By Lauren R. Newton
From the birth of the mainstream “athleisure” movement to boundary-pushing icons like Serena Williams, fashion has inspired many of us to suck it up and hit the gym in the style (or at least pretend we went this morning). Professional athletes endorsed by high-performance brands have long capitalized upon the nexus of sport and fashion. Luckily, many of the same athleisure brands that collaborate with athletes are embracing corporate social responsibility (CSR) platforms and offering more sustainable materials.
Athletes expect their clothing to work as hard as they do. This means they do a lot of laundry, which ultimately diminishes the performance of many fibers and sends numerous items to the landfill. Actress Sara Gilbert coined the term “imperfect environmentalist” in her 2013 book by the same title to describe the difficult dichotomy between completing everyday tasks (like hitting the gym and doing laundry) and reducing our impact on the planet.
Provided we take personal responsibility for the quantity and quality of the materials we purchase (and wash in cold water and skip the dryer), however, it is relatively easy to clothe ourselves in eco-friendly performance wear.
Despite industrial improvements and increased consumer awareness, the production of one T-shirt can still create 3.6 kilograms of carbon emissions and consume upwards of 7,900 gallons of water. The high-performance clothing industry would do well to follow the closed-loop model pioneered by carpet and printer companies.
We, as consumers, have the power to demand pragmatic innovation and change our purchasing behavior to support a more sustainable business model.
Jennifer Gilbert, chief marketing officer of closed-loop fashion company I:CO, told TriplePundit that 95 percent of all the materials that make up our favorite garments are reusable or recyclable, provided we have access to the tools and brands that participate in take-back and donation programs. Considering demand for man-made fibers like polyester has doubled since the 1990s (largely to support the growing demand for high-performance athletic clothing), it is time to take sustainability off the bench and move it to the starting lineup.
The solution is not to exercise solely in cotton or other natural fibers.
As the most popular (and water-intensive) fiber used in clothing manufacture, cotton crops account for a quarter of all pesticide use in the U.S., according to the USDA. Moreover, the United States is the largest exporter of cotton in the world, driving the global popularity of “fast fashion” – clothing that is considered out-of-style or worn out within a season. According to Mattias Wallander, CEO of USAgain, a textile-recycling company, the volume of textile trash in the United States rose by 40 percent between 1999 and 2009.
Beyond the issue of end-of-life waste, the manufacture of polyester and other synthetics is also an energy-intensive process. Creating those coveted stretchy yoga pants requires large quantities of crude oil and releases emissions including volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can cause or aggravate respiratory diseases and cancers.
The EPA labels many textile-manufacturing facilities as generators of hazardous waste. Moreover, the fashion industry has long been plagued by reports of unsustainable manufacturing processes and human rights violations. The clothing we are purchasing to participate in healthy activities may actually cause more harm than good.
What can I buy?
In the same way an athlete carefully reads product labels on food, the easiest way to green your dresser drawers is to read the tags on clothing and look for recycled content and environmentally-friendly fiber inputs.
While brands like Nike and Patagonia belong to trade groups devoted to sustainability like the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and utilize a brand-specific sustainability indices, certain products are greener than others.
When out shopping for athleisure garments, look for the following environmentally-friendly fibers and logos:
- Recycled PET: If your NFL football jersey or Denali fleece jacket says, “made with recycled materials,” it probably contains Repreve, a brand of recycled PET fibers. The North Carolina-based company Unifi is the leading producer of R-PET and has repurposed over 4 billion plastic bottles since 2009. Unifi is a key partner of performance and athleisure brands like Patagonia, Nike, Roxy, Volcom, Kathmandu, Blue Avocado and Quiksilver, so you may have already purchased American-made recycled fabrics.
- Organic or ‘better’ cotton: Look for a 100 percent organic cotton label on retail brands, or seek out brands that belong to a standardized system for production principles and supply chain monitoring, such as the Better Cotton Initiative. Members of BCI include Adidas, The Northface, Reef, Timberland, Vans, H&M, Nike, G-Star Raw, and Kathmandu. True organic cotton is treated with no synthetic pesticides, insecticides, herbicides, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs). It is important for an athlete to keep such toxins away from sweaty skin, and organic growing also protects farmers and countless other species and ecosystems. Unfortunately, less than 1 percent of all cotton grown in the United States is organic. With over 10,000 pesticide-related worker deaths in the U.S. alone, it is past time for a drastic change.
- Cradle to Cradle Certified Products: Brands carrying this label are members of the Cradle to Cradle Fashion Positive Initiative. The Initiative has partnered with a number of brands, from Stella McCartney to Belk department stores, to employ the Cradle to Cradle framework to “create healthy and safe fashion materials that can be effectively recycled (or upcycled) or re-used.” While large performance athletic companies like Nike have not partnered with the Initiative (yet), a materials library of certified apparel and material inputs is growing daily and can be consulted by consumers.
- Tencel: Made from natural cellulose wood pulp, this environmentally-friendly fabric is fully biodegradable. It uses Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood pulp and less-toxic chemicals in a closed-loop process, according to Green America. Before you purchase your next hoodie, swap cotton for the more breathable choice.
While fashion blogs recently heralded luxury brand Chanel for “insinuating wood shavings” into their haute couture winter runway show and Jae Rhim Lee’s “mushroom death suit” has been making headlines, there are simpler, less bizarre, and more affordable ways for the everyday athlete to participate in the eco-athleisure movement.
Image credits: 1) Pixabay 2) Natural Resources Defense Council
Lauren R. Newton is a driven CSR strategist committed to aligning sport and environmental stewardship. Formerly an International Climate Program Associate at Environmental Defense Fund, her expertise in sustainable practice is comprehensive, context-specific and reinforced with the grit of a competitive athlete. She will graduate with a M.A. Sustainability from Wake Forest University in 2016.