Yes, summer time is here! I cleaned up my racing bike and luckily, my outdoor sports outfit can make it through another year. What’s more sustainable than that? Unfortunately, no fabric lasts forever. That’s why I started doing some research on sustainability in sportswear. My conclusion: there are many abuses in the industry, but it has great potential for change.
Of course, sportswear ought to have certain features that don’t apply for casual clothing. It needs to breathe and dry fast, it should be flexible and lightweight. Polyester, an artificial fibre, is very suitable for sportswear: it is unshrinkable, easily dyeable and it absorbs very little moisture. Let’s face it: nobody wants to carry al that sweat around the whole time… So polyester it is.
PET bottle suits
Unfortunately, polyester is often made from ethylene, which is derived from petroleum. A fossil fuel and thus not very sustainable. But there’s good news! Many companies use recycled polyester, made from used PET bottles, to produce their sporty apparel. From fleece pullovers to professional suits worn at the Olympics, recycled plastic is taking over. Some professional sport clubs only offer organic, locally produced food, are moving towards carbon-neutral stadiums or use recycled sports wear. One of the clubs that took a walk on the green side is the Detroit Lions, where players wear practice jerseys made from 21 plastic bottles each!
Unfortunately, polyester microfibers are still ending up in the plastic soup when we wash our clothes. On the long run, we do need to keep moving towards clothes without plastic. But since that’s where recycled plastic will end up anyway, we might as well use it to the fullest instead of creating something new.
Human rights violations
The conditions under which these clothes are produced are another problem. A 2006 Oxfam report on sportswear production in Asia stated that many factory workers for leading sports brands are struggling to meet their families’ basic needs. Many are unable to form unions without discrimination, dismissal or violence.
Ten years later, little has changed. In 2017, The Guardian reported about Cambodian factories supplying to many different sports brands. Many producers were being hospitalized because of extreme working conditions. They were working 10 hours a day, 6 days a week, in temperatures of 37ºC and higher. They were feeling so exhausted and hungry that they fainted. Yes, there are some reports that show there is some progress with some brands, but unfortunately there are still many sad stories to tell.
Sustainable role models
If professional clubs and their players can get their fans to recycle more, they might engage them to think about human rights as well. And according to the University of Surrey’s Sustainability Lifestyles Research Group, sports are very suitable for promoting mass behaviour change. Through our sporting heroes, we may be able to reach people in a way that the usual sustainability advocates cannot.
Mass behaviour change may take a long time… but we don’t have to wait for that! There are plenty of options if you want to exercise sustainable, fair ánd in style. We rounded up a few for you below.
• Adidas has started a production line with Parley, making shoes and garments from recycled plastic from the ocean. Of course Adidas is no way near 100% sustainable production, but it’s a promising step.
• Patagonia has been paving the sustainable fashion road since 1973. Once a small company making tools for climbers, they have grown into a successful brand, well-known for its durable outdoor & sportswear.
• Living in the Netherlands, Belgium or France? Get your sportswear secondhand through United Wardrobe.