Athletic wear has gone through some changes over the years. While I don't come from a conventionally athletic family, we did hike + bike, take long walks + cross-country ski. I took tennis + swimming lessons every summer growing up, but I don't really remember having any special athletic wear, besides what we called 'tennis shoes'. I do remember my dad having a pair of high top Chuck Taylors for exercise. My sisters sported knee high tube socks with their gym shorts in the seventies (not necessarily for athletic purposes). Oversized polyester Umbros were all the rage whether one played soccer or not, when I was in high school. Somewhere along the athletic wear line cotton t-shirts gave way to wicking poly shirts, lycra + spandex added a whole new dimension of possibility in fit, and recycled plastic bottles became fleece.
Now we know that tiny plastic microfibers from that fleece shed with each and every wash. One study found these plastic microfibers in 67% of the fish studied + bound for human consumption in California. Polyester, nylon, and lycra/spandex are fabrics woven from long, thin plastic fibers (derived from crude oil). While these fabric innovations may make great performance fabrics for our workouts, they may not be so great for our health or the health of the planet in the end. These chemical compounds are hazardous in production and will be with us long after we are finished with them. Update 1/2018: Plastic fibers have been found in 83% of drinking water tested worldwide + 94% in the USA. Most of this plastic fiber escapes during the washing of synthetic clothing.
While polyester seems to be the most common fiber when it comes to athletic wear, natural fiber options are (not surprisingly) cropping back up in many ethical circles. It is difficult to replicate the elastic nature of lycra or spandex desired in much athletic clothing, so it can be tricky to find 100% natural fiber active wear. I was able to find a few options, however. It can take a little digging to find the 100% natural items even on some of the websites listed here, but it is possible. When these workout pieces have reached the end of their usefulness as clothing (and then rags), the bits of elastic could be cut out and they could be composted.
Pansy :: organic USA grown cotton :: sewn in California :: tops, bottoms, bras
Satva :: organic cotton :: fair trade labor (confirmed by email) :: tops, bottoms, layers, bras
Rawganique :: organic cotton tops, bottoms, bras :: elastic free options :: sweat-shop free :: men's + women's
Ibex :: some 100% merino wool pieces :: "responsibly" sourced + sewn :: men's + women's :: men's cycling :: some pieces made in the USA (Ibex went out of business...look for it secondhand)
Base Range :: organic cotton :: made in Portugal :: sweatshirts, sweatpants + tees
Noble :: organic cotton sewn + dyed in Tennessee :: sweatshirts, tees, + sweatpants :: women's + men's (used to be Victor Athletics)
Smartwool :: some 100% merino wool tops + leggings :: knit in Vietnam, so I'm not sure about the fairness of the labor conditions :: women's + men's options
Pact :: organic cotton :: fair-trade :: well-priced :: some tanks for women + some men's tees are 100% organic cotton
Patagonia :: while they are predominately making plastic fiber clothing (grr), there are a some 100% organic cotton + fair trade sewn tees + tanks to be found :: men's tees too
Jungmaven :: hemp + organic cotton tees + sweatshirts :: made in the USA :: women's + men's
United by Blue :: this top is 100% organic cotton + made in the USA
Alternative Apparel :: a couple of 100% organic cotton tops made in WRAP (Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production) factories
If the goal is to buy an entirely compostable garment, I would caution about the probability that these pieces are sewn with polyester thread in order to increase durability. Pansy does proclaim proudly that "everything we make can be thrown on your compost pile + become part of the earth again"! I tried to mostly avoid picturing items with zippers, snaps, elastic and grommets, because they would also not be compostable (but could be cut out before composting).
One way to avoid all of those items (choose cotton thread) would be to sew your own activewear out of organic cotton, hemp, or wool with the help of one of these sewing patterns:
Grainline Studio :: Linden sweatshirt
True Bias :: Hudson sweatpants :: for men + kids too
Fancy Tiger :: Adventure tanks
Hey June :: Sloane leggings
So Sew Easy :: leggings
Purl Bee :: City gym shorts :: for girls too
Fehr Trade :: a variety of athletic wear patterns :: some for men too
Conscious Clothing :: made in Michigan, organic fibers
Gaia Conceptions :: made in North Carolina :: organic fabrics, plant dyes
Free Label :: organic cotton + bamboo fibers :: made in Canada
Tasc Performance :: bamboo + organic cotton :: made in a single factory in India with 90% renewable energy
Synergy Clothing :: paying living wages :: organic cotton :: GOTS certified
From :: fair-trade :: organic cotton, merino wool :: transparent supply chains :: UK
Shift to Nature :: fair-trade :: organic fibers + bamboo :: Australia
Reprise :: tencel knit in the USA :: sewn in USA
LVR :: made in the USA :: organic + recycled fibers
Mission Workshop :: made in the USA :: some merino wool :: clothing made for active commutes :: men's + women's
Kozm :: certified b corp :: made in the USA :: some cotton + hemp :: unisex (some plastic fibers) :: men's
Patagonia :: recycled + organic fibers :: growing fair-trade collection (mostly plastic fibers)
Athleta :: currently has a collection of pieces focused on sustainability :: some fair-trade :: some natural + organic fibers (mostly plastic fibers)
Albion :: "committed to the environment :: "using earth friendly materials" :: "fair labor practices" (mostly plastic fibers)
Purusha :: made in the USA :: now no plastic fibers! (updated 2019)
Live the Process :: ethically made in the USA (mostly supplex, which is a plastic fiber)
Girlfriend Collective :: recycled fibers :: transparent (all plastic fibers)
Threads for Thought :: fair-trade :: organic cotton + recycled polyester (mostly plastic fibers)
Beyond Yoga :: designed + made in Los Angeles, CA (mostly plastic fibers)
Onzie :: mostly made in the USA :: will provide list of made in USA pieces if contacted (mostly plastic fibers)
Prana :: there is a focus on organic + sustainable fibers :: some items are fair-trade + 100% organic cotton (mostly plastic fibers)
Outer Known :: many pieces made from reclaimed fishing nets :: some fair-trade pieces :: men's (women's collection coming)
Share Hope :: leggings :: owned by a nonprofit that invests all profits into the lives of garment workers (plastic fibers)
Heroine Sport :: a lot of made in the USA pieces (mostly plastic fibers)
Nau and Icebreaker have a focus on natural fibers, but the sewing origins are not apparent from their websites. Icebreaker does state, "we go out of our way to make sure all of our sewing and finishing is undertaken in an environmentally and socially responsible manner."
All photos are from the brands' websites. I will link to this post on the ethical brands page, so it will be easily accessed when needed.
Sweat on, friends!