Our intention with this feature was to create an inspirational selection of better-made sportswear. However, as it ended up being a total polyester party, we thought we'd also share some thoughts and facts, and some (hopefully) helpful advice on how to consume it more responsibly.

Above: Compressive High-Rise Legging, 79% RPET, Girlfriend Collective. Seamless Yoga Bra, 91% recycled polyamide, Arket


So how sustainable is sportswear, really?

Well, the material of choice for this type of clothing is of course polyester (or polyamide/nylon), which due to its quick-drying and moisture-wicking properties is perfect for sweaty activities. And while you can make polyester way more sustainable by producing it from things like recycled post-consumer PET bottles (RPET) instead of virgin materials, it still remains a non-biodegradable, fossil fuel-based fiber (plastic, basically). 

In order to make the polyester stretchy so we can flex, jump and squat, you also have to blend the fiber together with, for example, elastane (also plastic); and while adding to comfort and fit, this blending of fibers makes it impossible to recycle the fabric (into new fabric) once it reaches end of life — and there goes circularity.   

Unfortunately, by essentially being plastic our workout wear (along with all other synthetic clothing) is responsible for a large part of the microplastics that are currently polluting our oceans, and for the CO2 emissions (greenhouse gasses), which are released when burning the polyester as waste and that are damaging our entire ecosystem.

Speaking of microplastics: did you know that fleece, which is usually made from polyester, is the baddest of the bad guys out there (Billie Eilish should write a song about it); and remember that the trendy pile fabric everyone loves is basically the same thing. During one wash cycle, a fleece garment sheds up to one million textile fibers, and the fibers that are smaller than 5 millimeters, and therefore counts as microplastics, slip right through all filters and end up in our waters where they do great harm. A wash cycle with “normal” synthetic garments (say a good week worth of used sportswear) is said to shed about 100 000 fibers, which still seems A LOT.

What to do?

When it comes to sportswear, polyester (or polyamide etc.) seems to be our best option for now, performance wise, but we’ve got to be smart about it. Until they come up with ways of producing synthetic fabrics that don’t shed, or they construct washing machines that collect microplastics and prevent them from being released, we need to take a more hands-on approach ourselves. Here follows some practical ideas:

To begin with, we should never buy more than we need and consider every purchase carefully. That includes looking into the ethical aspects of a brand’s production and overall commitment to sustainable practises. Sportswear is very intimate, and likely to attract odour over time, so there’s not much of a second hand market for used items, meaning we might need to buy new, and that end of life is when we choose to hand them in for recycling (at H&M for example). But remember: The longer you wear your clothes, the lower the environmental impact. 

Second thing is to consider the timelessness and quality of the design, and of course: the materials. Recycled polyester (often named RPET if it comes from post-consumer recycled plastic bottles) or recycled polyamide/nylon are undoubtedly a hundred percent better than virgin materials (fossil fuel is a non-renewable natural resource). Cellulose fibers, such as lyocell and modal, is also a good option for some items, and organic or recycled cotton for things like socks, perhaps.

Finally, we need to be very mindful when washing: natural, eco-friendly detergents, no softeners, lower temperatures (30°C), air drying… you’ve heard it all before. But more than that, it’s a very good idea (or a must, really) to use a washing bag that prevents the microplastics from being released into the water streams. These are usually made from polyester too but, importantly, the kind that doesn’t shed. So invest in a GuppyFriend, or something like its equivalent below — it’s probably the best we consumers can do to protect the environment, for now.  

Got something to add, or a favorite brand we didn’t include? Please comment and share your wisdom below! 

Shop the Sportswear

SilverTech Active Workout Bra, 89% recycled nylon, Organic Basics. Condor Sneakers, organic and recycled materials, Veja. SIGG Traveler Bottle, aluminium, Arket.

Hooded Running Jacket, 100% recycled polyester shell, Arket. SilverTech Active Tennis Socks, 95% GOTS organic cotton, Organic Basics. SilverTech Active Leggings, 96% recycled nylon, Organic Basics.

Ultraboost 20 Trainers, made with recycled ocean plastic, Adidas by Stella McCartney. The Wash Bag, 100% polyester, Girlfriend Collective. Turmeric Yoga Top, 84% RPET, Wolven.

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