As the editor of Peaceful Dumpling, a former barre instructor, and generally active person who works out at least four times a week, one would think that I have quite a collection of athletic gear. I should also mention that I am currently based in Portland, Oregon, where Nike, Adidas, Columbia Sportswear, and a slew of smaller labels are headquartered. Activewear in Portland is like finance in New York: it’s kind of at the center of everything.
And yet, I own just one pair of running shoes (Nike) that I received as a gift in…2011.
I know the common wisdom of switching out your sneakers every 3-6 months, depending on your use. But that has always felt to me like an incredibly fast consumption cycle and a huge waste. Unlike certain other apparel items, used running shoes are understood to be fully defunct and physically “not safe.” So there is no passing on your old sneakers to your friend or the local Goodwill—they just go to landfill.
In fact, activewear overall is a category that can be much more unsustainable compared to other clothing and accessories. It almost always uses synthetic materials that leach microplastics into the water and the atmosphere. Also, activewear is worn most vigorously (due to its very nature), washed frequently, and wears out quickly. There is a reason why there is no such a thing as a secondhand activewear market.
And yet, confronting these issues with activewear has been difficult because of the irony that many environmentally conscious people tend to also be very active. (The reverse isn’t always true.) Caring about nature seems to go hand in hand with experiencing it outside, which goes hand-in-hand with activities like running, cycling, skiing, surfing, and hiking. Those who feel a moral responsibility to nature tend to also love mindful activities like yoga. Likewise, as someone who cares deeply about the environment but also needs stretchy, moisture-wicking clothes for activities, I’ve been torn about shopping for activewear—pushing everything I own past the recommended expiration date. Especially those shoes!
There are some hopeful news for those of us who want to keep working out *and* create as minimal impact as possible. As long as activewear requires stretch, form-fitting, moisture-wicking, and waterproofing, synthetic materials are unavoidable—so the best choice is to incorporate recycled synthetics as much as possible. Stella McCartney’s collection for Adidas is made of 70% recycled ocean plastic (Parley Ocean Plastic®); about half of those materials is in footwear. Each pair of her Ultraboost sneakers are made using 11 plastic bottles and are 100% recycled. Adidas also has committed to reduce waste, energy and water use at all their facilities by 2020.
Speaking of recycled, Vivobarefoot’s recycled line uses 17 plastic bottles for every pair of sneakers.
Vivobarefeet Primus Lite, $140, is a vegan movement shoe with Algae Bloom performance insole.
For clothing, League Collective is a luxe UK-based performance wear brand made of 100% recycled materials.
Finally, Patagonia has been a leader in sustainable activewear, even encouraging their consumers to get their items repaired for free rather than buying a new item. When repairing is no longer possible, Patagonia accepts the item for repurposing into new fiber or garment. Famously transparent, the company took out a full-page ad in The New York Times in 2011 asking people to “Don’t buy this jacket.” To make its bestselling R2 jacket, “it required 135 liters of water, enough to meet the daily needs (three glasses a day) of 45 people. Its journey from its origin as 60% recycled polyester to our Reno warehouse generated nearly 20 pounds of carbon dioxide, 24 times the weight of the finished product. This jacket left behind, on its way to Reno, two-thirds its weight in waste.”
What’s refreshing about Patagonia’s reveal is that no matter how recycled a piece of clothing or a pair of shoes are, its overall environmental impact is many times larger than the finished goods. In other words, it can be satisfying to be “removing” 11-17 used plastic bottles off the face of the Earth—but accounting for the chemicals, CO2 from shipping, water, energy, and packaging waste, the overall environmental impact is still net negative. It would be dishonest of anyone to try to convince you that there is a completely net zero (zero-waste) or even net positive form of consumerism. This is especially obvious when you consider just how big activewear market is. Nike, the #1 biggest activewear brand in the world, sells 25 sneakers every second. #2 Adidas produced 409 million pairs of shoes in 2018—that’s more than a million per day. These sneakers are not designed to be returned to the maker for recycling and will end up in landfill. No matter how conscious a company is, can that really all add up?
I don’t intend to make it all doom and gloom regarding something that so many of us find uplifting—in fact, essential to survival, especially these days. But once again, it is crucial to raise a critical eye against this notion that we can produce and consume our way out of difficult situations. Even making 100% recycled sneakers *will* have an environmental impact, especially when done at that scale. It is worthwhile to question whether our accepted ideas are worth keeping. Do we *have* to throw out sneakers every 3 to 6 months? While I am positive that my 9-year-old shoes are definitely broken down at this point, I’m not so sure that 6 months is the maximum lifespan of running shoes. (After all, I still have two perfectly functioning feet.) Who created this 6-month rule anyway—companies who stand to make a profit, or board-licensed podiatrists?
We now have sustainable activewear options in the market, which is a huge step forward. But buying those sparingly is the best option for the planet. Supporting conscious companies is a start—but as these numbers show, they’re doing quite well even without help. Supporting the Earth is where we need all hands on deck.