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Sustainable activewear: How your gym kit is going green

As consumers look to reform their shopping habits in light of the climate crisis, Olivia Petter looks at how the activewear market is becoming more sustainable

Saturday 01 February 2020 09:16 GMT
(Rex Features)

Fast fashion culture is facing a public reckoning. Consumers are asking more questions than ever about the environmental impact of manufacturing, producing and throwing away vast quantities of clothing without any consideration for the planet. As a result more people are pledging to buy less, to buy better quality or try and buy second-hand. Reduce, reuse, recycle is fashionable once again.

While this is a worthwhile commitment for stocking most of your wardrobe - there is one part you’re probably less inclined to buy vintage; your sports gear. Admittedly you probably have fewer outfits for exercising than day-to-day wear but even in small numbers they could still be the most damning items in your wardrobe - at least when it comes to sustainability.

Traditionally, activewear is manufactured from synthetic fabrics such as nylon, polyester and spandex. These materials might boast properties that benefit your workout – such as being lightweight, stretchy, or sweat-wicking – but they certainly don’t benefit the environment. All three are non-biodegradable and require huge amounts of energy and water to produce. Additionally, they are not long-lasting, particularly when you’re exercising in them on a regular basis.

“People are beginning to wake up and realise we need to be more sustainable with our sartorial choices, and activewear has long been one of the worst offenders,” says celebrity stylist Alex Longmore.

“It’s not just the materials either. When we wash these fabrics in our machines is that they shed millions of tiny particles of plastic that are so small they drain out of the washing machine, through our water waste and ultimately into our oceans and into our food chain. That doesn’t bear thinking about for the environment and the marine life that swallow this nonsensical waste," explains Longmore.

But all that could be about to change. Like many sectors of the apparel industry, the activewear market is undergoing an eco-friendly revolution.

According to global fashion search platform Lyst, sustainable activewear is set to be one of the biggest trends in 2020. Searches for the term itself are up by 151 per cent, with interest in specific materials, like econyl, organic cotton and tencel, also on the rise.

There are changes happening at every level of the market. Industry leaders like Adidas and Nike have launched sustainable initiatives to reduce their carbon footprints, with the former unveiling a line of footwear that is 100 per cent recyclable while the latter has started making clothing from recycled polyester and sustainable cotton.

Meanwhile, luxe athleisure brand Lululemon has switched from paper-based packaging to Forest Stewardship Council-certified materials and Sweaty Betty has started selling leggings made from plastic bottles.

“These are brilliant initiatives that we continue to see gain momentum as the sharing economy and re-purposing gain momentum amongst swathes of consumer demographics,” says Emily Gordon-Smith, director of consumer products at trend intelligence business Stylus.

“There is of course still going to be a desire for the new, so we’ll also see apparel and activewear brands investing in biodesign, producing limited-edition runs and couture products, using biomaterials as a way to secure sustainable credibility and develop more ethical practices.”

We’re already seeing this from a few brands, Gordon-Smith notes, pointing to how Stella McCartney has partnered with biotech company Bolt Threads on a biodegradable Bio-fabric Tennis Dress for her Adidas line.

But it’s not just industry giants who are leading gym-goers into a greener future. The increasing demand for sustainable fashion has generated a wave of independent boutique activewear brands whose USP is their low carbon footprint.

These include footwear label Allbirds, yoga mat company Manduka Mats and Girlfriend Collective, which sells a range of activewear all made from exclusively recycled materials.

Tala, the brainchild of 22-year-old Grace Beverley, is one of the newest brands on the sustainable activewear scene. Oxford University graduate Beverley cut her teeth in the fitness world as an influencer – she has more than one million followers on Instagram – and launched Tala in May last year.

All of the brand’s activewear is made from upcycled or recycled materials, while its “core” collection is manufactured from factory offcuts that would have otherwise gone to landfill. The clothes themselves – cycling shorts, body-hugging leggings, and zip-up crop tops – come in earthy shades of brown or sea green and feel thicker and more robust than conventional activewear.

“We ensure that sustainability is always at our core, no matter what we are doing,” says Beverley. “If there’s something that doesn’t quite sit right with us, we either don’t make it or we come up with a solution.”

At Tala’s London pop-up in November, all of the shopping bags were 100 per cent recyclable and any plastic equipment used for the shop was rented.

Beverley clarifies that making sustainable activewear is “not easy” but that it’s a challenge worth undertaking given the effects of the ongoing climate crisis.

“People are becoming more and more concerned about their own impact on the environment, so I don’t think there will be much space for unsustainable brands for much longer,” she adds.

“Existing brands are going to have to start looking into more sustainable and ethical manufacturing methods. If a small start-up like Tala can do it, then so can the bigger already established brands.”

The UK sportswear market is forecast to grow by 20.9 per cent by 2023 to a value of £6.7bn, and in the next five years is estimated to outperform all other major retail sectors. As we see activewear take over it is no longer enough to hope that doing our part in the rest of our wardrobe will cut it.

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