It's almost Earth Day, so chances are you've been hearing the word "eco" so much that it almost loses its meaning. But when you shop consciously, it's about more than just reading a label. Knowing how your fitness wear is made and where it comes from can be just as important as sourcing your meal at a restaurant.
The good news is that finding an eco-friendly fabric can also enhance your workout; it will be irritant-free, naturally breathable, and hypoallergenic, which can be just as important as knowing it's helping save the environment as well. Don't know the facts on popular sustainable fabrics? Here are a few exercise-friendly fabrics to look out for.
Eco-Friendly: Not only is bamboo a renewable resource, but it contains a substance that makes it antimicrobial — perfect for sweaty fitness clothes! Growing it can be less impactful on the environment, since fertilizers and pesticides aren't needed to help it grow exponentially or replenish itself once harvested.
Eco-Enemy? There's the growing problem of irresponsible, forest-clearing bamboo farming, but a larger issue lies in bamboo's conversion into that soft, moisture-wicking material that we love to wear. Depending on the manufacturer, making bamboo fabric may involve a chemical cooking process known as hydrolysis-alkalization using lye and carbon disulfide; these chemicals can lead to headache, fatigue, and nerve damage in those who are overexposed to them. Also, bamboo must be bleached several times throughout the manufacturing process.
What You Can Do. Make sure you know where the brand sources its fabric and if the manufacturer uses chemical processing to make the fabric (REI, for example, makes sure to not label chemically processed bamboo products as eco-friendly). Keep in mind that the more earth-friendly mechanical processing (extracting fibers manually from crushed bamboo treated with biological enzymes) is also more expensive, but worth it.
Check out the pros and cons of more eco-friendly fabrics after the break.
Eco-Friendly: To even be called organic cotton, the crops must be grown using eco-conscious methods, meaning no toxic pesticides or fertilizers. Farming practices must also cultivate and enrich the land it's grown on (which must be chemical-free for three years before the cotton can even be planted on it). Since regular cotton uses a shocking amount of chemical pesticides and fertilizer — a third of a pound for just one nonorganic cotton t-shirt — making the switch is a sound way to help the environment.
Eco-Enemy? Some reports have said that the process of transitioning a regular cotton farm land to organic uses a lot more water than traditional cotton farming. Additionally, the labeling for organic cotton goods can confuse consumers into not knowing if they are getting an all-organic shirt or not. Since countries like India and China produce far more organic cotton than the US, goods will likely have been shipped thousands of miles to reach you.
What You Can Do. Know your labels: while "100 percent" means that even the threads are organic, a shirt labeled "organic" or "made with organic cotton" is not completely organic. Also, if you're looking for organic cotton fitness wear, try to find a local brand to reduce your clothing's carbon footprint.
Eco-Friendly: Just like organic cotton, organic wool must be raised chemical-free, including the food the animals eat and where they graze. And since lightweight wool fabrics like merino wool are naturally moisture-wicking, odor-resistant, and breathable, they make a great choice over synthetic fabrics for fitness clothes.
Eco-Enemy? Organic wool is expensive and not widely available, so much of the fabric comes from far away, like New Zealand and Australia. Also, organic certification doesn't guarantee the manufacturing process is sustainable, so an "organic" wool can still be made with conventional processes that leech chemicals, detergents, and other pollutants and use a lot of energy.
What You Can Do. Again, sourcing locally is a great option. Check to see if your clothes were made with wool from farms close by. Sonoma County in California, for example, has a Pure Grow Wool region where farmers produce organic wool according to strict regulations. Also, since you can't rely on an organic certification to tell you how the wool was manufactured, knowing how a company processes its wool is important. The merino wool activewear company Icebreaker and sustainable clothing company Nau, for example, both make sure that their manufacturers process wool in an environmentally conscious way.
Eco-Friendly: What's better than reusing those pesky plastic bottles? Repurposing them into clothes that fit your healthy lifestyle saves on landfill, oil, and other well-known harmful environmental effects of all those bottles we throw away. Plastic can be recycled into many fitness-specific clothes, from cycling shorts to socks. In fact, it takes about 20 bottles to make one bike shirt, so the practice of upcycling can have a major impact on the environment.
Eco-Enemy? Since the quality of recycled plastic fibers can vary, making recycled plastic fabric more difficult to use and very expensive, meaning many manufacturers may not want to offer the material.
What You Can Do. Look for brands that offer recycled plastic wear, like Dirt Republic (cycling gear), Canonndale's Re-Spun collection, and Billabong's Recycler Series, which includes board shorts and other swimwear made from recycled plastics.