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Your Microplastic-Packed Gym Clothes Are Polluting the Oceans. These Sustainable Activewear Brands Want to Help.

Textiles are responsible for 35 percent of microplastic pollution in the world's oceans – and the synthetic fibers shed when activewear goes through the wash are a way bigger factor than you might think

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You already know plastic straws and single-use water bottles are a problem for the planet. But even if you’ve drunk exclusively from a Nalgene for the last five years, you might still be contributing a lot more to plastic pollution than you know. You’re surrounded by microplastics, plastic particles of five millimeters or less – so tiny that you can’t even see them. These plastics often turn up in workout clothes like yoga pants, biking shorts, and sports bras, and pose a massive problem to the food chain and delicate ecosystems.

“Fabrics made from polyester and nylon, which are often used in workout clothes, deliver microplastics into the ocean through the grey waste water from your washing machine,” says biologist Charlie Rolsky, Ph.D., the director of science for Plastic Oceans International, a nonprofit working to end plastic pollution. “Once microplastics reach the oceans, small animals consume them. If the contaminants accumulate in their stomachs, this cycle will continue up the food chain, as larger animals eat these smaller animals.”

While some clothing brands have cleverly started creating fabrics made from ocean plastic in an effort to upcycle trash that already exists, this practice doesn’t solve the microplastics problem — once you wash these clothes, the recycled plastics just end up back in the ocean.

If you want to reduce your microplastic pollution footprint, the first step is to carefully read the labels of any garment you’re considering buying. When reviewing labels, avoid polyester, Lycra, nylon, and acrylic.

Instead, look for natural fabrics, such as linen, cotton, bamboo and hemp. If you’re comfortable with wool or alpaca, they can be great options as well; look for brands that are transparent about the sourcing and welfare standards of the animals involved. Another fabric to keep on your radar is Tencel, a material made from sustainably-sourced wood. In addition being being surprisingly flexible and soft against the skin, its fibers help contribute to breathability and color retention. Furthermore, the production process of turning wood into fiber requires less energy and water than cotton.

“Thankfully, we’re seeing a positive trend in the right direction with brands that are working hard to find suitable fabric replacements that are still light and breathable,” says Dr. Rolsky. “Any ingenuity and creativity is welcome to make an incremental transition to more sustainable solutions.”

While the fashion industry is still working on developing completely microplastic-free lines (high performance leggings and bra tops, for instance, are especially hard to design without some synthetic fibers in the mix), you can begin your search for sustainable activewear with the brands below. And, just like switching to a water bottle most of the time helps even if you still occasionally grab a disposable, if you’re not willing to give up your synthetics entirely, consider products like those from Prana and Miakoda which at least keep the percentage of plastic down in the single-digits.

Sustainable Activewear Brands for Reducing Your Microplastics

Aktiv Scandinavian-designed brand Aktiv makes clothes that are durable instead of disposable. Its Vile Tee is made from a mix of Tencel and linen, so it will feel soft and cool no matter how intense your workout gets.

Fjällräven Wool’s remarkable ability to keep you warm when it’s cool and cool when it’s warm shows that Mother Nature knows best. Fjällräven’s 100 percent merino wool base-layer will help regulate body temperature in any season. The brand uses only traceable ZQ Wool from small farms which prioritize animal welfare and sustainable land use.

Jungmaven Hemp is a natural and super-durable fiber that doesn’t require much in the way of irrigation or pesticides, meaning farming it has a minimal environmental impact – and it’s cultivation can actually improve soil. Jungmaven’s Yelapa sweatpants are a hemp/cotton blend perfect for yoga in your living room or running errands.

Rebel Movement What one clothing item knows no boundaries? T-shirts! They can be dressed up and down and worn everywhere. The cute Rebel Movement t-shirts are made of 100 percent Airlume combed and ring-spun cotton; these t-shirts will add a little pizazz to your workout or work-from-home day.  

Buddha Pants Draping your body in 100 percent cotton feels oh-so-good, and Buddha Pants are no exception. Choose from jogger harem pants and high-waisted harems to rompers and jumpsuits — either way, you’ll be draped in comfort.

Ibex This performance tank is made from 100 percent Merino wool, which naturally wicks away moisture and resists odor. Ibex is a Climate Neutral certified company, meaning it offsets its entire carbon footprint.

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