Last Updated on July 18, 2022 by The Filtery Staff
These days, there’s no shortage of activewear brands using recycled plastic bottles to make their leggings and other workout attire. Many of these brands are not only just as (or more!) high-quality as your more ‘conventional’ brands like Lululemon, but by using recycled instead of virgin synthetics, they’re more sustainable, too. I was an early adopter of the Girlfriend leggings (when they first launched they sold them at wholesale prices!), and I’m still a fan. Over five years later and I still wear those original leggings all the time, no joke.
And while apparel made from recycled materials has its pros, it’s not really a perfect solution, either (which we’ll talk about more in a minute).
What if you want activewear that’s completely plastic-free? Sure, there are plenty of great natural and organic clothing brands for everyday wear, but it’s harder to find natural workout clothes that can truly compete with the fit and function of petroleum-based fibers like spandex, nylon, elastane, etc.
So in this article, we’re breaking down the pros and cons of synthetic and natural workout clothes and then giving you our favorite brands to help bring some natural and organic style to your workout.
Ready, set, let’s go.
This article contains affiliate links, which means we may earn a commission if you choose to make a purchase (at no extra cost to you). As always, we make genuine recommendations for brands we truly believe in.
Featured Image Credit: WVN
Your Lululemon Leggings Are Made Out Of Oil
Most people exercise to feel good and stay healthy—both mentally and physically. And almost all activewear is made from petroleum-derived products (a.k.a. plastics) like nylon, lycra, elastane, and spandex. So is the fact that almost all of our activewear is made out of fossil fuels a little bit, well, counterproductive? Here we are making moves for our health while air pollution (largely from fossil fuels) lowers global life expectancy by more than two years.
Of course, I’m definitely not suggesting you stop working out just because your clothes are made of petroleum products. It’s never as simple as that. But I don’t know if the majority of consumers have consciously thought about the fact that their leggings are made out of oil. (Which is not only a problem from a sustainability standpoint but also an economic one, as LuLulemon raises their prices due to petroleum inflation).
Is Activewear Made from Recycled Plastic Actually Sustainable?
As mentioned in the intro, there are a lot of brands reducing the need for virgin plastics by recycling plastic bottles into activewear. Popular DTC brands like Girlfriend and Wolven are made almost entirely from recycled materials, and even bigger brands like Athleta now have recycled collections.
And while this is certainly better than nothing, using recycled materials has its downfalls, too.
1. For one, we don’t always know what’s in recycled plastic materials. Although we’re in need of more research in this area, some studies show that recycled plastic leeches more toxic chemicals (such as BPA) than virgin plastic.
2. Second is the microplastics problem. Clothing made from recycled plastic still won’t biodegrade at the end of its life. Instead, it will shed tiny little plastic pieces each time you wash or wear it, causing even more problems for human and environmental health. A small portion of the recycled apparel on the market might end up getting recycled again, but most of it will likely end up in landfills, further contributing to our plastic crisis.
3. Lastly, our recycling systems are quite honestly a bit of a mess; only about 5% of plastic gets recycled in the U.S. Plus, using recycled plastic doesn’t decrease our need for plastic on the whole, and brands may even justify their use of virgin materials by saying it’s ‘recyclable.’
Instead of (or at least in addition to) trying to increase the market for recycled plastic products, it might be wiser in the long-term to reduce the need for plastic goods altogether.
But Does 100% Natural & Plastic-Free Activewear Even Exist?
Of course, using natural and organic fabrics is a great solution to our plastic clothing problem. Although they still require natural resources to make, they’re not made from fossil fuels. Renewable materials like organic cotton, wool, hemp, linen, and bamboo can make for great wardrobe staples.
Except… When it comes to activewear specifically, we’ve got a problem.
These natural fabrics just don’t have the same stretch that synthetics do, and they don’t usually hold their shape over time (so the fit might get looser as your workout goes on).
For this reason, you likely won’t be able to find activewear that’s 100% natural AND has the same performance capabilities that synthetic clothing does. You’ll notice that the brands below use anywhere from 3% to 11% synthetic stretch fibers in their fabric blends in order to get that fit you want from a good pair of leggings. (The exception to this is Arms of Andes, whose apparel is all made from 100% alpaca wool.)
So, What’s the Solution?
My hope is that some brilliant minds will come up with a way to create stretchy, high-performance materials out of completely natural and biodegradable fabrics. But for now, considering that 100% natural and plastic-free workout clothes are hard to find, here’s what I suggest:
- Use what you already have.
- When buying new, choose brands that prioritize natural & organic fabrics (like the ones below) to at least decrease the plastic in your clothing by 89-97%.
- Try not to let perfect be the enemy of good. Make the best decision you can and then relax and enjoy moving your body!
9 (Almost) Plastic-Free Activewear Brands Using Natural & Organic Fabrics
Alright, now let’s get on with it! Here are our favorite activewear brands using natural and organic fabrics as much as possible:
Fabric Breakdown: 92% organic cotton & 8% spandex
Price Range: $46-$68
Size Range: XS-3X
MATE is one of our favorite brands for non-toxic and organic everyday wear for women. Their MOVE by MATE activewear collection includes sports bras, biker shorts, and leggings that come in earth-inspired colors (as well as your standard black and white). You’ll probably want to wear these babies not just for your workouts but also for running errands, lounging around, working from home, and just about everything else…
In addition to using as many organic materials as possible, MATE also uses non-toxic dyes and ensures ethical manufacturing (right in Los Angeles). They’re also a member of 1% for the Planet and Climate Neutral Certified. Plus, their reMATE circularity initiative allows you to recycle your old MATE pieces when you’re finished with them!
Fabric Breakdown: 89% organic cotton & 11% elastane
Price Range: $16-$70
Size Range: XS-2X
You’ll find PACT in a lot of our guides to organic clothing and underwear… Not only do they use GOTS certified organic cotton and Fair Trade certified factories, but their clothing is very affordable and practical for the whole family.
Their organic activewear collection includes leggings, bike shorts, skorts(!), tees & tanks, bodysuits, sports bras, and plenty of athleisure, too. In addition to your solid blacks & blues, they also offer fun patterns like “Mod Leopard Green” and “Paint Splash Bright.”
In addition to their extensive women’s activewear collection, they also offer natural workout clothes for men and plenty of play clothes for kids, too.
Fabric Breakdown: Mostly merino wool, elastane, & lycra (specific percentages vary by product)
Price Range: $50-$300
Size Range: XS-2XL
Made primarily out of merino wool, Icebreaker is a great brand for layering. In addition to their regular leggings, tanks, and tees, they also have various kinds of thermal leggings, zip-ups, athleisure apparel, and more. Although many of Icebreaker’s stretchier pieces do include a certain percentage of synthetics, they also offer some 100% natural merino clothing as well (like for their t-shirts, for example).
Merino makes for a great alternative to synthetic activewear because of its natural durability, moisture- and odor-wicking properties, and temperature regulation.
With plenty of offerings for women, men, and kids, Icebreaker probably has the widest variety of natural workout clothes for the whole family. And their website makes sorting easy, too—you can filter by activity (hiking, snow sports, running, lifestyle, etc.), by layer (base layer all the way to outer layer), by fabric, by price range, and more.
This transparent brand has various ethical and sustainable initiatives throughout its entire supply chain. For starters, they’ve developed deep, long-term relationships with the sheep herders they work with in order to make sure all of the animals and humans involved are treated ethically. Their “five freedoms of the flock” ensure that sheep live in safe, healthy, and comfortable conditions.
Fabric Breakdown: 90% organic cotton & 10% spandex
Price Range: $32-$98
Size Range: XS-XL
WVN’s movement collection includes bike shorts & leggings, camisoles & crop tops, sports bras, and even a sleek unitard. This B Corp brand uses GOTS certified organic cotton and manufactures in Fair Trade certified factories in order to ensure safe working conditions and fair wages for those making your clothing. Their designs are simultaneously comfortable and flattering.
5. Groceries Apparel
Fabric Breakdown: 92% organic cotton & 8% spandex
Price Range: $38-$88
Size Range: XS-XL
Groceries’ made-in-Los-Angeles organic activewear includes several different styles of leggings, shorts, sports bras, and workout tanks. They offer some bright and fun colors, including things like “Carrot Tops + Pomegranate Tie Dye” and “Weld Flower.”
These non-toxic workout clothes are dyed with vegetable-based dyes like pomegranate, carrot tops, onion skins, roots, bark, flowers, and real indigo. And they actually source a lot of their dye materials (like used coffee grounds and avocado stones/skins) from local grocers and restaurants around Los Angeles—how cool is that?
6. Vitamin A
Fabric Breakdown: 77% Plant-Based Polyamide + 23% Lycra spandex fiber
Price Range: $135-$170
Size Range: 4/XS – 14/XXL/DD
Vitamin A’s ‘Plant-Based Swim’ collection actually includes activewear, too. Although Vitamin A does use recycled plastics in its core swim collection, this newer plant-based collection is actually made from castor bean oil instead.
The collection includes several different kinds of tops, along with leggings and workout shorts that come in various beautiful bold colors. These ‘BioSculpt’ pieces comfortably hug your body and have a smoothing, shaping, and supporting effect all at once.
I have a swimsuit from Vitamin A’s Plant-Based collection and I can say that the plant-based fabric and the BioSculpt design really does compete with other high-quality activewear. It feels like synthetic activewear, it’s comfortable, and it doesn’t lose even a little of its shape when it gets wet or sweaty.
Vitamin A’s Plant-Based Collection definitely comes in at a higher price point than most of the other brands on this list, but we’re hoping that as these fossil fuel alternative fabrics become more widely used, they will become more affordable.
Fabric Breakdown: Bamboo viscose, organic cotton, spandex, & nylon (specific percentages vary by product)
Price Range: $44-$99
Size Range: XS-XL
Not all fabrics made from bamboo are created equal; many of them use toxic chemicals during the manufacturing process that are harmful to the workers and surrounding communities where the fabric is made. That’s why we recommend bamboo clothing carefully. (You can read more about this here.)
Boody’s bamboo apparel and underwear, however, are made using a closed-loop process, which means all of the potentially toxic solvents are captured and removed instead of getting dumped into waterways (where they can make their way into drinking water, crops, etc.).
For women, Boody carries natural activewear like leggings, sports bras, and bike shorts, along with more relaxed-fit athleisure pieces like tanks, sweatpants/shorts, and zip-up hoodies.
Their men’s activewear collection is smaller, but they do carry sweatpants & shorts, pullover & zip-up hoodies, muscle tees, and socks.
As far as colors go, Boody’s collection is for the timeless among us—you’ll only find blacks and greys here.
Boody carries various different eco-friendly certifications, such as Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which means the bamboo is sourced responsibly; OEKO-TEX, which means the finished products are verified to be free from a list of toxins; and PETA-Approved Vegan. They also carry a few different third-party labels that ensure ethical production and they give back to various community organizations.
Fabric Breakdown: 93% TENCEL & 7% spandex (+ 100% organic cotton for sweats)
Price Range: $75-$125
Size Range: 0/00/XS – 38/40W/6X
Reprise is the most size-inclusive brand on this list. They carry leggings, bike shorts, and sports bras made out of eco-friendly, soft, and buttery TENCEL fabric. TENCEL is another plant-based (rayon) fabric that is made using a closed-loop manufacturing process and less toxic solvents.
Additionally, all of their dyes are certified non-toxic and organic by OEKO-TEX and GOTS. Everything is made ethically in the United States. Committed to transparency, you can find all of the details about their materials and manufacturing process (including the improvements they’re currently working on!) right here.
9. Arms of Andes
Fabric Breakdown: 100% alpaca wool
Price Range: $55-$250
Size Range: XS-3X
You’ll notice that this is actually the ONLY brand here that is 100% plastic-free! Because these natural workout clothes are completely free from synthetics, they’re not going to be quite as stretchy as the other brands listed here and they won’t hold their shape and tight-ness for quite as long. BUT if you’re definitely looking for 100% plastic-free activewear, you should definitely give Arms of Andes a try.
They offer a wide selection of natural apparel for men and women, including tees & tanks, sweatshirts, leggings, underwear, sports bras, joggers, and more. Great for hiking and outdoor workouts in colder weather, their collection makes for perfect layering and offers both mid- and light-weight versions of their pants and tops. Most of their offerings come in basic colors like blacks, blues, greys, and whites.
Oh, and if you’re wondering about alpaca wool as a performance fabric for workout clothes, it’s naturally a really great option. Because of the way these alpacas have evolved living in the high altitudes of the Andes Mountains, their wool fibers can handle drastic temperature shifts from sub-zero at night to super hot during the day. Plus, it’s naturally breathable and moisture-wicking. Obviously, this makes for great activewear, whether you’re heading out for a winter run or a hot yoga class!
Arms of Andes’ “Leave No Trace Apparel” initiative is pretty darn cool, too. It means that all of their clothing is made out of completely biodegradable fabric (and apparently they’re the first outdoor clothing brand to do so). The only exception is their zippers and bands, which is something they’re working on. But besides that, all of the fabrics, threads, and non-toxic dyes are 100% biodegradable.
Plus, they’ve got a “single-origin supply chain,” which means they carry out every stage of production—from sourcing alpaca fiber to manufacturing the garments—in one country: Peru. Their ethically-sourced alpaca wool comes directly from herders in the Peruvian Andes, whose families have been employing traditional techniques to rear alpacas and harvest their fiber for generations.
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