How to Buy Eco-Friendly Workout Clothes

Yes, there are things that you can do. No, it’s not as simple as a list.

‘Eco-friendly workout clothes’ has become a much-used phrase in the fashion industry, coming into common use as people become more mindful of the impact of their lifestyle and purchasing choices on the environment.

Activities that are performed outdoors (hiking, skiing, running, paddle board) or have philosophical underpinnings that encourage mindful consumption and reverence for nature (yoga, surfing) help define a group of people that is likely to be interested in eco-friendly workout clothes.

The growth of this market has helped drive the creation of independent companies that design, manufacture and market their own eco-friendly workout clothes. Leggings, sports bras, t-shirts, yoga mats, not to mention shoes, are all frequently labeled as being ‘eco-friendly,’ but what does that really mean?

  • Is it better to wear organic cotton, polyester, or bamboo? Are all man-made fabrics bad? What about recycled materials?
  •  How eco-friendly is the brand’s manufacturing process? How is waste dealt with? 
  • Who made your leggings? Were they given decent working conditions and paid fairly? 
  • How did your clothes get to the store? What kind of packaging are they in? 

As you can see, there are a lot of questions and in some cases, the answers are far from clear cut. This article will explain some of the basic issues and definitions surrounding eco-friendly workout clothing: materials and their processing, manufacturing, and transport/sales.

The goal is to help you understand some basics and make decisions about workout wear options that best meet your standards for comfort, performance, and environmental impact. That seems more helpful than a random list of some of the newest eco-friendly activewear lines.

It’s important to note that responsibility for a product’s sustainability does not end when it is shipped to a retail store and purchased.  You also have an impact in determining the ultimate use and disposal of a garment or shoe, as we’ll discuss later.

Fabrics and Materials

There are two types of fabric:

  • Natural fibers are made from plant or animal sources and include cotton, wool, silk, hemp, and bamboo. 
  • Synthetic fibers are man-made and include polyester, acrylic, nylon, rayon, acetate, spandex and orlon.

Most eco-friendly activewear is going to emphasize natural fibers or the recycling of synthetic fibers. Natural fibers are easier on the environment in terms of their biodegradability, but the process of obtaining, manufacturing and processing them can consume a large amount of energy and resources. 

For example, cotton uses a lot of water in its trek from field to t-shirt, and while organic cotton is better, it’s a very small percentage of the cotton garments that are manufactured worldwide. While hemp is a sustainable plant, the process of turning it into leggings or yoga mats can be a dirty one, though it depends on the manufacturer’s investment in sustainability.

Synthetic fibers often were developed to address specific shortcomings of natural fibers in the performance of athletic wear. Cotton and other natural fibers absorb moisture become heavier and take a long time to dry. Wearing cotton during a hot yoga or spin class is like wearing a towel. Synthetic fibers and materials have the ability to wick moisture away from the skin and dry quickly, and they can be extremely thin and lightweight, yet strong.

Synthetic fibers have been found to release microfibers when washed. According to this Greenpeace article, one garment can release 700,000 microfibers in a single wash These are comparable to the microbeads found in cosmetics, which have been banned in some places.  These tiny bits of plastic wash down drains and eventually make into waterways, lakes and oceans where they are consumed by fish and sea life, ending up on our dinner tables.

CBS This Morning report on microfiber water pollution. Discusses research on alternatives and looks at Patagonia, a leading outdoor apparel maker with an eco-friendly profile.

Natural materials shed microfibers as well, but they are biodegradable and/or digestible and get broken down. Plastic never really disappears, ending up either in the water supply, sitting in a landfill, or being burned, which releases hazardous fumes.

However, synthetic and blended fibers are being significantly improved environmentally with research as are their manufacturing processes. Synthetic or blended fibers can last longer when worn in conditions that are typical for activewear, making them eco-friendly workout clothes–sometimes.

Recycling and Sustainability

Enter the idea of using recycled materials to make high-performance activewear that incorporates synthetic fibers. A number of indie companies use recycled water bottles or other plastics to make spandex, nylon and other fibers. While this reduces pollution and uses less energy by not creating new synthetics or tossing old ones into landfills, it can have drawbacks. Most of the facilities that take the used bottles are located in countries with low incomes and fewer protections for the workers who must strip labels from plastic bottles and clean them.

Another keyword that is not always clear is sustainability. It might surprise you to learn that there is no common, industry-wide definition of sustainable fashion.

There are different ways of defining sustainability, but it essentially involves utilizing resources in ways that meet today’s needs while ensuring that those resources are still abundant and available for use by future generations. Sustainability is about everything in the clothing life cycle: design, fabric, manufacturing process, transportation, packaging and marketing.

Green Strategy, a consultancy specializing in sustainability within the fashion industry, has proposed standards for what they term “more sustainable fashion” as a starting point:

“More sustainable fashion can be defined as clothing, shoes and accessories that are manufactured, marketed and used in the most sustainable manner possible, taking into account both environmental and socio-economic aspects. In practice, this implies continuous work to improve all stages of the product’s life cycle, from design, raw material production, manufacturing, transport, storage, marketing and final sale, to use, reuse, repair, remake and recycling of the product and its components.”

How can you judge a brand’s level of commitment to sustainability? “For a product/brand to be sustainable, I think a clear effort has to be shown that the brand is trying to make their product in the most sustainable manner or fashion,” says Erin Orbach, Brand Manager for Boody.  “This includes everything from sourcing materials, to production processes, to packaging solutions and final certifications.”

Boody activewear made from bamboo | Facebook page

Boody creates ‘basic essentials’ designed to be the cornerstone of a wardrobe: underwear, bras, socks, leggings, tops. They use bamboo that is certified, does not contribute to deforestation and is turned into yarn using a close loop system that recycles water. Each step of their process appears to have been thoughtfully designed in order to provide a durable, comfortable product with minimal environmental impact.

What Eco-Friendly Workout Clothes Should You Buy?

Textile supply chains are among the most intricate of any manufacturing sector, and so this is an area where it can be difficult to assess a particular garment’s ecological manufacturing footprint. Fibers must be made into yarn, a process that frequently involves the use of chemicals as well as various treatments and dyes.

After the yarn is woven into fabric, it is cut into garments and sewn. Many times this work is done at different facilities and the material must be transported in various ways, all of which carries environmental impact. Short of being present at each step in a garment’s manufacturing process, how is anyone supposed to determine the impact of each step along the way?

The answer is simple: you can’t. But Orbach does provide some good guidelines for fitness gear shopping:

“For active wear brands, they’re usually leading with their fabric. Find out the main component of their fabric, how it’s grown, how it’s sewn, how it’s packaged, and what their certifications are. Another big aspect to note is also seasonality. Many active wear brands come out with new collections for each season – this can be a huge waste and promotes fast-fashion. “

Erin Orbach, Brand Manager, Boody

You should also ask. Most companies maintain a website and social media presence and these can be great sources of information. The companies most on top of their game have a robust blog with recent posts that provide information on how their brands measure up ecologically. It’s easier than ever to send an email or Instagram comment to someone at these companies, and if sustainability is any part of their overall program, they get questions about it every day.

Maybe you can wear that older outfit to work out in…and repost it to Instagram with an #eco-friendly hastag.

In fact, a great deal of what gets pushed in the fashion industry comes down to what people are demanding. The fitness industry seems to be ahead of general fashion in developing eco-friendly, more sustainable practices and products and that is likely because people who participate in many active pursuits are asking for them.

But there is still a long way to go, as Lilly Richardson, yoga teacher and designer for UK based League Collective, states: “The industry has the means and technology to be recycling all of our clothing, but because the demands aren’t there, it is still a costly process. If we want to see this world continue, something needs to change.”

As mentioned by Boody’s Orbach, seasonal collections, fast fashion and closet churn all have a large impact on the ultimate sustainability of any product regardless of how it is made and brought to market. It’s nice to have new gear, but every runner or yogi has a favorite pair of shoes or leggings or that organic cotton t-shirt that is just so soft you want to sleep in it.

Is it possible that we can simply buy fewer clothes, maintain and repair them? That would seem to require a massive cultural shift, but there are already trends toward minimalism in other aspects of life and a no-buy movement has trended in some areas of the online fashion and beauty community.

Now you know that there’s no perfect formula for eco-friendly workout clothes but it’s important to keep up with the latest developments in fabrics and processes and to research the companies you choose to buy from.