Activewear has taken the world by storm and the global demand for stretchy wonder garments is set to almost double over the next 5 years! Activewear that’s worn whilst going about day to day life is now termed ‘athleisure’. Athleisure may have started out as a trend, but it’s safe to say that we’re undergoing a major cultural shift in how we dress.
A global pandemic coupled with a greater importance on physical fitness has led us on the trajectory to wardrobes stacked full synthetic versatility. Activewear is becoming one of the essentials, maybe even taking denim’s place. But at what cost to our well-being?
The dark side of the athleisure industry
In the 1950s polyester and nylon were seen as the answer to all of our problems. No ironing required and very cheap to produce! In the 60s synthetic fabrics were starting to be seen as ‘cheap’ and of low quality but it didn’t last long. Industry powers got together on a marketing campaign that would cement the market popularity of synthetic fabrics and the increasing durable synthetic blends for years to come. Reminds us a little of the tobacco industry!
Quick production times and cheap materials mean that companies can make huge profit margins on synthetic apparel with the right branding strategy. In 2014 it was reported that the production of synthetic fibres had finally surpassed cotton. Synthetic fibres now represent almost two-thirds of fibre consumption for apparel, with developing economies relying of synthetic textiles more so than developed economies.
The growth of the multibillion dollar athleisure industry has certainly been helped by fast fashion. It’s this same attitude towards our clothing that is harming the environment.
It’s estimated that 35% of microplastics in the ocean are from our clothing. Our activewear is a huge part of that, given that it’s almost entirely synthetic and we wash it repeatedly.
The lifetime cost of athleisure wear is huge
In the current athleisure market, consumers repeatedly fail to understand the lifetime cost of their apparel. Active apparel is just one more sector competing for natural resources and emitting carbon. How much harm can it do?
The combined impact of the total resources used to manufacture activewear and the waste produced is huge.
A $30 price tag does not reflect the true cost of a synthetic garment. Cheap leggings and sports bras are merely passing the true cost of our apparel to the environment.
In other words it’s a short term gain (in terms of dollars saved) but a long term loss (in terms of the cost to our natural environment). The brunt of the cost is seen in the mounting landfills, dangerous emissions and the effects of global temperature rises on our environment.
We’re all out there running and jumping our way thinking we’re doing great things for our health but harming our environment with each stride.
Sustainability issues in the athleisure fashion segment
We want more sustainable options, but they just aren’t good enough.
As consumers begin to understand the true cost of their wardrobes, companies are taking steps to fulfill the demand for more sustainable sportswear options. Within the athleisure and activewear space expectation in regards to technical performance attributes make the switch challenging.
The use of cotton and bamboo blends, although with good intention, fall very short of the sweat wicking and stretch qualities of our favorite synthetic leggings. As a highly active person, it’s almost impossible to be content with the sustainable activewear materials options.
The use of recycled plastic bottles or recycled synthetics such as polyester was one of the first sustainable practices to gain traction. The idea behind the practice is undoubtedly thoughtful, however, it doesn’t do very much at all to solve the problem at hand.
Activewear is a highly laundered product and not one that’s a good candidate for recycled plastics. By taking plastic from the ocean and transforming it into activewear we’re effectively just putting it back into the ocean again but in smaller and harder to collect microplastics! Yes, plastics should be recycled, but into products that do not go in the washing machine, such as shoes or tables and chairs!
So, where to next?
The journey towards affordable, sustainable activewear that is fit for purpose
The activewear space has a long way to go until it’s truly sustainable. The good news is that demand is starting to push more and more brands in the right direction. There are now real options to consider for the eco and health conscious consumer.
Let’s tackle the elephant in the room head on! One of the most challenging barriers to the traction of sustainable activewear is the cost component. Technical fabrics made from sustainable sources are not cheap, and the design and manufacturing expertise are in short supply.
Unless our governments decide to ban synthetic fabrics, which would certainly rock the fashion world! The only way we can move the industry forward is through education and collective action.
At this point in time sustainable activewear will only be affordable for some people. But it’s these first customers who will start the ripple effect that can shift the entire supply chain, making sustainable activewear more accessible in the years to come. Ultimately the free market will only produce what consumers will buy, so if everyone stopped buying synthetics today we would be racing to come up with solutions!
There’s also the mindset of better with less. With education we hope more and more people will begin to understand the true cost of their possessions and the value of investing in one quality piece of clothing rather than replaceable items.
The industry needs to produce less but offer more. The strategy of planned obsolescence that brought profits to many businesses in the past does not belong to our future!
How can sustainable activewear help
If every single person was to change their purchasing habits to only buy sustainable activewear we’d make some serious progress in the race to lower emissions. In fact, up to 40% of the fashion industry's carbon emissions comes from Polyester!
In cutting back on our polyester habit, we’d also reduce the amount of microplastics that flow into our oceans each year. It’s estimated that 1.5 metric tonnes of microplastics reach our oceans each year, 35% of those come from our clothing.Activewear being primarily made from plastic-based synthetic fibres, would make up a large part of that pollution.
Research has found that an average washing load of 6kg could release an approximately 137,951 fibres from polyester-cotton blend fabric, 496,030 fibres from polyester and 728,789 from acrylic! That’s a lot of fibres.
Another topic we’ve not delved into much in this article, is the impact of petroleum-based synthetic fibres on our health. Aside from its impact on our environment, synthetic materials aren’t doing our health any favours. There are a lot of chemicals used to manufacture activewear. When we exercise and sweat, these chemicals are then absorbed by our bodies.
There’s some research emerging on the topic, but there’s still a lot that we don’t know.
Interesting reads on the importance of sustainable activewear
As we mentioned earlier, education is key to making the big changes we need for our future. We’ve collected a few of our favorite articles that will help to educate our readers on the topic.
- Primary Microplastics in the Oceans: a Global Evaluation of Sources Authors: Julien Boucher, Damien Friot. Read here.
- How Green are your leggings? Recycled polyester is not a silver bullet (yet) Read here.
- Waste Not, Want Not: Trends in Biodegradable Sportswear. Read here.
- What are bio-based fibers and what can they do? Read here.
- When performance counts, bio based materials deliver. Read here.
- About biopolymers: biodegradable, compostable to not release microplastics during their lifecycle. Read here.
- How sustainable is recycled polyester? Read here.