EcoBrandi talks athleticwear and how to protect both yourself and the environment.
By Brandi Clark Burton
Whether we’re hitting the gym, enjoying outdoor activities or embracing the comfort of athleisure, our modern wardrobes for movement are predominantly filled with synthetic materials. Unfortunately, the rise of synthetic sportswear has brought about disastrous impacts on the environment and our health. Microplastics, harmful particles that break off from these garments during washing, pose a significant threat to waterways, ecosystems, animals and ultimately, our own bodies. It’s time we address this nearly invisible yet enormous problem and take steps to minimize the damage caused by our sportswear choices.
These plastics end up inside of our bodies by way of our water and food supplies. It seems hard to believe, but some estimates say we are eating five grams of plastic, the equivalent of a credit card, every week!
Unless your clothes are made exclusively of organic cotton*, hemp or linen, they are either entirely or partly derived from petroleum products. Without even delving into the impacts of extracting oil from the earth’s crust, the impacts of the end products are enough to make a yogini, hiker, swimmer or soccer mom cry. It’s not just spandex bike shorts; it’s in every layer from our bras to our fleece jackets.
EcoConcept in Action: Winning Strategies to Prevent Plastic Pollution
Our washing machines are the single largest source of plastics in the ocean. There are two effective ways to tackle the problem of microfibers and microplastics leaving your residence in the water and into the environment.
Trap them in a washing machine filter
You can quickly retrofit your washing machine with an aftermarket filter from a vendor like planetcare.org. This device can be installed in 10 minutes on any domestic washing machine and reduces microplastic pollution by 90%. The replaceable/returnable filters should be changed quarterly. The company recycles the fibers and refurbishes the returned filters. Their starter kit starts at $64.19.
When you are in the market for a new washer, choose one that has microplastics filtering built in. According to TechCrunch, Samsung is rolling out two new washing machine features: a plastic-catching filter that works with any washer and a specialized wash cycle that halves microplastic pollution. In Europe and North America, there is a push to mandate that new household washing machines come pre-installed with microplastic-filtering devices, but until then, seek it out.
Capture the bits in a microfiber/microplastic trapping bag
Washing your clothes in microfiber/microplastic trapping bags, such as Guppyfriend, dramatically reduces fiber shedding and captures the fibers that do break—so your clothes last longer and look better while protecting our water supply. Studies have shown these bags provide an 86% reduction in fiber loss and 90 to 100% capture of microplastics. Unless you only have a few synthetic items to wash, it is best to divide them between at least two bags to help with machine balance. They are reusable and last for years when used properly. You can find them locally at Patagonia and REI, or you can order them online (approx. $38 each).
EcoConcept in Action: Scoring High with Sustainable Style
Choose natural fibers.
Opt for sportswear made from organic cotton, hemp, linen or TENCEL (from eucalyptus trees). These natural fibers have a lesser impact on the environment compared to petroleum-based synthetic materials.
Look for recycled content.
Support brands that use recycled materials in their sportswear production. (Items made from recycled soda bottles, for example.)
Explore secondhand options.
Keep sportswear in circulation by scoring finds at thrift stores, consignment stores or online platforms like GearTrade and Poshmark. Some brands, like REI Used and The NorthFace Renewed, even offer gently used products directly.
Support brands with warranties.
Choose brands that stand behind their products with limited or lifetime warranties. Patagonia, Outdoor Research, L.L. Bean and many others prioritize durability and repairability.
Find free options.
Proper Care to Maximize Sportswear Performance:
Wash before wearing.
Save your skin and remove chemicals added during manufacturing. Wash your sportswear (even pre-soak it in baking soda water) before wearing it the first time.
Wash on cold and gentle.
Washing on the cold setting and using a gentle cycle conserves 90% of the energy, reduces friction and avoids damaging heat that can break down clothing faster. Even more protection is offered by the aforementioned Guppyfriend bag.
Wash less frequently.
Laundering after every wear strains the fabric and consumes excessive energy and water. Instead, try washing every other time or simply rinsing clothes off and air drying them.
Skip the dryer.
Synthetic clothes dry quickly on a clothesline or drying rack, which has the dual benefits of conserving lots of energy and avoiding the elastic- and fiber-damaging heat on your clothes.
Ready to retire it?
Locate local tailors or seamstresses who can repair your sportswear. Additionally, numerous online resources provide tutorials for DIY repairs. Some brands, such as Patagonia and Rapha, even offer repair services for their clothing and gear.
Keep it in the game.
Rather than throwing away clothing, donate, swap (e.g. Good Group) or sell it. Make some money by listing your outdoor clothing online at GearTrade or one of the many used clothing sites. Save up for clothing swaps, or just offer your items on neighborhood lists and free sites.
- Polyester (including the ubiquitous outdoor clothing fabric polypropylene), nylon, acrylic, rayon and conventional cotton are the least sustainable fabrics.
- Polyesters are nonbiodegradable and can take up to 200 years to break down.
- Cotton that is not raised organically is one of the most highly sprayed crops on the planet. Those pesticides and herbicides are toxic (by design) and are largely petroleum-based. So while the fibers may not be plastic, cultivating these crops is damaging to our land and water as well as animal and human health.
- Silk, wool, leather and occasionally fur are other natural materials that you might find in outdoor clothing and shoes. They are animal derived, which has associated ethical and environmental implications.
- While bamboo, the plant, grows without irrigation or fertilizers and captures CO2, most bamboo fabric is not particularly green. The production of it requires multiple toxic chemicals, making it more of a “greenwashing” product.
- Nearly all waterproof high-performance gear uses coating of poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (aka PFAS), which are linked to neurological and organ damage.
Want to learn more about the impacts of clothing and fabrics on the environment? Check out this special documentary screening and panel discussion presented by local hemp towel company Anact and global sustainable clothing leader Patagonia.
Act Up: The True Cost
Stateside at the Paramount
Monday, July 17, 2023 / Doors 5 pm – Show 6 pm
EcoBrandi is a long-time award-winning environmental leader and cringes at the fact that she is just now learning about how horrible her laundry habits are. If you want to connect to get help greening your business, organization, congregation or school please email firstname.lastname@example.org.