The activewear brands packing a sustainable punch
From high-performing natural fabrics to healthy bio-based materials, the sportswear industry isn’t short of ideas to stop plastic from ending up on our skin and in the environment.
By Morgane Nyfeler07 février 2023
It’s a dire reality that synthetics deriving from petrochemicals make up 62% of all fibres produced – polyester being used most widely – and by 2030 these fabrics are expected to reach 75% of global apparel fibre production. Particularly in the sportswear industry where synthetics are valued for their durable and malleable abilities available at a cheap price point, polyester, nylon and elastane are the number one choice. It’s important to note that these fabrics take hundreds of years to break down and will never fully biodegrade – contributing to the 15.1 million tons of textile waste generated every year.
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The environmental and health impact of plastic-based fabrics
In 2015, adidas partnered with Parley for the Oceans to turn marine pollution into sportswear. By the end of 2020, the brand crafted more than 30 million pairs of shoes from plastic bottles, responding to a growing number of consumers sensitive to the environmental damage caused by plastic dumped in the oceans. A great number of brands followed suit and today, many of them are offering activewear made from recycled sources. While it’s a step in the right direction, and certainly helping to fight against plastic waste, it still brings up the problem of microplastics caused by extensively washing synthetics.
We want to inspire all conscious women to live close to nature
Ida Skarp, founder of Seela Studio
About 8% of European microplastics released in the oceans come from synthetic textiles, which is estimated at up to 35% globally. When washing, five kilograms of synthetic clothing releases an average of nine million microfibres that are carried down the drain with the rinse water. Microplastics are also a potential risk for animals and humans; these particles have been found in our food, water and even in the air we breathe, which could lead to serious health problems such as hormone-related cancers, infertility and neurodevelopment disorders.
Aware of these issues, Seela Studio’s founder Ida Skarp set out to find a fabric that could outperform synthetics in her premium activewear. “Seela means mountain and strength,” she explains. “We want to inspire all conscious women to live close to nature, feel their strength within and prioritise their own health.”
Using a patented knitted technology, all the garments are made responsibly in Northern Italy from wildly grown and sustainably sourced castor bean fibre, with antibacterial and thermo-regulating properties, that is equally supportive, comfortable and biodegradable. While a large amount of sportswear contains harmful toxic chemicals, Seela’s leggings and tops are produced with natural dyes – each colour supporting a sustainability programme which the label donates 2% of all purchases to.
Natural materials that work out
Founded to offer an alternative to all the synthetic sportswear dominating the market, Iron Roots’s athletic apparel is exclusively made using plant-based and vegan materials, saving more than 60% carbon emissions during production compared to polyester clothing according to the brand.
Both functionality and design have to be taken into account to create products that people will actually wear.
Erik de Groot, co-founder of Iron Roots
“But sustainability isn’t enough to create this change,” says co-founder Erik de Groot. “Both functionality and design have to be taken into account to create products that people will actually wear.” The label uses natural fabrics that have unique qualities bringing maximum performance to the athletes; hemp, a versatile crop naturally antistatic and antibacterial, TENCEL, an innovative fibre made from FSC-certified wood which keeps the body cool, and organic cotton as a blend to give the fabric a softer handle.
With versatility and elegance in mind, Swiss label EMYUN found its material of choice in merino wool, a natural material with high thermo-regulating, antibacterial and breathable properties while requiring very little care. “We started working with the family-run company Successori Reda 1865 in Northern Italy, which focuses on sustainable processes and has a long history of high-end fabric design,” says founder Rodolphe Huynh. “Thanks to an innovative technology, they could develop a high-performing and super-soft material for sportswear.” The wool is responsibly sourced in New Zealand and shipped to Italy once a year by boat to lower its environmental impact.
Closing the loop on trainers
Whether exercising in the gym or outdoor, footwear is an essential part of the sport industry yet is probably the most wasteful. 90% of all shoes end up in landfill and if footwear was a country, it would be the 17th largest polluter. Moreover, the average running shoe counts 65 parts – the majority made using fossil fuel derived materials – and requires over 360 processing steps, making it carbon intensive and difficult to recycle.
Launched in 2020 by former professional footballer Michael Doughty, hylo athletics is on a mission to protect the future of running and sport by transitioning all its products to renewable materials – the current shoe is 60% bio-based and made up of 16 different parts – and achieving circularity at scale. “To enable this, we have created hyloop; our digital platform for care, repair and recycling,” says Doughty. “By tapping the hyloop logo on one of our products, customers are transported on their phone to a unique platform where they will find various services to enhance their experience and increase the longevity of their shoes.” Gathering a community of ‘Champions of Tomorrow’, the brand is changing athletes’ consumer habits with footwear that supports their passion, provides real value over time and reduces their environmental impact.
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