A friend of mine slid into my DM’s a while ago with a picture and a compliment to a post I wrote a while back on the topic of athleisure. He shared with me how his style had evolved from looking like a GAP ad to now being influenced by streetwear in LA and how some form of activewear was something he wore regularly.
As we hashed out our favorite brands and caught up on each other’s personal lives, I started to think, what is the effect of fashion on the environment? This question continued to burrow itself in my brain over the next couple of weeks and ultimately lead me to do a little research into the clothes that I was so carelessly jumping into.
As it turns out, fashion has very damaging effects on the environment along with being our closest source of harsh toxins and chemicals to our bodies. Despite the countless efforts made by public health advocates like Greenpeace and some European regulatory bodies that oversee chemical safety, we are still effectively unaware of the measure of damage the fashion industry causes.
That’s right ladies and gent’s, the more we do our research into the fashion industry, the more we are becoming increasingly concerned by the evidence that shows probable links between activewear and health issues such as cancer, obesity, and developmental disabilities.
Toxic chemicals have been a longstanding issue with all sorts of apparel, however, athleticwear presents a particular problem because sweat and friction, which can cause rapid absorption of these chemicals into our body——not to mention what goes into a product in order to make it sweat and stain-resistant, to begin with.
Some of these chemicals include, but are not limited to:
Phthalates: are chemicals that act as binding agents and also make plastics flexible. They are highly toxic and are in everything from activewear, cosmetics, food packaging, fragrance and personal-care products.
Why it’s harmful: The CDC and researchers have linked phthalates to asthma, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, breast cancer, obesity and type II diabetes, low IQ, neurodevelopmental issues, behavioral issues, autism spectrum disorders, altered reproductive development and male fertility issues.
PFCs (Perfluorinated Chemicals): are manufactured compounds that are used to make everyday products stain resistant. They may be used to keep food from sticking to cookware, to make sofas and fabrics, stain resistant carpets, clothing and mattresses waterproof or “sweatproof,” and may be used in food packaging.
Why it’s harmful: Although we do not know the full extent of damage that PFCs cause on the human body, in animal studies, PFCs disrupt normal endocrine activity, reduce immune function, cause adverse effects on organs, and can cause developmental problems in the womb.
Nanoparticle Silver: is a really small amount of silver that is used in everything from keyboards to washing machines to clothing and is used for its antimicrobial properties.
Why it’s harmful: Research has concluded that nanoparticles of silver can pass easily into cells affecting their cellular function. Although little research has been done on a human scale, in animals, silver nanoparticles can move into the brain inducing neuronal degeneration and necrosis, essentially killing cells and tissue. Silver nanoparticles have been found attacking DNA, proteins, and membranes, and reversing the function of organs.
Dimethylformamide: is used as an industrial solvent to process fibers and firm surface coatings of fibers. It is often used in acrylic fibers, like nylon, rayon, polyester, etc., and can be found in everything from clothing to water.
Why it’s harmful: Short-term exposure has been seen to cause damage to the liver in both humans and animals. There have also been links to abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, jaundice, alcohol intolerance, rashes, digestive disturbance, testicular cancer, endocrine disruption, and cancer.
Notwithstanding the evidence of these chemicals being linked to these health issues, brands continue to use and reassure us that their products carry no risk——and although the likelihood of this being true is pretty slim, the effects of these chemicals might seem more damaging when we are opting for activewear as an almost everyday uniform.
Just over a month ago, I praised athleisure for its comfort, practicality, and it’s effect on my mood and approach to style, and now I am finding that the materials in which the clothing is made are quite harmful——not only to me but to the environment. With fibers in activewear and everyday clothing being made from plastic materials like rayon, nylon, polyester, etc., 84% of them are ending up in landfills in American alone—taking decades to break down and eventually landing in water and soil, causing irreversible damage to the environment.
Actively deciding to put on your leggings rather than chino’s or jeans is definitely the norm, but maybe it’s time to start considering the long-term effects these decisions will make for us and the environment.
So what’s one to do?
In what might seem to be information overload, there is currently no 100% sustainable alternative to activewear, as even recycled fibers cannot break down sustainably—but technology in fashion is something that is constantly evolving, and new alternatives and even old-school favorites are resurfacing.
The best advice I can give to conclude what might seem like a bomb being dropped on all of your activewear (athleisure), and closet in general, is that everything starts and ends with being conscious. Without first becoming aware of what we are buying into, we cannot begin to change the products, materials, and information that is being delivered to us. We have to continue to be informed on what is being sold to us, and then request better from companies so we can live better and alternatively make the world a thriving sustainable one.