Episode 27: How Sustainable is your activewear, really?




Sustainable, Activewear, Circular economy, Mechanical Recycling, Polyester, Nylon, Tencel, Elastane,  ROICA, plant based treatments, bio-based yarns, ECONYL



Welcome to the Fashion Unearthed podcast. If you need help navigating the fashion industry sustainably, you have come to the right place. I'm your host Belinda Humphrey and my hope is to simplify the fashion industry so that businesses can make the best decisions for people, planet and product.


Hello, and welcome to episode 27 of the Fashion Unearthed podcast. Today's episode is back to regular programming, and it's more of a practical product tip. It's a topic or question that I started thinking about because of the time of year. But before I get to that, I wanted to mention I send out a monthly newsletter full of inspiring articles or developments within the fashion and sustainability space, which you can sign up to at belindahumphrey.com. And I also want to say a big thank you if you have been listening to the podcast for a while it's a busy world out there at the moment, so if you're choosing to spend some of your day listening to my podcast, I really appreciate it. And if you have been liking what you've been listening to, I would love it if you had time to give a quick rating or a review on Apple or Spotify, as it really helps to get the podcast out there.


So on today's topic, How sustainable is active wear really? I was prompted to think about this as January and February, are typically one of the biggest times in the year when it comes to activewear. It's where the "New Year New You" marketing messaging starts, particularly in women's wear, where all you need to be a better, fitter, more attractive version of you is a new set of activewear. But with the last two years already being a growth area due to working from home and people wearing well, activewear, while not really being so active, I wondered what kind of impact this is all having, particularly when the world is trying to move away from fossil fuels. The sports and active wear market is really dependent on them for specific functions.


And I'm sure we're all well aware of terms like wicking and wrinkle free and lightweight and long lasting when it comes to fabrics used in active wear and predominantly how this is achieved is by using plastic or polyester.


According to the Textile Exchange, polyester made up 52% which was 57 million tonnes of all fibres produced in 2020. And let's remember that this was just at the start of the pandemic before the working from home shift really happened. Of that amount, just 15% was recycled polyester. But as we'll get into using recycled polyester isn't really a solve either.


Adding to that, Apparel Insider reported last year that a new lab test backed by a German certification company revealed that many products that claim to use recycled polyester upon testing had used virgin polyester. They examined many recycled polyester products from several high street fashion brands and the test revealed that some of the clothing items had zero recycled content. While those that did contain recycled polyester, they had significantly less than what was advertised on label.


I've heard arguments that polyester over plant based is more sustainable, as it doesn't need a lot of land space to grow and can be recycled many times. However, this infinite recycling loop is based on plastic staying as plastic. When plastic becomes polyester and gets put into clothes. They're no longer recyclable. The fact is that most polyester is blended with elastane/spandex/lycra depending on where you are, you call it different things. But it makes it problematic during mechanical recycling, particularly when it makes up more than 5% of the garment. The technology struggles to work with this. So unless it's resold, its end of life is landfill. Add to that the issue of polyester not naturally breaking down and microplastics shedding into our water and airways and that argument of it being more sustainable becomes pretty short sighted. And argument that it doesn't use vast amounts of land also doesn't take into account the resources used to extract fossil fuel. And anecdotally, I don't see a lot of mending happening with activewear. So in terms of circularity, I don't know if that pathway is being used to extend the life of the garment.


But so far, a lot of what we've talked about is just, you know, what's being used as the majority of materials, polyesters, nylons, things that are coming from fossil fuels, and they're not really for true performance, activewear I guess you could say, when you get into that really performance level area, they get a bit more complicated.


I read an article recently from Premier Vision and they talked about perfluorinated compounds PFC and PTFE. So they are like a finish I guess that allow water to run off clothing. So they provide protection from rain and snow. They're known as forever chemicals and they have a tendency to accumulate in the environment and the human body.


In the article it goes on to say their molecular structure means they cannot break down after use or when released into the environment. Easily transportable through ecosystems and very widespread, some PFCs are considered persistent compounds, and are known to accumulate in the bodies of living beings and provoke toxic effects.


Now, from what I read, that's not just exclusive to activewear I think these chemicals are in lots of different things. But where you might see an OEKO-TEX 100 certification being used on casual wear, I don't really see that certification being used in active wear. But after reading that, I would want to be definitely testing my final fabrics.


And finally, it's worth mentioning that if we look at technical sportswear or activewear, certain fabrics can contain many layers to combine technical features. And while they're very clever and advanced, this construction method makes end of life processes very complex.


So where to from here? Well, in this next section, I wanted to focus more on, I guess, low impact or sportswear that's not as dependent on some of the technical aspects for specific functions. So let's look at some of the initiatives some leading businesses are trying. Crucially, a lot of active wear is not being used for active wear, or people are wearing it for low impact activities. So you could argue that it doesn't need to be made from a high performing technical fabric. At the moment, this sustainable go-to for brands is using recycled polyester, which as we've covered doesn't hold up long term. So let's look at what people are trialling instead.


The brand Reprise are using Tencel which has a much higher water absorption than cotton. And if you've listened to one of my earlier episodes, you want to make sure that the Tencel you're using is certified as FSC. But for their particular legging, the composition is 93% Tencel 7% spandex, and they are Americans so they use the term spandex. Now again, this is blended so while the initial impact might be reduced, particularly if the amount of spandex or elastane is reduced, the pathway to landfill is probably the same. So the next challenge for this product in my mind would be to replace the elastane with biodegradable version once that is readily available, or even look to the Australian underwear brand Modi Bodi, who recently announced their new biodegradable period undies that don't use any elastane for stretch and recovery and instead manipulated the size of the rib gauge used to achieve a similar performance.


The next couple of examples focus on replacements for nylon. The statistic for global nylon or polyamide production is much smaller than polyester. It is 5% or 5.4 million metric tonnes. It isn't at all at the scale of polyester. First is Pangaia's leggings, which use a lightweight bio based nylon made from castor oil, a non food crop that doesn't disrupt the food chain, and an elastane called ROICA that according to their website degrades much faster than traditional Elastane. According to their website, it has a unique stitch perforation for breathability and is treated with bio wick a plant based treatment that absorbs unwanted sweat and it also uses peppermint oil for its anti odour properties. Their websites states that the plant based wicking treatment is made from micro Algae so it keeps you cool and dry by using the power of nature to absorb unwanted moisture and help it evaporate from the fabric.


Now if we go back to that bio based nylon, bio based yarns are created from plants rather than petroleum and is an emerging area. This isn't to say that they are a perfect solution as bio based plastics are often not biodegradable either and their environmental impact is yet to be comprehensively quantified, as well as them being a tiny percentage of the overall fibre production, but, it's a move away from petroleum.


The next brand I wanted to mention is Lululemon who's also investing in bio based nylon. According to one article, they're relying more on nylon than polyester because of it being longer lasting and nicer to touch. But according to a report by the global fashion agenda, nylon has a higher environmental impact than spandex and polyester because more greenhouse gases are emitted during its manufacturing process. And just staying on the topic of nylon there is also recycled nylon options such as ECONYL, which is often created from things such as discarded fishing nets. But the percentage of this in the grand scheme of things is small and it still depends on what other yarns you blend it with and how you create your garment that can influence its end of life and its sustainability.


And just staying with Lululemon for a little bit longer is another really fascinating partnership with Lanzatech, who together they created the world's first yarn and fabric made from captured carbon emissions. They compare the process to that of a brewery, but instead of using sugars in yeast to make beer, industrial pollution is converted by bacteria to fuels and chemicals. There's also a diamond company in Chicago who are using a similar process to create diamonds. According to an article I read by Sustainable Brands, industrial emissions, such as those from a steel mill, would otherwise be combusted and emitted as greenhouse gases, by capturing these and reusing the carbon to make yarn, the finished garments not only have a lower carbon footprint, but ensure community pollution levels are reduced. Once textiles made from these chemicals reached the end of their useful life, they can be gasified and fermented by Lanza Tech's process. In this sense, the pathway promotes circularity, keeping the carbon in the material cycle, which sounds pretty futuristic and sci fi but I guess that's where a lot of this technology starts in this place where you think, wow, that's amazing. and then after a few years, it becomes just normal and that's how we do things.


Just quickly, one final promising development is from a company called Algiknit, who are creating yarn from kelp, which could be used as replacement to synthetics.


So we've covered a little bit on what's happening with polyester, we know it's a large percentage of the market at the moment for active wear, and a little bit around nylon as well, which is a small percentage, but often used within the activewear market. So if you're in this space, where to from here?


In my research, I found that there could be some merit and getting a certificate from the finished fabric supplier to certify the recycled polyester is exactly that. In some cases, I read, there seem to be more open to providing certificates for the yarn, but not the fabric. So if you are using a recycled polyester yarn or fabric, the first place I would start would be to actually make sure it is recycled polyester.


From there, I would just look at all the materials you're using, what you're blending them with, and how much, like what percentages you're using, and research what might be better replacements.


Next, what kind of finishes are being put on the fabric? Are there more natural options, even assess if the way in which the customer is using the item needs the extra process, like we've already discussed a lot of activewear is not being used in a performance space. So there could be an opportunity to not even put those finishes on there because they're not required.


Next, consider what will happen to the garment at its end of life and take this into account when designing it. Currently, the technology struggles with more than 5% blend. So can you keep your composition below that? and don't forget about the seams and thread used in the construction of the garment. These add to that 5% makeup.


So all in all, I think the advancements in sustainability is limited in the performance area of active wear. I don't know if the technology is there to replace some of the common processes and things that are being used at the moment. But I think within the low impact space and in the areas where people are just wearing activewear because of the look of it, I think there's a real opportunity to swap out some of those materials and still get a great product that does what it needs to do, looks the way it needs to look, but doesn't use fossil fuels.


So I guess I'm saying my answer to the question How sustainable is activewear? is like most of my answers is, it depends.


But what do you think? Do you think sustainability can really work with the activewear space? I'd love to know. You can DM me on Instagram or send me an email at info@belindahumphrey.com. Again, if you're interested in the latest developments in fashion and sustainability, be sure to sign up to my monthly newsletter by heading to belindahumphrey.com. and finally, as always, you'll find the show notes and any links on the website to in the podcast section. Thanks so much for listening. See you next time.


Thanks for listening to the Fashion Unearthed podcast. If you want to get in touch head over to belindahumphrey.com or you can find me on Instagram @belindahumphrey_


Disclaimer: Whilst every effort is made to ensure that information is accurate at the time of recording, much like the fashion industry itself, this information may change. 


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