Lace up your shoes, people! It’s January, and gym season is back. Whether it’s a structured gym routine, a yoga class, or a more outdoor activity like running, many people (including me, and maybe you?) begin the new year with a firm resolve to be healthier. But did you know your plans to get moving could end up harming the planet?
Before you think “great, I’ve found the perfect excuse to not work out,” let us clarify. You’re not the problem - it’s your synthetic, plastic-filled workout clothes.
Why You Need Sustainable Workout Clothes
If you look at the label of any gym clothes, you’ll find that they’re probably made of synthetic fibers like nylon, acrylic, polyester, and spandex. Synthetic fibers are popularly used in activewear because they’re stretchable, moisture-wicking, comfortable, and make your butt look great. But most of these contain plastic. When you say your last goodbyes to your workout clothes, they won’t biodegrade - they’ll persist in the environment indefinitely, harming the planet.
But more alarmingly, synthetic clothes cause microplastic pollution. Every time these clothes are washed, they leech tiny pieces of plastic into the water supply, which eventually ends up in the ocean. In fact, 35% of the microplastics in the ocean come from synthetic textiles. And to put things in perspective, most of the plastic in the ocean isn’t in the form of whole products like the single-use straws we all hate, but as microplastics.
These tiny particles of plastic are ingested by marine life and travel up the food chain. They also end up in our drinking water supply (especially in tap and bottled water) and are even scattered into the very air we breathe. As a result, we’re ingesting plastic every day. A study commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund found that people could be eating, drinking, and breathing as much as five grams of plastic every week - that’s the equivalent of eating a credit card!
Not only are microplastics toxic on their own, but they also soak up other toxins in the water. Microplastics could potentially leech harmful compounds that cause cancers, a weakened immune system, reproductive issues, problems with the nervous system, and more. And it seems like this is just the tip of the rapidly melting iceberg. Research into microplastics is fairly recent and scientists are still finding out more.
It’s become increasingly clear that synthetic fibers are harmful to people and the planet. So what can we do about it?
5 Ways to Wear More Sustainable Activewear
1. Cut down the plastic in your wardrobe
The first and most important thing you can do is to minimize the number of synthetic clothes in your wardrobe. Don’t throw away your existing synthetics, but quit buying more! Instead, switch to buying natural fabrics for regular, non-athletic use.
2. Wear natural fabrics whenever possible
Admittedly, it’s hard to completely stop wearing synthetic workout clothes because of their functionality. But wherever possible, try to wear clothes made from natural fabrics like cotton. You can try to wear cotton knit tops or t-shirts with synthetic pants, especially if you don’t sweat too heavily. And for low-intensity workouts, give cotton track pants a chance.
3. Thrift your workout clothes for more sustainable activewear!
Instead of buying brand-new synthetics, opt for pre-loved workout clothes from your local thrift store. If you can’t find a physical store near you, you’ll find many on Instagram. You can check out @thisforthatcloset, which lets you swap clothes with other people, or @thrift_india. Even though thrifting won’t cut down on microplastic pollution, it’ll help reduce the production of non-biodegradable synthetic clothes that will eventually end up in landfills.
4. If possible, buy synthetic workout clothes made of recycled materials
If possible, try to buy athleticwear made out of recycled materials. Some brands, like Patagonia, sell workout wear and other clothes made out of recycled plastic from the ocean. Others, like Waste2Wear offer clothes made of recycled synthetic fabrics like polyester. Big brands like Adidas and Nike also have their own ranges of recycled polyester workout gear. (PS: We tried hard to find Indian brands that sell clothes made of recycled materials but couldn’t find any :( If you know any brands, do tell us in the comments!)
When buying any synthetic activewear, make sure it’s durable and high quality. If you need help, read our guide to buying high-quality clothes that actually last.
5. Wash your synthetics carefully to minimize microplastic pollution
It’s impossible to completely avoid microplastic pollution when you wash synthetic clothes, but there are ways to minimize this. You can attach a filter to your washing machine or use a fine mesh bag like the Guppyfriend, both of which catch microplastics that can later be disposed off properly. (PPS: We’re not sure there’s an Indian-made version of this, but if you find one, let us know in the comments!)
Wash synthetic clothes inside-out at low temperatures on a milder setting in your washing machine. A cooler, gentler wash reduces the number of microplastics shed by your clothes. Make sure to wash a full load with tightly-packed clothes to reduce friction. Since synthetics dry quickly, eliminate the spin cycle and simply air-dry your clothes to minimize microplastic shedding.
This January, we hope you switch to more sustainable activewear and keep your resolution to work out! Boost your health - and that of the planet.
Written by Sanya Sharma