saves around 7 barrels of crude oil and 5.7 tons of CO2 equivalent emissions.
Not all recycled nylon is sustainable, ethical, and environmentally friendly. Its production still requires a lot of chemicals and water. It's necessary to ensure that the far majority of the resources needed during manufacturing are reused and not unloaded into the nearby surroundings.
Major producers of recycled nylon include:
Recycled nylon has excellent properties for sportswear such as:
6. Recycled elastane
Recycled elastane is a lightweight synthetic fiber made from spandex or elastane waste. It's expensive and not readily available. Elastane is well-known for its exceptional elasticity.
Because elastane is usually blended with other types of synthetic or natural fibers, it's not easily recyclable. It's possible to manufacture recycled spandex or elastane by collecting spandex from post-industrial waste.
Spandex waste is usually created as a by-product of the fabric manufacturing process. It's then collected, shredded, dried, dissolved, and filtered before being spun into recycled spandex yarn.
A lot of research is still needed to make recycled elastane a viable alternative for sustainable sportswear. And there is very little infrastructure already in place to collect and distribute elastane waste.
The Japanese Asahi Kasei is the world-first textile producer of recycled elastane (fiber named Roica) certified with the Global Recycled Standard since 2014.
The Taiwanese textile producer Sheico finally got the Global Recycled Standard certification for its recycled spandex fiber named Spanflex in October 2017.
Read up my definitive guide to learn more about the best certification standards for sustainable textiles.
7. Organic cotton
Organic cotton is a very popular sustainable fabric for sportswear. It's a natural fiber but requires a lot of water to grow. Organic cotton is non-GMO and uses natural fertilizers and pesticides, instead of the very hazardous chemicals used for conventional cotton.
White conventional cotton represents 2.5% of the total agricultural area on Earth. But it uses 6.8% of all pesticides and 16% of all insecticides, according to the Environmental Justice Foundation.
These strong chemicals are subsequently released into the environment and have harmful effects on farmers' health and ecosystems.
Cotton production has a huge negative environmental impact. Be sure to only buy certified organic and fair-trade cotton to ensure good working and living conditions for the farmers and workers.
Regular cotton harvests are projected to hit around 34.5 million hectares in 2020. A single regular cotton shirt requires 2,700 liters of water to produce, as well as lots of pesticides to keep production high and costs low. Most organic cotton comes from Turkey, India, and China.
Read up my article on the pros and cons of organic cotton to see how it fares against regular cotton.
Organic cotton has less impact on soil, air, and water. It uses 88% less water and 62% less energy to produce than conventional cotton, according to the Textile Exchange.
Organic cotton is often blended with spandex to make sustainable sportswear. The result is a high performing garment with the following qualities:
- fast drying
8. Viscose rayon
Viscose, lyocell, and modal are all varieties of rayon. These are textile fibers made from cellulose-based resources such as wood, bamboo, soy, or coconut.
The process of turning plants into a fabric is very energy and chemical-intensive. The plant pulp is dissolved into a viscous solution before being regenerated into a fiber.
Viscose rayon is a manufactured fiber, and not synthetic or natural. Its fabrication requires very heavy processing. It's made from natural renewable resources, but it isn't necessarily sustainable.
Highly toxic substances such as carbon disulfide or sulfur fumes have to be contained and kept from the air and waterways, to avoid poisoning the environment and putting the health of workers at risk.
Many different rayon fiber manufacturers employ more or less environmentally friendly processes. Ethical production facilities can almost fully recover and reuse chemicals with closed-loop processes.
However, more than 150 million trees are cut down each year to make viscose rayon. Textile production is responsible for massive deforestation, destruction of ecosystems, and CO2 emissions.
Fortunately, some viscose rayon fibers are sourced sustainably. And many organizations are working to develop innovative and chemical-free fiber production.
Tencel is a sustainably sourced wood-based lyocell fiber from the Austrian manufacturer Lenzing.
The future of viscose rayon for athleisure looks promising with properties like:
9. Bioplastics and bio-synthetics
Bioplastics and bio-synthetics are bio-based manufactured fibers made from biological sources such as sugar cane, seaweed, starch, or agricultural wastes.
These plants undergo a very heavy chemical treatment to make textile fibers. Chemicals transform plants into polymers which are then spun and woven into fabrics.
Bioplastics and bio-synthetics use biological materials and not fossil fuels. That's why they are called bio-based plastics and are made from renewable biomass.
But not all biobased plastics are sustainable and made from 100% renewable materials. Some contain petroleum-based materials.
Bioplastics and bio-synthetics are still very expensive compared to conventional plastics. A lot of technology innovation, infrastructure development, and investments are required to transform the plastic industry into a more bio-based, circular, and regenerative industry.
The only bioplastic being recyclable is bio-derived polyethylene, which is commonly used in packaging. Most bioplastics aren't recyclable or biodegradable and contribute to plastic pollution.
10. Animal products and by-products
Forget wool, leather, fur, silk, and down. If you are looking for eco-friendly fabrics, there are plenty of other choices. It isn't necessary to exploit animals to make high-performance and affordable clothing.
There are already tons of cruelty-free and environmentally friendly fabrics to choose from. Animal-derived materials aren't necessary anymore in the textile and apparel industry.
Overall, we need more beneficial practices in the fashion industry that are better for people, animals, and ecosystems all over the world.
Animal products and by-products are obtained from animals that are enslaved, exploited, subjected to painful treatments, and exposed to dangerous substances with long-term disastrous effects on ecosystems and human health.
Read up my article on why we should stop buying and wearing fur clothes if you aren't convinced yet.
These are the top 10 sustainable fabrics for sportswear. They are very different from each other and have a distinct impact on the environment.
As conscious consumerism is rising, sustainable activewear will become more available over the next few years.
I encourage you to make the switch now and lead other people toward a more eco-conscious way of living and buying clothing.
Many brands are trying to make efforts to be more sustainable and meet consumers' demands. But the targets are high and they are nowhere near where they should be.
Do you know any excellent activewear brand pioneering in sustainability?
About the Author: Alex Assoune
Alex Assoune (MS) is a global health and environmental advocate. He founded Panaprium to inspire others with conscious living, ethical, and sustainable fashion. Alex has worked in many countries to address social and environmental issues. He speaks three languages and holds two Master of Science degrees in Engineering from SIGMA and IFPEN schools.