A fit woman running while wearing sustainable activewear in a beautiful and clean environment of mountains and blur sky.
September 5, 2023
 in 
Slow Fashion

Our Complete Guide to Sustainable Activewear: Including Fabrics and Brands

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f you’re a sports enthusiast or keen gymgoer, you’ll know that activewear can make or break your workout. A decent set of sports clothes will offer a generous amount of stretchiness, wick sweat from your skin, fight odors, look fantastic, and (perhaps most importantly) withstand frequent washing. Some activewear even comes with built-in UV protection to keep you safe while exercising in summer.

However, producing hi-tech garments that provide comfort and style often comes at an environmental cost. Many sports brands use synthetic fabrics that guzzle huge amounts of energy and don’t biodegrade. To make matters worse, fabrics found in activewear, such as nylon, spandex, polyamide, and polyethylene, tend to release toxic microplastics into waterways during laundering. Given more than half of people wash their gym clothes after every workout, staying fit and healthy appears to come at a high environmental cost.

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way. With over a third of fashion consumers now prioritizing sustainability when making purchasing decisions, sportswear brands are coming around to the idea of using more eco-friendly materials in their products. To help you navigate the thriving world of sustainable activewear, we’ve put together a guide to the processes, brands, and fabrics to look out for.

Table of  Contents

Why opt for sustainable activewear? The benefits of closed-loop manufacturing and ethical sourcing

illustration representing closed-loop activewear manufacturing ideology. With recycling symbol and sustainable sports-bra and cotton plant against black backdrop.

If you’re wondering what makes some activewear materials sustainable, you’ll need to understand the basic principles of closed-loop productions. Unlike traditional open-loop systems in which materials are used once and left to fester in landfill sites, closed-loop processes minimize waste and conserve resources by keeping materials within the production cycle after use. Here’s how:

  • Responsible material sourcing: When raw materials are first brought into the closed-loop cycle, they’re selected for their minimal environmental impact. For example, they may consist of organic, non-toxic fibers.
  • Low-waste production: Closed-loop processes generate as little waste as possible, repurposing or reusing any unused or discarded fabrics generated during the manufacture of garments.
  • Recycling: In a closed-loop cycle, clothes that have come to the end of their life are collected, processed, and recycled into brand-new garments. Recycling in this way reduces the need for harvesting virgin materials.
  • Efficient manufacturing processes: Closed-loop manufacturing tends to minimize water and energy usage to mitigate its environmental impact.

If you’re familiar with the notion of the circular economy, you’ll see that closed-loop processes align with its core aims and principles. A common example of a closed-loop fabric is Tencel, a semi-synthetic textile made from sustainably sourced wood pulp. During production, the solvents used to make Tencel are continually recovered and reused, minimizing their environmental impact and avoiding the need for further resource extraction.

As well as being kinder to the environment, closed-loop processes favor non-toxic and organic materials that protect human health. While research into the microplastics in synthetic sportswear is still ongoing, health experts have a host of potential concerns, including:

  • Hormonal disruption: Plastic production requires chemicals known to disrupt the endocrine system, including bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates.
  • Oxidative stress: Microplastics could disrupt normal cellular processes, causing oxidative stress that damages cells and tissues.
  • Gastrointestinal issues: When ingested, microplastics could irritate or even permanently damage the gastrointestinal tract, causing long-term health issues.
  • Immune system disruption: When exposed to foreign particles such as microplastics, the immune system may kick into gear. Over time, consistent immune responses could cause chronic inflammation that damages healthy cells and organs. Ultimately, chronic inflammation could lead to illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, or cancer, although experts need to conduct more research on the topic before drawing solid conclusions.

As well as looking for BPA-free workout clothes, we recommend investing in ethical activewear brands. Responsible sourcing is about more than protecting the environment – it’s also about protecting the workers and local communities involved in the production process. Companies that use ethical labor practices ensure workers receive fair compensation, provide safe work environments, reject child or forced labor, and conduct regular audits to ensure labor practices align with ethical standards and regulations.

What are the best sustainable activewear fabrics?

So, now you know why buying ethical athletic wear is so vital, what fabrics should you look out for on clothing labels? Here is a list of sustainable fabrics for activewear that will ensure you feel comfortable and stylish without costing the Earth.

Recycled polyester

Recycled polyester is a stretchy, durable material made from recycled materials – typically discarded plastic bottles or industrial waste. Although recycled polyester isn’t organic, it’s often more cost-effective than natural fibers, making it a smart choice for eco-friendly consumers on a budget.

Before you purchase a garment made from recycled polyester, remember to investigate its production methods and certifications. While some manufacturers use transparent supply chains and fair labor practices, others are less reliable. It’s also worth noting that polyester is not considered biodegradable, taking many decades to break down in the environment.

Sustainability benefits:

  • Non-toxic (provided there are no toxic additives used during the recycling process.
  • Integrated into closed-loop recycling processes.
  • Recyclable (depending on local recycling facilities).

Comfort attributes:

  • Moisture-wicking.
  • Quick drying.
  • Can be treated to enhance functionality for exercisers (e.g., using anti-microbial finishes or UV protectants).
  • Stretchy and flexible.
  • Lightweight.
  • Durable and can withstand frequent washing.

Organic cotton

Organic cotton is a natural fiber known for being more eco-friendly than standard cotton. Many growers of organic cotton protect workers as well as the environment, offering stable incomes with fair wages. However, it’s always worth investigating a brand’s supply chain practices before investing in a new set of organic cotton activewear.

Sustainability benefits:

  • Organic – cultivated without the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), synthetic fertilizers, or synthetic pesticides.
  • Limits soil erosion and uses less water than standard cotton.
  • Non-toxic.
  • Biodegradable when disposed of properly.

Comfort attributes:

  • Hypoallergenic – great for those with sensitive skin.
  • Durable (although not as hardy as synthetic material such as polyester).
  • Breathable.
  • Moisture-wicking.
  • Soft and non-clammy.
  • Low friction, reducing the risk of chafing.

Tencel/lyocell

Tencel (lyocell) is a sustainable fabric produced using wood pulp, typically sourced from beech or eucalyptus trees. Many sustainable brands use Tencel in their products thanks to the material’s durability and impressive environmental credentials. Just remember to look out for certifications such as the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) or the OEKO-TEX Standard 100 to ensure prospective purchases live up to your expectations.

Sustainability benefits:

  • Organic insofar as it derives from organic wood sources.
  • Involves a closed-loop system.
  • Uses minimal water and energy.
  • Uses non-toxic materials, including a solvent known as NMMO (N-Methylmorpholine N-oxide).
  • Made using wood pulp from sustainably managed forests.
  • Recyclable (provided there are adequate recycling facilities available).
  • Biodegradable.

Comfort attributes:

  • Soft and smooth texture that reduces clinging.
  • Lightweight and moves with the body during exercises.
  • Moisture-wicking.
  • Flexible and stretchy.
  • Gentle on the skin, reducing irritation and chafing.
  • Antibacterial properties that help prevent odor.
  • Cooling effect.

ECONYL®

ECONYL® is a kind of regenerated nylon made using a range of recycled materials, including old fishing nets, industrial plastic waste, and more. Although ECONYL® isn’t organic, it repurposes waste materials and reduces the strain on landfill sites. As with the other materials mentioned above, brands that use ECONYL® often pursue fair labor practices and ethical sourcing processes. However, it’s always worth checking the manufacturer’s certifications before purchasing a brand-new set of sustainable workout clothes.

Sustainability benefits:

  • Non-toxic, especially compared to virgin nylon.
  • Often involved in closed-loop processes.
  • Recyclable and can go through regeneration processes many times without losing its strength.

Comfort attributes:

  • Soft and gentle on the skin.
  • Antimicrobial and odor-resistant.
  • Durable and retains its shape after many wears.
  • Silky feel for a touch of luxury.
  • Quick drying.
  • Moisture-wicking.
  • Breathable.

9 of our favorite sustainable activewear brands to try today

Shopping around for sustainable and ethical athletic wear can be disorienting. Whether you need a new pair of non-toxic yoga pants or an ethically manufactured sweatband, there are tons of brands making bold claims about their products’ environmental credentials. To help you make the right choice, we’ve listed some of the most reliable, stylish, and bank-balance-friendly sustainable activewear brands on the market.

Pact

Woman wearing sustainable patterned leggings made with organic cotton fabric by Pact.

Known for selling trendy neutrals, Pact is the go-to activewear brand for ethically minded fashionistas. Pact sells a range of basics made using GOTS-certified organic cotton, including socks, underwear, leggings, and more. What’s more, the brand strives to avoid toxic chemicals and unethical labor practices, ensuring workers are fairly paid. Beyond its activewear range, Pact offers a wide range of casual garments, including dresses, jumpsuits, cute tops, and cozy sleepwear.

Definite Articles

Athletic woman doing dance moves while wearing orange colored Trimline leggings made with biodegradable fabric by Definite Articles

If you’re concerned about the effects of microplastics entering our waterways, why not purchase some plastic-free, natural fiber workout clothes from Definite Articles? Developed in partnerships with scientific experts, the brand has generated some of the world’s first biodegradable activewear garments that won’t shed plastic during washing or wearing. The company is also working toward mitigating its carbon footprint and continues to develop performance-oriented garments that will optimize your workout – great news if you’re a keen athlete!  

Tentree

Woman stretching while wearing a recycled sports bra top by Tentree.

As the name suggests, Canadian brand Tentree is committed to tree-planting and giving back to nature, planting ten trees for every item purchased. Aiming to plant a staggering 1 billion trees by 2030, Tentree helps regenerate ecosystems and provide planting jobs in communities across the world. But that’s not all – the brand’s super comfy styles are produced using manufacturing processes that conserve water and resources, prioritize the use of recycled materials, and offer safe working conditions. Check out their versatile range of leggings, joggers, and outdoor clothes – perfect for a wide range of sporty activities.

Quince

Woman stratching while wearing pink mid-rise shorts made with recycled polyester by Quince.

Quince offers sustainable and ethical workout clothes at an excellent price point, meaning you can stock up your wardrobe on a budget. Even better, their leggings, tank tops, skorts, hoodies, and shorts are made using recycled materials and come in a mind-boggling array of colors, allowing you to express yourself on the running track or tennis court. Finally, it’s worth noting that Quince products are luxuriously soft and manufactured in WRAP-certified factories that provide fair and safe working conditions for their staff.

CASAGiN

Sporty woman by the river wearing  blue sustainable activewear legging and sports bra set by CASAGiN

Italian brand CASAGiN combines a commitment to sustainability with a focus on making its customers feel good – both inside and out. CasaGiN prides itself on using only natural and recycled fibers in its products while ensuring manufacturing processes respect the environment and human rights. Shipping worldwide, the brand offers a range of sustainable and non toxic workout clothes, some of which are made using a cutting-edge, completely biodegradable form of polyamide. Plus, CasaGiN packaging is made using biodegradable corn starch and recyclable cardboard. What’s not to love?

Happy Earth Apparel

Two women of different statures standing together in garden while wearing sustainable activewear sets by Happy Earth Apparel

Selling itself as a brand “that actually gives a damn”, Happy Earth allows customers to make a positive difference. After selecting and ordering your new gear, you can direct some of the purchase costs toward planting trees, cleaning up trash, or fighting climate change! Happy Earth also sells stylish activewear made using plant-based PlantTec™ technology, offering durability, breathability, and a supportive structure to make your workouts as comfortable as possible.

MATE

Woman stretching lone leg while wearing navy blue organic cotton stretch leggings and racerback tank by MATE

Women-owned brand MATE is perfect for mid-range, sustainable workout clothes that won’t pollute the environment. Offering both sustainability and high performance, MATE’s products are free from pesticides, microplastics, carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, and formaldehyde. Plus, the company has eliminated all plastic from its labels and packaging and works hard to ensure everyone involved in its supply chain is treated fairly.

dk active

Woman posing while wearing sustainable activewear legging and sports bra set with floral print by dk active.

Australian brand dk active offers sustainable athletic wear for women of all shapes and sizes. Ensuring all products are made ethically in its Brisbane-based factory, dk active repurposes discarded offcuts and uses renewable energy throughout its supply chain, minimizing its environmental impact. If that weren’t enough, the company’s designers are committed to offering bright and eye-catching activewear that breaks the mold – perfect if you’re tired of wearing the same old black leggings every day.

Nube

Woman sporting sustainable leggings by nube made with recycled polyester.

Los Angeles-based brand Nube promotes mindful consumption through ethical, closed-loop manufacturing processes and by highlighting the importance of community and cooperation. Working in partnership with artists, the brand turns recycled plastic into stunning activewear designed to turn heads. You’ll never want to take off their patterned leggings or striking print tees!

Embrace the sustainable activewear revolution

Although activewear has historically presented environmental challenges, there are now tons of fantastic sustainable manufacturers from which to choose. Whether you’re a seasoned athlete or just starting your fitness journey, you can ensure your workouts are guilt-free by investing in responsible activewear today. On your marks, get set, go!