We can all do our bit to help protect the environment. Small things like turning the tap off while we’re brushing our teeth, reusing our shopping bags, and recycling can all make a difference. But what’s the point in washing out our yoghurt pots if sportswear manufacturers are pumping CO2 into the atmosphere at a rate of knots?
From footwear to outdoor apparel, leisurewear to fitness equipment; the sports and leisure goods industry in the UK is growing considerably. The total annual turnover of sporting goods manufactured reached a grand total of more than eight billion British pounds in 2019. And much of it is packed with plastic and other non-durable materials that are damaging to the environment.
Thankfully, manufacturers are now waking up to the environmental costs of sportswear. But what are companies doing to reduce their carbon footprint and become more sustainable? This in-depth article investigates the environmental cost of sportswear, so you can make a more informed choice when choosing your next pair of leggings or running shoes.
The Environmental Impact of Sportswear
The sports and leisurewear industry is booming, with so many of us now wearing activewear on a daily basis. And while we may feel comfortable wearing it, the widely used synthetic fabrics used are extremely energy-intensive, and are often non-biodegradable. Lightweight, stretchy, and moisture-wicking are all sought after features in our sportswear, but the environmental cost is huge.
When understanding the impact of our individual purchases, we need to consider the entire journey the item has taken before it gets to us.
There are five major stages in the lifecycle of a garment: material, production, transport, use and disposal.
The first step in producing clothing is extracting the raw materials, which could be natural or synthetic. Natural fibres come from plants and animals, which needs farming, irrigating, fertilising, harvesting and ginning. Whereas synthetic fibres are made from fossil fuels, which is typically obtained through drilling into the earth.
Next, fibres are spun together to make yarn, which is then weaved or knitted together to produce the fabric. After being made, most fabrics go through several other processes such as bleaching, dyeing and printing, before being cut (according to the pattern) and sewn together. Finally, labels, buttons and zips are added to finish off the garment.
It’s extremely rare for raw materials to be grown, processed, sewn, and sold all in one location. Often, raw materials and finished garments are transported many thousands of miles by ship, plane, train and truck. They are then usually stored in warehouses before arriving in-store, or being delivered to our homes (when buying online).
Once we’ve got our new purchase home, it will be worn, washed, dried and ironed many many times. The average washing machine uses around 50 litres of water per load, so hand washing is often better for the environment. And hanging to dry naturally is also more eco-friendly than using a tumble dryer. There are also a number of environmentally-friendly detergents which do not contain harmful substances.
When we no longer want our top, dress or pair of jeans, we could donate, sell or recycle them. But many people choose to just bin them. More than 300,000 tonnes of used clothing goes to landfill in the UK every year, which causes considerable damage to the environment. Natural fibres emit carbon dioxide and methane when they decompose. And synthetic fibres simply do not decompose, staying in landfill for many years. Some landfill waste is also burned to make space for more waste, which puts even more carbon dioxide into our atmosphere.
Everything we produce has a carbon footprint. From raw material extraction to recycling or disposal, carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are released into the environment, causing significant harm to our planet. Did you know the UK is the fourth largest textile waste producer in Europe? Us Brit’s each throw away around eight items of clothing a year rather than donating or recycling them, and many of those items will be perfectly wearable. That equates to approximately £12.5 billion, according to The Times.
There are a number of pre-loved websites you can sell your unwanted clothing on, or why not donate to a charity? Many highstreet retailers, including H&M, Primark and TK Maxx also take unwanted clothes and recycle them, helping us work towards a circular economy.
How Much CO2 is Created During Sportswear Production?
The apparel and footwear industries combined accounted for more than 8% of global climate impacts—the equivalent of 3,990 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2016, according to a report from Quantis.
Total greenhouse gas emissions related to textiles production are equal to 1.2 billion tonnes annually—which is more than the emissions from all international flights and maritime shipping trips combined, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
To look at this in a little more detail, let’s take a look at the humble cotton t-shirt. A wardrobe staple, this seemingly inoffensive garment is a great polluter in every stage of its lifecycle. From the fertilisers used in growing the cotton, to the toxins and greenhouse gases released during the manufacturing process.
A study carried out by Continental Clothing Co. Ltd, a pilot partner in the Carbon Trust’s product footprinting and labelling initiative, found that a cotton t-shirt has a total lifecycle footprint of 2.34 kg CO2e. But did you know that customer use has the single largest impact on its carbon footprint?
- Washing, tumble drying and ironing (an estimated 25 times) contributes to 48% of the total, with tumble drying being the biggest culprit. In fact, avoiding tumble drying and ironing would actually result in an overall reduction in the product footprint by around 37%, or 0.857 kg.
- Cotton accounts for a significant chunk of the global apparel segment, which is only just behind the oil industry to rank the second largest commercial polluter, releasing 10% of the world’s carbon emissions — that’s 860 million tonnes per year.
- Transportation is at around 10.4% of the total emissions. The footprint of ocean freight from India to the UK is only 0.8%, compared to road freight in India of 6.2% and road freight and postage in the UK of 3.5%.
- Packaging is at around 8% of the total emissions. Despite minimal use of packaging throughout the supply chain, ¾ of the packaging footprint is in the packing for the final delivery to consumers.
- Screen-printing, around 3.7% of the total, shows drying/curing as the single largest impact. But it also identifies the number of screens used in the process as a significant factor, where each additional screen (colour on the print) could increase the footprint of the design by around 5%.
How Companies Can be More Sustainable
More and more brands are championing sustainability. This could be through using sustainable materials and processes to produce goods, or selling second hand. Companies are also realising the need to recycle, repair and reuse to do their bit to reduce waste.
Let’s take a look at five ways in which retailers are becoming more sustainable.
1. Brands with a purpose
It’s becoming more and more important to consumers that the brands we buy from are ethical and have a purpose. We want to know if retailers use recycled packaging, or if they donate to charity. So brands need to consider their strategy and values to decide how they might give back to the community and the planet.
2. High quality
There has been a significant growth in ‘fast fashion’ in recent years, however fashion retailers are now starting to move away from this concept and instead, are prioritising quality and longevity. Many consumers are generally happy to pay more for quality products which they know will last longer than cheaper alternatives. This means less is thrown away, and less waste ends up in landfill. There are some brands who will even repair or recycle your items to ensure the lifecycle of the product lasts much longer.
3. Sustainable materials
Arguably the most obvious step to improving a brand's sustainability is to change the materials it uses. Materials which have a high carbon footprint to produce, or which are non-biodegradable have a huge impact on our planet. So retailers need to show customers that they are doing their bit to be more sustainable, and that they are willing to work with less damaging materials. We at Decathlon are working hard to be a more sustainable brand by switching to sustainable materials. Today, 100% of the cotton used in our products is sustainably sourced. And by the end of 2022, we want all the polyester in our products to be sustainably sourced too.
4. Recycled materials
An increasing number of brands are now exclusively using recycled materials in their supply chain. London-based company, Kind Bag, was born out of its founder’s own journey to reduce her plastic usage. After reading up on what happened to single-use plastic bags after use, Kind Bags was set-up to tackle the problem in two ways – 1) they replace the need for single-use bags altogether and 2) they turn the plastic waste already on this planet into something useful – creating reusable bags from six used bottles.
5. Local sourcing
Sourcing materials and parts locally can be beneficial to the environment, as it uses less transportation and therefore causes less carbon emissions. Selling locally also makes a huge difference. For example, a bag which is made in Bristol and sold locally in a Bristol boutique is much better for the environment compared to a bag made in China and transported thousands of miles to the UK. And how a product is transported makes a difference too. Trains may be more efficient at moving freight than trucks, for example.
6. Ethical supply chain
Reviewing supply chains is a key part of a company becoming more sustainable. Brands should know where the materials they use come from, and need to ensure the environment from which they source their materials are ethical and safe for their workers, with workers receiving a fair wage for their labour.
Sports Brands Working Towards Sustainability
Decathlon’s purpose is to be useful to people and to our planet, sustainably making the pleasure and benefits of sport accessible to the many. And we’re committing to achieving the following by 2026:
- 100% renewable energy: In September 2018 we joined the worldwide RE100 initiative, and have committed to sourcing 100% of our electricity from renewable energy by 2026 - a measure that will apply to all our commercial and logistics sites around the world. The idea is to produce solar panel powered energy on our sites, where possible, or to buy renewable energy.
- 100% of our repairable products are repaired: We believe the lifespan of our products shouldn’t stop once you no longer need them or when they are damaged. That’s why we’re on track for the future to offer several solutions to give products a longer life. Our workshops will repair and maintain your sports equipment so you can use them for longer. Our Second Life initiative allows you to buy refurbished sports equipment at discounted prices to prevent them from going to waste. You’ll also be able to part exchange your pre-loved goods – we’ll buy back your old bike or skiing equipment to give it a new lease of life. And you can hire a bike, skiing, camping or watersports equipment to make it easier and more cost-effective to try out a new sport or activity.
- 100% of our products to be the result of an eco-design strategy: Eco-design consists of taking the environment into account from the first design stages and throughout the entire product's life cycle. At the end of 2019, this applied to 5% of our range, with around 500 eco-design products – so we know we have a long way to go. But with our ever expanding range of eco-design products, we’re confident it can be achieved by 2026.
And like Decathlon, other sportswear brands are seeking out more sustainable routes too:
- Organic Basics: This Copenhagen-based company only uses natural, recycled, renewable, biodegradable, and low-impact textiles in their products. So you’ll find organic cotton bras, Tencel tank tops (a fibre made from responsibly sourced wood pulp), and yoga shorts made of recycled nylon. Organic Basics also works with certified factory partners that pay living wages. And twice a year, it donates a portion of its profits to grassroots activists and organisations that address environmental issues.
- Summersalt: This is a brand that’s taking the world by storm. With earth-friendly apparel for women-on-the-go, affordable price points, and sustainable practises, it’s no wonder Summersalt products are becoming more and more sought-after. They work with their partners and design team to prioritise creating collections using sustainable materials and components. Their swimwear is made from a luxurious fabric that is crafted from 78% Recycled Polyamide / 22% Lycra. These fabrics are crafted from post-consumer materials and nylon waste—like old fishing nets—that are literally pulled from our oceans.
- Outdoor Voices: Offering interchangeable layers that are perfect for any season or activity, this Texan-based athletics wear brand has collections that span gym-life and everyday life. Outdoor Voices sources sustainable textiles, including responsibly sourced merino wool and recycled polyester made from water bottles, and the company takes care of its stateside and overseas factory partners, prioritising fair working conditions and ethical labour practises.
Using More Sustainable Materials
All fabrics can be characterised as either natural or synthetic fibres (or a blend of the two). Natural fibres come from plants and animals, while synthetic fibres are made from chemical compounds. Both types have their pros and cons, and each is valued in the textile industry for different reasons.
Natural fibres are those made from natural materials that come from plants, animals, or minerals. The natural raw materials are spun into threads and yarns, before being woven or knit into natural fabrics.
Examples of natural fibres include:
- Silk: Produced by insects—most commonly silkworms—as a material for their nests and cocoons, silk is made primarily of a protein called fibroin. It is known for its shine and softness as a material, and is often used in shirts, dresses, and lingerie due to its luxurious look and feel.
- Cotton: Made from fibres from the cotton plant, cotton is primarily composed of cellulose, an insoluble organic compound crucial to plant structure. It is a soft and durable material that is often used to make t-shirts and undergarments. Examples of different types of cotton fabric are organic cotton, denim, and canvas. In 2019/2020, the total global production of cotton amounted to 122 million bales. India, China, and the United States were the largest producers, responsible for more than half of the world’s total production volume. The total global supply of cotton, stocks included, stood at approximately 218.6 million 480-pound bales in 2020. That’s the weight of almost four million double-decker buses!
- Wool: A textile made from the hair of sheep, goats, alpacas, and other animals. Different wool fabrics include cashmere, angora, mohair, and more. Wool is a very warm, absorbent, and durable fibre. It is also water-resistant, thanks to the lanolin oils from the animals. Wool is generally used to make warm clothing like jumpers, scarves and coats.
- Linen: Made from the flax plant, linen is a strong and lightweight fabric that is naturally hypoallergenic and very breathable. This is why it’s a great textile for warm weather clothing, like summer shirts and shorts.
- Jute: A coarse natural plant fibre from the jute plant, it’s a popular textile to make bags, string, rugs, and sacks. Jute is in great demand due to its cheapness—second only to cotton—softness, length, and uniformity of its fibre.
Advantages of using natural fibres
Natural fibres are popular for many different reasons, as they are generally more environmentally-friendly and durable compared to synthetic fibres. Other benefits include:
- Absorbency: Natural fibres are incredibly absorbent. This makes natural fibres a great option for bath towels, as absorbency is an important factor and they’re used regularly.
- Eco-friendly: Natural fibres usually have a smaller environmental impact than synthetic fibres because natural fibres do not use as many chemicals during the production process. Though some natural fibres are less eco-friendly than others because some plants require more water.
- Durability: Most plant-based fibres are very strong due to the structure of cellulose, which makes up natural materials. Animal-based fibres, like silk and wool, are also very strong.
- Hypoallergenic: In addition to being naturally hypoallergenic, natural fabrics such as cotton, silk, and linen have certain antibacterial properties too. Bamboo fabrics also have an anti-microbial bioagent, so it’s often used in toothbrushes and kitchen utensils for this reason.
Synthetic fibres are made of synthetic materials, usually formed through chemical processes. The fibres are generally extracted during the chemical process using a spinneret, which takes polymers to form fibres. The textile industry began creating synthetic fibres in the 1800s as cheaper and more easily mass-produced alternatives to natural fibres.
Examples of synthetic fibres include:
- Polyester: A synthetic fibre made from coal and petroleum. It’s very durable, making it a great fabric for trousers, shirts, suits and bedding, as well as jackets because of its water-resistant properties. However it isn’t breathable and doesn’t absorb liquids well, so it’s not recommended for the summer months.
- Lycra: Also known as Spandex or elastane, Lycra is extremely elastic. It’s often blended with other fibres to add stretch and is used for everything from jeans to sportswear.
- Rayon: This is a semi-synthetic fibre made from reconstituted wood pulp. Even though rayon is made from plant fibres, it is considered semi-synthetic because of the chemicals, like sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide, used in the production process. Examples of rayon include viscose, and lyocell, and it can be an imitation form of silk, wool, and other fabrics.
- Acrylic fibres: These are synthetic fibres made from polymers formed by acrylonitrile or vinyl cyanide. Acrylic is considered an imitation wool as a result of its heat retention properties, and it’s often used to produce faux fur and fleece.
- Microfibers: These are incredibly thin and short fibres, with a diameter of less than 10 micrometres. They are often used to produce cleaning cloths due to their ability to trap dirt, and they are generally made of polyester.
Although there are many advantages of using synthetic fibres, including affordability, along with their stain and water resistance, there is a huge environmental cost due to the chemicals used in their production.
Natural fabrics vs Synthetic fabrics
A common misconception is that synthetic fabrics are more harmful to the planet than natural fabrics. Although with chemicals and additives, both cotton and polyester, for example, have similar environmental impacts due to having similar manufacturing types. Bleach and detergents are harmful to the environment. Cotton requires a lot of water to produce, and it’s one of the worst crops for synthetic pesticide and fertiliser use; second only to coffee. Not only is high usage of synthetic pesticides and fertilisers linked to a multitude of health problems in farmers, but it also impacts biodiversity and soil fertility. Although one key advantage of cotton is that it is biodegradable.
Polyester and other synthetic fabrics rely on the petrochemical industries for their raw material, meaning this textile industry staple is dependent on fossil fuel extraction. And everytime you wash a polyester garment it releases microfibres into our waterways causing immense damage to marine life and ecosystem.
So what materials are the most sustainable?
Organic cotton is a more sustainable alternative to conventional cotton. It doesn’t use fertilisers and pesticides, and it consumes far less water. However, only about one percent of the total 25 million tonnes of cotton is grown organically. This is mainly because growing organic cotton is a lot more expensive. Although many brands, including H&M and Nike, have committed to use more organic cotton in their clothing. Patagonia has exclusively used organically grown cotton since 1996. And 100% of the cotton used in Decathlon products is now sustainably sourced.
The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), the largest cotton sustainability programme in the world, works to raise awareness and encourage support for the organic cotton industry. It is currently working with the Soil Association and the Global Organic Textile Standard in order to promote organic cotton standards and help farmers.
Recycled, man-made cellulose and bast fibres are also better for the environment.
- Recycled fabrics: To be truly environmentally friendly, many believe the fashion and sportswear industry needs to stop using virgin resources to create new materials and instead use and repurpose what we already have. Fortunately, brands are starting to use more recycled wool, cotton and synthetic fabrics in their garments. Recycled polyester, for example, uses up to half as much energy to make compared to virgin polyester, and it saves plastic from landfill.
- Cellulose-based fibres: This refers to those obtained from plant-based materials. This material can be either directly extracted from plants, such as cotton, or treated chemically to extract and process cellulose. If produced without using or retaining any substances of concern, cellulose-based fibres can be safely biodegraded. Tencel, for example, is a fibre that originates from the renewable raw material wood and is created by photosynthesis. The water used in the process is recycled, fewer chemicals are required during manufacture and the trees used are managed under strict regulations.
- Bast fibres: Are those fibres which are sourced from plants with a stem consisting of a woody core and fibrous bark, such as hemp, flax, nettle and jute. These materials have a small footprint compared to other natural fibres. In fact, hemp is one of the best alternatives to cotton because it uses a lot less water, can be grown in lots of different environments all over the world, thrives without the need for pesticides and contributes about half the carbon footprint.
Fashion and ethical sportswear brands are bringing ecodesign to the forefront of what they do, creating products that are less harmful to the environment. And individuals have followed suit by buying sustainable sportswear, scrapping plastic water bottles in favour of reusable options, and actively separating waste to recycle.
We all need to be mindful of using natural resources, and be aware of the effect our actions have on the environment. We have a responsibility to protect our planet, so we need to find and implement ways to meet our needs without endangering the world around us. Afterall, we only have one world. How will you play your part in protecting it?
Find out more about Decathlon’s sustainability goals.