30/06/17 Is Your Gym Gear Made In Sweatshops And Harming The Environment?

It’s niggled at us for a little while now. How can you be a fitness and activewear brand when you’re not promoting a healthy lifestyle throughout the entire production cycle? Is it because it’s hidden and they don’t think we’ll find out the nasty secrets around our gym gear?

It’s tough. You’re constantly awash with motivational imagery of ripped celebrities and models, trying to convince you that all you need is the right workout gear and you too could have that body. But, what lies beneath the glossy campaigns isn’t just unfair for us gullible public. There’s layers and layers of murky supply chains with actual people, and the environment, taking the financial and hazardous burden of producing this leisurewear.

Beyoncé’s Ivy Park range isn’t the only brand to experience labour abuse claims – with theirs centred around the working conditions at their Sri Lankan factory – but the particular irony was that the Ivy Park brand purports to promote (and commodifies) independence and empowerment for women, yet this is something that the female workers making these pieces can’t possibly achieve on their below living wage (80% of garment makers are poor women, after all).


Beyonce Ivy Park Gym Gear
Image courtesy: Ivy Park

Across the fashion industry many workers are paid pennies an hour and must endure horrendous treatment, living and sleeping in cramped compounds. According to Jakub Sobik of UK charity Anti-Slavery International, the workers who reside on the premises are locked into their living spaces at night, they must abide by curfews, and keep movement to a minimum. While these reports are alarming, unfortunately they’re not uncommon in the fast fashion industry. In Bangladesh – the epicentre of sweatshops – factory fires have killed hundreds of workers, alongside the more high profile Rana Plaza collapse. No one can deny the level of exploitation that is endured for the sake of leisurewear.

The further burden then falls on the environment. Traditionally, activewear was made from natural materials, which then progressed onto nasty synthetic fibres. These man-made fibres such as lycra and polyester, can take hundreds of years to break down and decompose, leaving a devastating footprint on the natural world. For example, 85% of the man-made material now found in the ocean is microfibres derived from man-made clothing fabrics such as nylon and acrylic.

There are brands, however, who understand the hypocrisy that could arise from being known as an outdoor clothing label, whilst its very production is contributing to the destruction of our planet. Such brands, like Patagonia, who’s very business is centred around the great outdoors and the environment, is making strides to combat their impact. In particular, this means producing clothing with sustainability and durability in mind. “Both my personal interest and the company’s interest in environmental protection and sustainability really has its origins in our experiences as climbers, mountaineers, surfers and skiers,” explains Rick Ridgeway, VP of Public Engagement at Patagonia. “We’ve witnessed the development of places that used to be wild. So we are committed to doing our bit as much as we can, to try and provide solutions to these problems that we’re seeing first-hand.”


Patagonia Outdoor Wear

Image courtesy: Patagonia

If environmental destruction wasn’t bad enough, the very production of these garments could leave harmful chemicals and toxins hidden in your sportswear. The findings from two Greenpeace reports on chemical content in sportswear and fashion found that sportswear from major brands contained known hazardous chemicals, like Phthalates, PFCs, Dimethylformamide (DMF), Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs), and Nonylphenols (NPs).

What’s more, in an article exploring toxic chemicals in sportswear, published by The Guardian, Greenpeace’s Manfred Santen suggests it’s too early to know the effects of these chemicals and how repeated exposure to them might affect us. “The concentration [of chemicals] that we find in clothing may not cause acute toxic problems for the wearer in the short-term, but in the long-term you never know,” Santen said. “Endocrine disruptors [chemicals that can interfere with the hormone system], for example, you don’t know what the impact of long-term exposure is on human health.”

The potential presence of harmful chemicals in any amount of our workout gear is troubling, in large part because it’s designed to sit against and interact with the skin in high-friction, high-movement, high-heat, high-moisture environments—like when we work out.

Some big brands are taking action, though, sourcing high-performance organic fabrics and recycled materials, and seeking natural alternatives to chemical finishes. Patagonia has invested in Beyond Surface Technologies, which develops “textile treatments based on natural raw materials” and is phasing out PFCs. Similarly, Adidas has promised that their products will be 99 % PFC-free by 2017. We’re waiting for that announcement.

Girl picking cotton in Mongolia

Image courtesy: Chien-min Chung/Getty Images

Nonetheless, the fact remains that most activewear today is produced by large multinationals whose extensive supply chains often fail to take human rights into account, at all. Shockingly, a 2015 study revealed that 71% of leading UK brands believed there was a likelihood of modern slavery occurring at some point in their supply chains. While fashion industry supply chains are inherently complex, this is flatly unacceptable. There’s absolutely no excuse for child labour to continue taking place in 2017 in factories that make clothing for western fast fashion retailers. We as consumers should refuse to let this happen on our watch.

Some practical things you as a consumer can do, include:

1) refusing to buy from brands you can’t be sure of where their garments are made or who they are made by

2) support independent labels who do good for people and plant


Shop fair and safe leisurewear.