Athleisure: Is my athletic wear harming the environment?

What is Athleisure?

Athleisure: clothing that blends athletics and leisure. Think of clothing items that bridge between gym-wear and an everyday wardrobe. These items promote comfort and a laidback lifestyle, and have been rapidly growing in popularity in recent years. In 2019, the athleisure market has grown to be worth around 167 billion.

The athleisure trend grew out of the versatility of yoga pants. These stretchy pants were originally designed for exercise, but the comfortable nature of yoga pants meant that more wearers began to use them in other casual or formal settings. Athleisure also extends into other types of clothing, such as T-shirts, jackets, and hoodies sold at companies like Lululemon Athletic Inc., Nike, and Adidas.

Is athleisure harming the environment?

Recent studies indicate that athleisure is harming the environment. Athleisure clothing pieces tend to be made out of synthetic plastic materials such as nylon and polyester, as these materials can be sweat-wicking and are more breatheable than cotton. However, in a project led by the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium, Gulf Coast researchers found that a majority of the microscopic plastics in waters from south Texas to the Florida Keys are microfibers. A similar study conducted by Portland State University along the Oregon coast had similar results: microfibers from athleisure such as yoga pants, fleece jackets, and sweat-wicking clothing were a source of plastic pollution in the ocean.

What are Microfibers?

Microfibers are tiny strands of fabric that are shed from clothing when it is washed in the laundry. According to Britta Barchler, a Ph.D. student from Portland State University, each laundry load can have up to 700,000 stands of microfibers. These microfibers then travel from laundry water, into wastewater, which is eventually runoff to the coast, entering marine ecosystems.

Environmental Impacts of Microfibers

Microfibers from plastic materials are another form of plastic pollution in oceans that could affect the living organisms there. The study from Portland State University found that microplastics like microfibers were found in all but two of approximately 300 organisms sampled from the Oregon coast region. Although more research still needs to be conducted on the specific effects of humans consuming organisms that have ingested microfibers, other research has shown that microplastics can negatively impact reproductive health and lead to growth impairments in oysters and clams.

What are Some Solutions? Sustainable Athleisure

A solution to this problem that is currently being developed are filters that can be attached to washing machines that can catch microfibers before they enter the laundry gray water. Hopefully, this is a solution that is accessible to the general public, and can help limit the environmental harms of wearing athleisure.

Works Cited

Britta R. Baechler, Elise F. Granek, Matthew V. Hunter, Kathleen E. Conn. Microplastic concentrations in two Oregon bivalve species: Spatial, temporal, and species variability. Limnology and Oceanography Letters, 2019; DOI: 10.1002/lol2.10124

Kay, J. (2017). “The trendy athleisure clothing everyone is wearing is harming the environment.” Business Insider. Business Insider. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/athleisure-clothing-could-be-damaging-the-environment-2017-3

Portland State University. “Microplastics found in oysters, clams on Oregon coast.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 12 November 2019. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/11/191112081609.htm.

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