A Drop in the Ocean: Let’s get Ethical!

Is finding planet-friendly activewear too much of a stretch? This month for The Gloss, I investigate the brands that will help you save the planet, one squat at a time.

Whenever I am lacking a little motivation, I dress in activewear. I find something strangely reassuring about the skintight feel of compressed leggings or the support of a good sports bra. My mood brightens in these clothes: I feel ready to take on the day or, as we trudge further into 2021, the year. It seems I’m not alone in this: Allied Market Research reports that the global activewear industry is expected to reach nearly $547 billion by 2024. Clearly, we all enjoy the placebo effect of an athleisure ensemble. 

However, for clothing items dedicated to personal care and wellbeing – items that encourage us to get out and appreciate the natural world – activewear is unconscionably detrimental to our environment due to its reliance on synthetic materials such as polyester, spandex, nylon, and acrylic. From oily beginnings as a non-renewable resource, to its energy-intensive and chemical-reliant manufacturing, to the leaching of microplastics into our oceans with every wash, most activewear – while wonderful for our motivation, self-confidence and performance – is quite literally rubbish for our planet. 

Yet trying to avoid synthetics by opting for cotton alternatives is equally dubious. While cotton activewear might prevent microfiber leaching, its production comes with its own environmental issues, requiring 2,700 gallons of water to produce a single cotton t-shirt. Cotton farming remains a large polluter due to widespread pesticide and insecticide use yet, in spite of this, only one-third of harvests are used for textile manufacturing. The remaining two thirds are discarded.

Typically, this is where I would suggest a myriad of secondhand clothing options or some crafty upcycling technique – anything to discourage you from buying new! However, while my caveat of “don’t buy if you don’t need” remains firmly in place (and my use of need here is literal), for once I am not going to bemoan the buying of new clothes: my penchant for preloved does not extend to the world of Lycra. In the sweat-filled and porous arena of teeth-clenched exercise, even I baulk at the thought of hand-me-down leggings.

Yet buying new doesn’t necessarily mean buying virgin. Many companies are repurposing nylon or recycling plastic waste that would otherwise have ended up in landfill or oceans to create functional and funky sportswear that eliminates waste at all levels of the supply chain. Girlfriend Collective are one such business, turning single-use plastic into comfortable and affordable workout gear, with every pair of brightly-coloured leggings made from 25 recycled plastic bottles. In a wellness world that is often packaged to be exploitative, exclusive and elitist, Girlfriend Collective are not only lauded for their environmental impact, but equally their efforts to ensure ethical working conditions and size inclusivity in an industry in which most ethical activewear ends at a size 18. As a pastel-outfitted devotee, I can confirm the whole Girlfriend experience – from your order’s arrival in 100% recycled and reusable packaging to their everyday wearing – is a joyful celebration of comfort and empowerment.

TALA are also creating durable and supportive (and frigging stylish!) activewear from waste materials. What I like most about them is their innovative packaging – 100% recycled plastic, recyclable and even plantable, with every clothing tag containing seasonal seeds to plant and grow – and their in-depth listing of not just the location of their factories but the products each factory makes. This level of transparency, coupled with a breakdown of the materials in each item of clothing, means you can make an informed decision not just about what you buy but from where.

If you would like to avoid plastic-based clothing altogether while still sidestepping the quagmire that is cotton production, I am delighted to tell you that you have CHOICES. Many of them. One option is to support female-founded and small Irish business, Organic Movement. OM creates beautiful yoga sets from organic and ethically sourced cotton, drastically reducing water consumption and offering an ideal opportunity to support local. Speaking of yoga, if you’re looking for biodegradable yoga mats, Holdereight are an Irish company selling hand-drawn and stunning natural rubber mats that are 100% biodegradable and machine washable.

For the days when your yoga is less ashtanga, and more an excuse to practice deep breathing prostrate on the floor, Grown are a brand creating beautiful organic cotton t-shirts and sweatshirts that are designed, printed, and stitched in Ireland. Their pieces, made from certified 100% organic cotton, are for the days when activewear is donned more for the aspiration to activity, rather than its execution. Further reasons to become a Grown devotee include the fact their garments are PETA approved and Fair Wear certified and, for every item bought, they plant – and pledge to protect – one native tree right here on our splendiferous isle.

But the future can be bolder than cotton! From lyocell, to hemp and cupro, there are many natural textile solutions that are as kind to your skin and your workout as they are to the earth. Bamboo – of biodegradable toothbrush fame – is considered cotton’s rightful superior as a performance fabric due to its antibacterial properties, natural stretch and softness, breathability, and minimal production needs. BAM are one UK company specialising in bamboo-based clothing whose dedication to environmental protection is illustrated in their  aim to achieve zero waste to landfill, zero pollution and zero wasted water by 2030. Having bought some of BAM’s soft t-shirts for my mother’s birthday (which she wears almost daily), I can confirm their pieces are durable, beautiful and dangerously comfortable.

For me, so much of the choosing, buying and wearing of activewear is about an intimate pursuit of ‘feelgood’. Activewear is both the vehicle and the driving force that encourages me to reach a personal best – a best that could be physical, mental, or spiritual. Thus, as some of us might still be invigorated by the pledges of New Year’s Resolutions and hopeful ambitions for the future; in and after a year in which we have never needed more the hope and promise of ‘new’, I hope this piece leads you to the (ethical) activewear choice that will imbue you with the belief, confidence, and resilience you need to tackle whatever obstacles – be they exercise-related or otherwise – the next few months may bring. Just remember to wash sparingly and always in a filter bag!

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