When it comes to spending your dollars on products that align with your values, supporting sustainable retailers and brands is one of the simplest ways to walk the walk. From simple products to help you commit to more environmentally-friendly habits to sustainable shoe and clothing brands, we’ve covered a lot when it comes to our top picks that support a better planet and a healthier you. So why should it be any different when it comes to activewear? With the ever-increasing popularity of athleisure and activewear as everyday clothing, it’s just as important to make sure the clothes you’re comfortable in aren’t doing more harm than good. Ahead, we’ve rounded up some of the best and most sustainable activewear brands, and chatted with experts about what to look for when shopping and some of their favorite options.
What is sustainable activewear?
“Activewear primarily uses synthetic fibers sourced from petroleum,” explains Quang Dinh, founder and CEO of Girlfriend Collective. From sweat-wicking leggings to your favorite quick-drying T-shirt, they most likely utilize fabrics made from synthetic materials like polyester, nylon and acrylic. These fibers are “ideal for activewear, as they’re known to be lightweight, moisture-wicking and very durable,” explain Welles co-founders Rachel Rothenberg-Saenz and Alexandra Baylis. However, “the long-lasting properties that make these so commercially attractive are also what make them so harmful to human and environmental health,” they explain. One of the key features of sustainable activewear is a reliance on natural fabrics and recycled materials, but that’s only one piece of the puzzle.
Sustainable activewear, and fashion in general, “involves a holistic approach that considers the environmental, social and economic impacts of fashion production and consumption,” explain Rothenberg-Saenz and Baylis, “with the goal of reducing negative impacts and maximizing positive ones.” This commitment beyond the impact of just production or fabric sourcing is one to “safeguard biodiversity and the environment from waste and harmful pollutants caused by the apparel industry, sustaining natural resources through conscious manufacturing and protecting the communities that produce the garments,” they explain.
This comprehensive approach to sustainability was consistent among the experts we spoke to. Dinh refers to it as “a multi-stage process and approach,” while Jeff Scult, fashion proactivist and founder of One Golden Thread — promotes regeneration, an idea that promotes ethical supply chains that result in a net positive to the planet, giving back more than we take.
What to look for when shopping for sustainable activewear
Before jumping into online shopping, start by auditing what you already have and considering what you truly need. “With activewear, the most impactful thing people can do is to reduce the number of new items they buy,” explains Tierra Forte, CEO and co-founder of Mightly, a sustainable children’s brand. She suggests clothing swaps and sites that sell pre-owned clothing, which tend to be more cost-effective and the best choice for the environment. Scult agrees, encouraging people to “own fewer things that they love more” and focusing on season-less, well-designed and durable pieces that will last a lifetime.
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“One of the most important things you can do as a consumer is to be mindful and informed about the impact of the products you buy,” share Rothenberg-Saenz and Baylis. So if you’re reading this, you’re already off to a great start! “By conducting thorough research, you can make more educated decisions and choose products that align with your values,” they say. But navigating sustainability can be tricky for both consumers and brands, since the term is so all-encompassing, it ends up covering a broad range of environmental issues. Forte looks for two key things to determine whether or not a company is truly sustainable: transparency and certification. “I look at the sustainability section of their website — if they don’t have one, that’s a big red flag — to see how they describe their sustainability efforts, how and where their products are made and what certifications they have,” she says. For companies that produce products like clothing, “the biggest environmental impact is almost always going to be in the manufacturing process,” which is what she looks at most closely.
But even that can be tricky. “For any established brand that is implementing sustainable practices,” explains Dinh, “it is truly difficult to manage all facets of the supply chain for every single piece of fabric and trim across so many SKU types.” His suggestion? “Buy from smaller producers and brands that do a few things well,” he shares. From there, pay attention to how transparent they are and what sort of certifications they have. “Generally speaking, if a brand is doing something positive with their supply chain,” says Dinh, “they are likely going to want to talk about it as a selling point.”
And seek out whether the brand you’re shopping has certifications from reputable third parties. “One effective way for brands to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability is by obtaining verification from accredited regulators such as bluesign and Global Recycled Standards, and providing third-party testing data to support their claims,” say Rothenberg-Saenz and Baylis. And consider different manufacturing and producing standards based on the fabric or material of what you’re considering purchasing. For instance, if you’re opting for cotton activewear, “make sure that the product is GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) Certified,” says Forte. “If you need more technical activewear,” she says, “look for items made from recycled fibers, like recycled polyester or recycled nylon.” These certifications and standards are a helpful way to “make informed decisions and distinguish accurate sustainability claims from greenwashing,” say Rothenberg-Saenz and Baylis.
But like with much of environmentalism, there’s no one solution or perfect product. “One of the fastest-growing trends in conscious consumerism is choosing ethically and sustainably produced apparel,” Dinh says. “Educate yourself on sustainable fashion and shop from true sustainable brands. The more we demand sustainable clothing, the more it will be available,” whether that’s by advocating for ethical garment manufacturing processes; pushing business to slow down, test and invest in better business models; or just recycling your clothes instead of tossing them when you’re done with them. Ahead, we’ve rounded up a couple activewear-focused brands that truly prioritize a more sustainable future for the activewear industry, many of which were recommended by our sustainability experts.
“Within the activewear world, both the industry and the brands within it can have a great impact on the world’s ability to upcycle single-use or industrial-use plastics by creating demand for this raw material,” Dinh says. With a founder who walks the walk, it’s no surprise that Girlfriend Collective is doing just this incredibly well. Best known for its use of recycled post-consumer bottles to create ethically and sustainably manufactured activewear, Girlfriend’s products are all incredibly comfortable, durable and inclusive. The brand’s size range stretches from XXS through 6XL, and it offers tons of different styles — everything of which we’ve tested is super flattering and appropriate for all types of activity. The brand is super transparent about different components of its manufacturing process, which includes being SA8000 certified and using all recycled fabric that’s certified Standard 100 by Oeko-Tex.
The brand’s bestselling product, these super-high-rise leggings are perfectly compressive, comfortable to sweat in and made from 25 recycled water bottles.
This adorable skort boasts built-in compressive shorts along with mesh pockets and side slits that make moving around a breeze.
Girlfriend’s fan-fave full-coverage racerback sports bra is made from 79% recycled plastic bottles and has a UPF 45+ rating. It’s supportive, comfortable and one of our go-tos.
“Patagonia is the gold standard when it comes to sustainable activewear,” says Forte. “It has been a longtime leader in sustainability and last year the company changed its ownership structure so that its profits could be invested in environmental initiatives,” she says. Dinh also recommends Patagonia, explaining that one way to incorporate conscious consumption into your everyday life is to “buy from the brands that have been trailblazing sustainability the longest.” You can learn more about the brand’s environmental impact and progress and read up on its specific goals towards a more sustainable future, which include eliminating virgin petroleum fiber in all their products and only using 100% reusable, home compostable, renewable or easily recyclable packaging by 2025.
This lightweight technical top is moisture-wicking, quick-drying and made from recycled polyester. The fabric’s HeiQ Pure odor control technology keeps you fresh no matter how you’re getting your sweat on.
From long walks to yoga and even running errands, this versatile romper is destined to be a closet staple. The fabric blend of recycled and polyester is stretchy, comfortable and wrinkle-resistant.
For the runner or hiker, this clever windshirt offers a perfect balance of durable weather resistance and lightweight breathability.
If you’ve heard of Reformation, you probably know it for one of two things: its adorable clothing, or its impressive commitment to being one of the most sustainable and stylish mainstream brands. Whether it’s through RefRecycling, which encourages customers to drop off well-worn Reformation products in exchange for store credit, or an ambitious climate positive commitment, which goes beyond being climate neutral (something the brand has been since 2015), Reformation has a long list of practices and commitments that make it one of the most sustainable places to shop. The brand uses a ton of sustainable materials, it works with eco-friendly mills and factories and boasts tons of certifications including a partnership with bluesign, which ensures materials and production processes are safe for people and the planet. Not to mention the adoption of the Manufacturing Restricted Substances List (MRSL), which restricts the use of undesirable chemicals in the production process.
Jumpsuits can be tricky to get right, but this short option checks all our boxes. It’s incredibly comfortable while still being really stylish and extremely soft yet compressive. Plus, it’s made from 81% Repreve Polyester, which is sourced from recycled plastic bottles.
Made from the brand’s sleek EcoMove performance fabric, this sleek V-neck tank is perfect for just about any occasion. Plus it’s double layered so you don’t have to worry about being both covered and comfortable.
We love an activewear dress, but this one is special. The silhouette, collar and front zipper make for a classic yet appropriately sporty look that’ll turn heads no matter where you go, and the included shorts add a ton of comfort.
Pangaia is a sustainable fashion brand founded in 2018 with the idea of creating a new kind of business. One that, as it explains, “operates in harmony with nature and works to safeguard a future for generations to come.” The brand describes this idea as Earth Positivity — giving back more to the planet than we take away from it. This commitment is clear in the brand’s use and choice of materials; its dedication to innovation and furthering the potential of non-traditional fabrics; the transparency provided in its environmental impact reports; and its circular economy strategy, which focuses on reducing waste through recycling and repurposing materials. The brand’s activewear is made from a partially-plant-based stretch fabric that’s treated with peppermint oil, which provides natural anti-odor benefits. The resulting product is less reliant on the petroleum-based materials that the activewear industry is unfortunately well-known for.
These seamless, high-waisted leggings are made from a nylon material sourced from castor beans and an innovative, partially-plant-based elastane material that gives them that must-have stretch.
Made from a nylon material that's been specially formulated to biodegrade quicker, this breathable activewear tee has been treated with a plant-based treatment to absorb sweat, and with peppermint oil, which boasts natural anti-odor properties.
Zipped activewear jackets and tops like this one are super in-style, and fortunately they’re equal parts fashionable and functional. This one even has a fun zip pocket on the back for essentials.
MPG Sport is a nearly 20-year-old, BIPOC-owned activewear label that continues to work towards better social and environmental practices year after year. Its high-quality, stylish and versatile products are really well-priced, particularly for how long they’ll last you — and that commitment to keeping prices low while increasing responsible and ethical best practices is a huge priority. “To obtain B Corp Certification, companies need to complete a rigorous assessment (B Impact Assessme