With high levels of BPA found in synthetic athletic wear that sheds microplastics when laundered, you may be looking for safer alternatives for your workout gear. These tiny plastics are polluting the air and water and putting our health at risk. Fortunately, several brands and suppliers offer alternatives to virgin petroleum-based fabrics — including polyester, nylon, acrylic, rayon, polyamide, and spandex — that are so prevalent in athletic clothing today.
How To Make the Swap
Switching from clothes made from plastic to those that aren’t may be tricky at first. Many of the fast fashion brands in shopping malls and big box stores are filled with plastic, while the innovative greener brands tend to be smaller and available only online. But buying from sustainable brands is critical because when you choose their products, you support their positive practices and encourage other companies to jump on board to reduce plastic.
Another challenge to finding sustainable athletic clothing is recognizing that 100% plastic-free may not always be possible. “Unfortunately, much athletic wear, even that which is sold as ‘natural’ or ‘plastic-free,’ often contains a small percentage of plastic-based fibers such as Lycra or elastane,” explained Erica Cirino, communications manager at Plastic Pollution Coalition. This is because plastic-based fabrics tend to be the best options to create stretchiness and handle sweat. Many of the most sustainable brands still use anywhere from 3% to 10% synthetic stretch fibers in their fabric blends, especially for leggings.
There are three categories of fabrics to look for when making the swap: recycled, natural, and bio-based. Cirino suggests the following tiered approach when choosing athletic clothing: “To avoid BPA and other dangers of plastic-based clothing, seek out alternatives made of (ideally, undyed) natural fibers — such as organic and fair-trade bamboo, hemp, jute, wool, and cotton. When you cannot find clothing that is completely plastic-free, look for labels with minimal plastic content to reduce your exposure risks.”
Fabric made from recycled plastic, also known as recycled polyester or rPET fabric, has gained popularity in recent years due to its durability and potential environmental benefits. By utilizing discarded plastic bottles and other plastic waste, this fabric helps reduce the amount of plastic polluting oceans and piling up in landfills. By eliminating the need to extract new fossil fuels, its production also consumes less energy and emits fewer greenhouse gases compared to virgin polyester.
However, it is not the ideal fabric. It still sheds microfibers during washing that can end up in the air and water. Additionally, the process of transforming plastic waste into fabric requires the use of chemicals, which could potentially impact both human health and the environment.
One example of a recycled fabric is ECONYL®, which uses waste that otherwise pollutes the planet, such as fishing nets, fabric scraps, carpet flooring, and industrial plastic, and turns it into regenerated nylon to make new products.
Another way to green your athletic clothing is to opt for renewable and natural fibers like organic cotton, wool, TENCEL™, hemp, and bamboo. According to Aileen Lee, founder of Infinite Goods, an online sustainable fashion marketplace, “Anytime you have something more natural it is better because it won’t shed microplastics throughout its lifecycle.” She explained the difficulty of finding plastic-free athletic clothing. “It is very hard to get to 0% spandex in athletic wear except by wearing an organic cotton jogger.” It’s not uncommon for manufacturers to incorporate a small percentage of plastic fiber with natural fibers, so be sure to check labels to confirm fiber content.
According to the Organic Trade Association, organic cotton is grown without the use of synthetic toxic pesticides, fertilizers, or genetically engineered seed. To be certified with the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), the processing of the fibers also cannot include any toxic inputs. Organic cotton fabric is comfortable, soft to the touch, and durable. This is probably the easiest fabric alternative to find. Check out these brands: Cottonique, Groceries Apparel, Maggie’s Organics, MATE, Organique Studio, and PACT.
When most people think of wool, they envision heavy sweaters. As it turns out, Merino and alpaca wool are great materials for athletic clothing. They are comfortable, naturally elastic, thermoregulating, moisture-wicking, odor-resistant, and breathable. Also, knitting wool clothing is a no-waste process and used wool clothing can easily be recycled into insulation or blankets. More brands are now selling woolen active clothing, such as Arms of Andes, Icebreaker, and Paka.
Made from sustainably sourced wood by environmentally responsible processes, this fabric is nontoxic and produced using a closed-loop system. It is soft, durable, breathable, biodegradable, and absorbs moisture well. It is often combined with a wide range of textile fibers — including natural fibers, such as cotton and wool, and synthetic fibers, such as polyester and acrylic — to enhance the aesthetics and functionality of the fabric. View a list of active brands using TENCEL.
This sustainable crop creates light, comfortable, long-lasting, fast-drying, and moisture-resistant fabric. Blends of cotton and hemp are especially popular in athletic clothing. Check out Hemp Black, Nomads Hempwear, and Rawganique.
While bamboo is a fast-growing renewable resource, not all fabrics made from bamboo are safe and sustainable. Manufacturers often use harsh chemicals to process bamboo into a soft material for clothing. Look for the Oeko-Tex certified and the bluesign approved labels for help identifying bamboo clothing that is safe for you and the environment. Some brands that carry bamboo apparel include Cariloha, eleven44, and tasc.
Some brands are starting to use bio-based fabrics produced wholly or partly from renewable resources like discarded food scraps, castor bean oil, sugar cane, straw, nut shells, avocado pits, carrot tops, pomegranate peels, used coffee grounds, banana and onion skins, and algae. The major benefits of producing sustainable bio-fabrics include reducing waste, lowering the carbon footprint in the synthesis process, and potential for biodegradability.
With a goal to make “100% of our products with sustainable materials and end-of-use solutions to advance a circular ecosystem by 2030,” active wear company Lululemon launched its first products made with plant-based bio nylon earlier this year. Youer, a smaller active wear brand that focuses on sustainable fabrics and supply chain, is also exploring bio-based fabrics. Mallory Ottariano, creative director and founder of Youer told Earth911, “If we are not using recycled products, then we are using bio nylon. It has become one of our customers’ favorite fabrics and we’re expanding our product offering in this fabric each season.” She has high hopes that the bio-based fabric market will continue to expand. “I think the technology is totally there. Fabrics are being made out of fava beans and avocado shells. I would like to see more buy-in from big brands to allow this type of technology to get mainstream.”
Keep an eye out for PYRATEX® bio-based fabrics made from plants like seaweed and banana peels, as well as natural and recycled fibers. Check out these brands: Ganni, Groceries Apparel, Pangaia, and Vitamin A.