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Could Sportswear Be the Tipping Point for Sustainable Apparel?


Editor's Note: This post is part of an ongoing student blogging series entitled The Business Of Sports & Sustainability. This “micro-blog” is the product of the nations first MBA/MPA certificate program dedicated to sustainability in the sports industry. You can follow the series here.

By Jill Stoneberg

For several years leading sports apparel brands, including Nike, Adidas and Puma, have touted the use of sustainable manufacturing practices and recycled materials.  From Nike shirts made from waterless dyes, to certified cradle-to-cradle shoes made by Puma, sportswear has taken great sustainability strides.  Needless to say, this shift to integrate product creation with sustainable design principles has not emerged solely for the altruistic purpose of saving the planet.  Nor has it been driven solely to realize cost savings associated with less resource-intensive manufacturing practices. 

Rather, sustainability for some sports apparel companies has been embraced and marketed to spur innovation and deliver superior products.   As a result, apparel manufactured with sustainability in mind is becoming increasingly available in the sportswear industry.  Avid sports fans, as well as consumers who wear casual sports attire, are each connected to the sustainable apparel movement -- even if they are not consciously aware of it.

Perhaps the environmentally preferable material most recognizable to the consumer is recycled polyester, which is made from recycled PET bottles.  Today recycled polyester can be found in products ranging from the fleece pullover to high-end performance attire and professional uniforms, such as those worn at the Olympics and World Cup.

High-profile sporting events reach millions of people and, along with corporate sponsors’ brands and products, influence spectators and fans around the globe.  While some events and teams choose to promote their sustainable threads, others fly under the radar.

Basketball uniforms and tracksuits sponsored by Nike at the 2012 London Olympics featured recycled materials and were actively marketed as green, innovative and designed to enhance athletic performance. The Nike tracksuit, for example, featured the use of recycled plastic and a design that reduced drag -- having the potential to shave off fractions of a second from an athlete’s race.

Perhaps the most recent news splash around the use of recycled PET fabrics by a sports team was made by the Detroit Lions this past August. The Detroit Lions, an NFL team from Detroit, Michigan, announced that their practice jerseys would be made with Repreve, a recycled PET fabric supplied by Unifi. Each practice jersey is made from 21 plastic bottles. This commitment is linked to the team’s “Turn It Green” marketing campaign and is designed to boost fan awareness about the team’s ambitious 100 percent recycling goal at its stadium.

In contrast to the active promotion of events and teams: Who knew that the entire NBA league has been sporting sustainable threads since 2010? Adidas, the current uniform sponsor of the league, released its Revolution 30 design in 2010 -- a product line that has been recognized for having 60 percent recycled material content, is 30 percent lighter, and keeps athletes cool and dry in half the time than other materials. Additional brands, including Athleta, are known to incorporate sustainable fabrics in their products -- but don’t actively market that attribute apart from the garment label.

The sportswear industry’s focus on merging ecologically-sensitive innovation with superior performance has instigated a shift that is making sustainable apparel mainstream. This could be a tipping point for the apparel industry as a whole.

Sports apparel is one of the leading growth segments in apparel. According to NPD Group, growth in the sportswear segment is fueling overall growth in the apparel industry. From June 2013 to July 2014, sports apparel made up 16 percent of total apparel sales, and grew by 7 percent from the previous year. In contrast, the total apparel industry grew by 1 percent.

With leading brands such as Nike incorporating sustainable fabrics and manufacturing practices into their products, the average consumer is probably unaware of the environmental performance of the products they are buying. Through sponsorship of collegiate and professional teams, trusted sportswear brands are influencing millions of consumers around the world. Next time you are getting dressed to hit the gym, take a peek at the fabrics on the garment label -- you just might be giving some plastic bottles a second life.

Image credit: Flickr/indywriter

Jill Stoneberg is a Sustainability Manager where she focuses on sustainability strategy, goal setting and tracking, reporting, and customer and employee engagement. Jill holds an MBA from Presidio Graduate School. Follow her on twitter @JillStoneberg.

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This “micro-blog” is the product of the nations first MBA/MPA certificate program dedicated to sustainability in the sports industry. Led by Dr. Allen Hershkowitz, Senior Scientist at NRDC, The Business of Sports and Sustainability certificate is housed at Presidio Graduate School, the nation’s top sustainable MBA program. Posts explore the connection of sustainability with operations, branding and fan engagement of the sports industry including leagues, teams, venues, sponsors, vendors and surrounding communities.

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