Room for Change: The Workout

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My Name is Mollie, and I am a Stretch Fabric Addict.

A few years ago, my daughter won the Falmouth Academy Science Fair for a project that measured the microplastics that athletic leggings leach after every wash. (Some WHOI and Marine Biological Lab scientists oversaw this process.) The cheaper pairs broke down and lost about 1 teaspoon of plastic per wash immediately. And, unfortunately, even the more expensive pairs began to break down and leach plastic after a dozen or so washes.  

As most readers know by now, I am extremely brand conscious — careful to know that clothing companies are following best manufacturing and labor practices; but I had not deeply considered or quantified what my clothing — particularly my athletic clothing — was doing to the environment when I washed it. Even worse, because I’m a person who has practiced yoga for more than 30 years, leggings are part of my daily clothing life. So, how many teaspoons of plastic had I unwittingly washed into the earth? The thought horrified me. 

But in all honesty, I was more upset by the prospect of returning to wearing unforgiving, thigh-grabbing cotton shorts and pants, because, like most yogis and athletes, I love the stretch when I move. And that is when I had to come to terms with the fact that I am a stretch fabric addict. 

Spandex, Elastane, Supplex, Luxtreme, Bliss Blend, Air Lift, Airbrush, ReZion, Dri-Fit, LYCRA — oh, what you do for me. You hug me; move with me, expanding and contracting in all the right places; you don’t squeeze me when I’ve gained a few winter pounds; and you’re there for me, holding me close, when I lose them again in the spring. Of course I love you. 

I am not alone in my stretch fabric addiction. According to the Textile Exchange, in 2022, polyester and all of its pseudonyms (see above) became the dominant fabric used by the global garment industry. In fact, polyester and synthetic clothing make up 70% of our garb these days.

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Unfortunately, these synthetic fibers are not great for the environment. As my daughter showed in her science project, they shed microfibers. Other not so great facts: they are fabricated with fossil fuels such as crude oil (an estimated 342 million barrels of oil per year, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future, 2017) and are not biodegradable. Finally, the process of dyeing these textiles into the cool colors and patterns we have come to love with our athletic wear is also problematic, as it uses a tremendous amount of water as well as toxic chemicals that are hazardous to human health and difficult to dispose of.

Given all of this, I set out to find alternatives made with less environmentally harmful materials, such as cotton, linen, Tencel Lyocell (a type of rayon that is manufactured from sustainably sourced wood pulp), and wool. And let me say, as I was doing this, I still was not sure that I wanted to give up the stretch. I know you understand.

Nonetheless, I went to my favorite resource for clothing brand ratings and evaluation: Good On You. This is a site that, in my opinion, has the best, most thorough, and most thoughtful evaluation of thousands of clothing brands. They have an entire section dedicated to athletic wear. I found a pair of cotton sweatpants from Kotn. They were great and long enough for my daughter’s very long legs. But they were very thick. Come Spring, we needed a few lighter options. Back to Good On You. I tried a couple of new brands —The Girlfriend Collective and Ambiletics (which were ok, did not become my favorite clothing because I did not love the cut and fabric) — and returned to my friends who own Foat Design for yoga shorts and pants made with cotton deadstock. Even though it is cotton, the Foat clothing lasts and holds its shape. Then the summer heat and humidity came, and I ransacked my closet, returning to my thinnest, softest, most moisture wicking fabrics, a.k.a. synthetic stretch clothing that is horrible for the environment but feels great on an 80 degree day on a tennis court. In the fall, I returned to wearing the more sustainable, environmentally responsible garb.

– Illustration by Kate Feiffer

In this year-long journey, I was able to kick the stretch habit with my jeans and other clothing. But when it comes to athletic wear, there is no single, easy product solution or purchase approach. The answer, at least for me — someone who is not willing to go cold turkey from the synthetic stretch for athletic wear — is to instead employ strategies that make me stretch as a consumer.

– Illustration by Kate Feiffer

What You Can Do

1. Always use what you have. Wear it out. Even though my synthetic leggings leach plastic, it would be even more wasteful to not use them up, so I’ll wear them until they are worn out. And I wear them only when the situation, such as an insanely hot summer day, calls for them.

2. Always buy less. I know athletic wear is one of the most joyous, fun things to buy — especially with all the crazy wonderful patterns and colors — but how many pairs of leggings, tank tops, etc. do we really need? Even I, a person who often exercises more than once a day several days a week, certainly do not need more than one pair of leggings per day of the week. 

3. Always buy consciously. Use websites like Good on You to guide your purchases, and support companies that are making an effort to make your athletic experience great, but not at the cost of the environment.

4. Consider using cotton-only fabrics during certain times of the year.

5. Launder synthetics in cold water, hang to dry. 

6. Check out Dear Dot’s column on microplastics.

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