The other day I put on a pair of activewear leggings and thoroughly spooked myself out. Haha, no the leggings weren't haunted, but in a way, they might've been possessed with something I couldn't see.
WTF am I talking about?
The everpresent new fabric of our lives- PLASTIC.
I guess it makes sense we don't question that our clothing is made of plastic, so much of everything we purchase is packaged in plastic. When you start thinking about it a lot- the great garbage patch in the ocean, the leaching of chemicals from plastic into our foods and our bodies, the fact that only 10% of our plastic is even getting recycled, and the increasingly widespread information that washing our plastic clothing is releasing teeny tiny plastic particles into the ocean- it's really terrifying isn't it? Don't quit reading this post now, please! I know it's a giant bummer, and it feels truly powerless to do anything on a large enough scale to make a difference. BUT if our own government is denying responsibility for climate change and the dangers of burning fossil fuels, and not making strides to force businesses to decrease our footprint, we as businesses must do it ourselves. We just can't leave the planet to our children in such a precarious position. It's not the millennial way, WE CARE. Let's walk the talk!
FIRST, I WANT TO TALK ABOUT PLASTIC IN CLOTHING.
I've been in the clothing/fashion industry for 10 years. I'm a tiny cockroach of a company (as Mr. Wonderful would say!), but I'm resilient and adaptable. Being a small business, I can change what I want pretty quickly. And I've decided I've had enough of plastic clothing- recycled or not. If it has petroleum in it, it really can't be good for our skin. This is especially true of activewear, which includes our sweaty open pore skin. Here is where I freaked myself out the other day. I was about to go on a run when it was 80 degrees out, I was about to sweat, and I was about to encase myself in polyester (i.e. plastic). I recently heard from a German study that plastic has 25,000 chemicals in it. 25,000. That's almost unfathomable, right? To think that it's ok to put on my body, a fossil fuel fiber laced with 25,000 chemicals, just before sweating and opening my skin, the largest organ in my body, to receive what it will, just felt... so stupid. And I've been doing it for years. AND I've been selling it for years. Where is this disconnect? Why are we all exercising in plastic???
WHAT FABRICS ARE MADE OF PLASTIC?
Polyester, polyamide, nylon, and of course recycled plastic bottle polyester (branded as Repreve) and recycled fishing net nylon (Econyl). Polyester, polyamide, and nylon are all created from petroleum and coal- YUM! I don't think we need to know the exact scientific process to understand it's bad. They're made from nonrenewable fossil fuels and they require a lot of energy and chemicals to do it. On top of that, polyesters and nylons are often made in countries like China that don't have as many environmental regulations. So who knows what this is doing to their air and water, and eventually it'll come to OUR air and water. We live on the same planet after all.
Well, recycling plastic and fishing nets to make fabrics has got to be good, right? It's recycled! This answer is a bit complicated. I've seen a lot of companies recently promoting activewear made from recycled plastic bottles or fishing nets, and this is OF COURSE better than virgin materials. BUT the problem lies in this: We're still relying on plastic, fossil fuels, and supporting single-use plastic.
Here are a few fast facts about both recycled and virgin plastic fabrics:
1. To make new fabrics out of recycled bottles still requires some virgin plastic. Each time you recycle plastic it's a slightly weakened version of the previous plastic. So new plastic has to be mixed in. We are still supporting the plastic industry in some form when we purchase anything made of polyester, recycled or not.
2. Plastic can't be recycled forever. As I said above, each time it gets recycled it's a lesser version than its previous self. Eventually, the plastic is too weak to be used and you need so much new plastic it might as well be all new plastic.
3. Recycled plastic bottle clothing still takes 20-1000 years to decompose, just like virgin polyester clothing. Most of our clothing does end up in a landfill one day. You wear it for 20 years- that's awesome. But years later, the recycled plastic leggings are too stretched out, out of style, don't fit anymore, whatever... so to Goodwill they go. They might get used again by someone else, here or shipped to third world countries, or they might get thrown out. All clothing has the same destiny though, one day. The landfill. Double whammy here too is, while these well-intentioned recycled plastic leggings decompose they are releasing greenhouse gases like methane FOR THE ENTIRE 20-1000 YEARS they sit in the landfill. They are born from greenhouse gases, and die into greenhouse gases. Two rounds of climate change events here.
4. Washing recycled polyester or regular polyester in the washing machine is releasing microfibers into the ocean. They get ingested by marine life, accumulate in the food chain, and at some point, we ingest them as well. The majority of plastic in the ocean are these microplastics from washing our plastic clothing. Plastic fibers have even been found in Arctic ice!
5. On top of polyester and recycled polyester requiring fossil fuels to produce them, they need many more chemicals to dye them, to make them wrinkle-free, and to make them moisture wicking (repel sweat) and anti-bacterial. Chemicals like formaldehyde, phthalates, triclosan, chemicals that are known to cause cancer, birth defects, and reproductive harm. Putting that literally on my reproductive system while I exercise and open up my body to receive what's caked on the fabric... just... no thanks. Speaking of...
6. Wearing these recycled plastics, or virgin plastics, we still don't really know what they're doing to our bodies. Activewear and polyester are still really new. On a common sense level, wearing fabric that doesn't allow your skin to release sweat doesn't sound right. When we sweat, our body releases toxins. When this sweat has nowhere to go, it can't escape via the fabric pores, so it sits trapped beneath the fabric, back on our skin. It's no wonder some people get rashes or headaches after exercising in "activewear". We also have worse body odor when we exercise in polyester because the sweat doesn't get a chance to be evacuated from our bodies. Greenpeace came out with a report in 2015 that basically said we have no idea what the long term effects are in wearing polyester all the time. And WE ARE wearing our yoga pants all the time, exercising or not, athleisure clothing is our go to.
WE KNOW OUR ACTIVEWEAR IS PROBABLY TOXIC, WHAT NOW?
I wrote this blog post not to scare you, though I will admit I am a bit scared of my pile of printed leggings in my dresser. I feel at a crossroads with my active wardrobe, and with my own active yoga line. I just can't ignore the above information, can you? Should we? I don't want to tell my children that I didn't try my best to protect my health, their health, and the greater well being of the planet. There are solutions! No one is forcing us to buy clothing that is most likely poison. Here are some ideas:
1. Don't wear your recycled plastic or polyester or nylon clothing 24/7. Wear them just for working out and take them off immediately after. Not the most fun thing to do when your activewear is so cute, comfy, and on trend, I know.
2. Wash your polyester and recycled polyester clothing in a guppyfriend bag every time.
3. Stop buying new activewear made from recycled plastic, polyester, and nylon. This one I know will be super tough. The market is absolutely flooded with the cutest yoga and activewear we've literally ever seen. But just remember lurking beneath the ruffles and mesh panels and cool prints are... toxins and fossil fuels. The very thing we are working so hard to fight against every day by eating clean and organic and local, by using organic skincare and makeup, by buying from small businesses, are in plain sight on the clothing we wear to try to be our healthiest selves. Don't allow the disconnect to continue. Don't forget what you know.
4. Seek out activewear made from natural fibers and don't worry about showing a little sweat. We've been conditioned to think we can't show anyone that we've exercised by hiding any trace of sweat, like we're these mystical creatures that don't sweat. You earned that sweat, embrace it.
HERE ARE SOME GREAT PLASTIC FABRIC ACTIVEWEAR ALTERNATIVES:
Organic Cotton is a great option because it's chemical free, super biodegradable, and breathable. BUT if you are sweating a lot it, it will leave you pretty damp and maybe cold after working out. I prefer organic cotton for yoga in an unheated room, hiking, jogging when it's cooler out, walking, and everyday wear.
Merino Wool is awesome, though a bit hard to find. And you have to be sure the sheep are being treated ethically. It's not scratchy like the wool you imagine, it's super soft. Wool is known to be a brilliant temperature regulator, keeping you cool in summer, and warm in winter. I have yet to find a company that produces merino wool yoga pants that are anywhere close to the fashion factor of other yoga brands.
Hemp is a super eco-friendly fiber for fabric that grows like a weed, hence being called weed. It's a miracle plant in many ways that doesn't need as much water as organic cotton. My complaint with hemp for activewear is that it's quite stiff. It works well when mixed with organic cotton, but we still have the organic cotton problem that it gets quite damp when exercising. I personally prefer hemp in the form of a more linen-like fabric, for dresses and pants, not as much for activewear.
Tencel, also called lyocell, is my favorite fiber, and I believe it to be the holy grail of natural fibers for activewear. Tencel is made from the wood pulp of Eucalyptus trees grown in Europe. Trees don't require any irrigation or pesticides, and they require much less prime land than organic cotton. Growing pesticide-free plants like trees to make fibers improves the condition of our soil, and they absorb carbon dioxide, changing it to oxygen, helping fight climate change. Tencel is one of the first manmade natural fibers to have a closed loop system. This means any chemicals used to break down the wood into fibers are recycled endlessly in a loop, never being released into the environment. The only downside is we still want our clothing to have colors, so the dyes are not completely toxin free, though Tencel requires way less dye than cotton. The companies that produce Tencel are working to find solutions to this problem.
Besides Tencel being so gentle on the environment, and our bodies, it's so buttery soft and comfy. It has all the qualities we look for in activewear- breathability, absorption and moisture wicking, and softness. It's kinda... perfect.
(Quick note on Bamboo. I'm not including it here because it's basically been discredited over the years for its eco-friendliness. It does not have that closed loop system Tencel has, so any chemicals used to turn the bamboo pulp into fibers have nowhere to go but out. They are disposed of in our waters and soil. I actually think the laws have even prohibited companies from labeling bamboo as simply bamboo, we have to call it 'rayon made from bamboo', as it so closely resembles rayon by the time it's finished.)
SO SHOW ME THE SUPER CUTE TENCEL YOGA ACTIVEWEAR!
This is where I want my company, Purusha, to go. I'm frankly tired of almost every eco- yoga clothing company assuming that we don't care about trends or having fun with fashion. When I researched merino wool leggings all I could find was plain gray leggings made for some crunchy person that lives in Vermont and dresses because they have to, not for the fun of it. And I love Vermont! Organic cotton and hemp leggings have a bit more options, but I still found overall the clothing to be boring and a turn off from the eco-mission. There is absolutely no Carbon38 or Bandier to be found in the sea of natural fiber activewear. It's mostly outdated websites, dull clothing, and no edge. We need talented designers to make our activewear from Tencel, wool, and organic cotton too. Fashion isn't going anywhere, and it's up to us that care about our footprint to lead the way in our clothing subcategories.
Some of my favorite eco-friendly brands are Mate the Label, Apiece Apart, and Reformation. They don't make the activewear my fashionista heart craves, but they fill the regular clothes and loungewear needs super well. I desire to turn Purusha into the organic, natural fiber, fashionable activewear brand that we are so desperately missing right now. Let me know if there's anything you'd like to see in the comments below! Look out for Tencel Eucalyptus to take over our shop in the next couple months, and I can promise it'll be fabulous and possessed by only the good stuff of this world!
Owner + Designer at www.purushapeople.com