But a new crop of companies are turning that assumption on its head, using sustainable fabrics and practices to produce chic apparel that can handle even your sweatiest workout—from burpees to (how long do I have to hold this) bow pose.
They're working environmental consciousness into their business plans, too, with commitments to reducing waste in packaging and minimizing their carbon footprints.
Wear them, and next time you roll out your yoga mat to de-stress or hop on a spin bike for some heart-pounding cardio, you'll be doing right by your body—and the planet.
Originally posted April 21, 2015, updated April 21, 2016.
Scroll through to see 10 cool sweat-and-eco friendly activewear brands.
Cozy Orange is based in Carlsbad, CA, just north of San Diego, and its colorful patterned leggings and sports bras give off a distinctly sunshine and beachy vibe. "Our designs are inspired by nature, the ocean, sunsets, the beach, and the Southern California lifestyle," says marketing coordinator Melinda Haller.
That lifestyle includes sustainability, and Cozy Orange uses an exclusive fabric made almost entirely of recycled materials, which Haller says still comes with compression and sweat-wicking properties. Garments are wrapped in reusable cloth bags instead of plastic, and catalogs are printed on recycled paper—win, win.
New York City-based Julia Ahrens is a vegan yogi, and the yogic concept of ahimsa is the grounding principle of her apparel company, which launched in 2013. "Our approach to sustainability is triconscious—meaning no people, places, or animals are harmed in production," she says.
To do that, Ahrens uses eco-friendly plant fibers like organic cotton, hemp, bamboo, and soy, and works with small factories in New York's Garment District. The chic, slouchy pieces aren't great during a spin class, where you don't want extra material around you, but they can hold their own in a yoga practice (and are even sold at Union Square's Jivamukti).
"Our brand is designed for a girl with an active lifestyle who doesn't want to be held down by uncomfortable clothing," Ahrens says. Here's to slouchy pants to yoga.
Nau's classic jackets, flowy tops, and multi-purpose leggings are designed for women whose daily lives are inherently active—from running trails and biking to work to breaking a sweat in a power vinyasa class. "Our design aesthetic is clean and classic, so it stands the test of time," says general manager Mark Galbraith. "Ultimately you can have fewer clothing items that work for more of your life's demands and have a lasting quality. This is an important counterbalance to the consume-and-discard mentality."
The company uses certified organic cotton, recycled polyester, and traceable merino wool to make its eco-friendly pieces, and it also donates two percent of all sales to progressive non-profits working on environmental and social change. Try that on for size.
Boho activewear line Stelari is made for those who are passionate about both Bikram yoga and Burning Man. "Our tanks are not only made from earth-friendly fabric, but the artwork printed [on it] is inspired by nature as a reminder that we are all connected," says founder Kim Roach, whose current collection—filled with tanks, yoga mats, and towels—is infused with Tarot-card imagery.
Stelari's recycled polyester fabric comes from manufacturers who buy bales of recycled water bottles. "This eco fabric process not only reduces the amount of plastic waste in landfills, but the amount of energy used to make the recycled PET polyester is also significantly less than that needed to produce virgin material," she explains.
Launched in 2014 in Arizona, Yoga Democracy makes high-waisted leggings decorated with sophisticated prints. "I like detailed embroidery prints, traditional textile designs, and rich jewel tones," says owner Natalie Oldroyd. "I like to say we produce prints for grown-ups."
And the fabric made from recycled materials is just the beginning of her commitment to sustainability. "All of our polyester is dyed using our zero-water method," she explains. "It’s not only water-free, but it also requires only minimal amounts of energy." Oldroyd is also picky about where she sources the fabric and donates 10 percent of net profits to environmental causes. "We hope to partner with a water charity this year. Water sustainability deserves far more attention in the garment industry," she says.
Just what goes into Rumi X’s (formerly known as Rumi Yoga Wear) geometric and printed activewear? Think recycled plastic bottles and coffee grounds (which we’ve seen before), among other sustainable materials. And even though the brand has its focus on sustainability, doesn’t mean style was put on the backburner. In fact, there’s not one solid pair of leggings in the collection—instead it’s filled with bright and bold prints that will help you stand out in even the largest of outdoor yoga classes.
But don’t worry, they can still withstand even your sweatiest handstands. “Each of our garments is designed with an extreme attention to detail and sweat-tested by a fitness enthusiast to ensure you feel good in movement,” explains Vivia Fung, Rumi X’s PR and marketing manager.
The Bloomfield, NJ-based brand has been around for nearly 15 years—which makes it one of the first activewear lines to have paid attention to sustainable production. So what makes it into their organic cotton and bamboo fabrics? Think everything from recycled plastic bottles to soy (turns out, there’s a lot of waste when making your packaged tofu). Oh, and did we mention that everything is made in the USA?
The yoga-focused brand, founded by a husband-wife duo, makes both men's and women’s clothes for people who practice “living yoga,” which means that wherever your yoga practice takes you, you’ll be well-prepared—and well-dressed.
In the prints-crazy world of activewear, Aeance stands apart—and not just because the German-based, ecologically conscious brand sources its fabrics from Italy and produces all pieces in Portugal. They work with Bluesign system (one of the strictest and most holistic standards for sustainable textiles) to ensure that its garments and manufacturing processes are as environmentally responsible as possible. In the intentionally seasonless collection you’ll find sophisticated cuts, classic silhouettes, and nary a pattern in sight (there is, however, some very tasteful colorblocking).
But what might be most interesting about Aeance is what happens when you take the clothes off, post-sweat session. “We like to ensure that our materials can be washed in low temperatures, dry very quickly, and need virtually no ironing—therefore requiring very low energy post-production,” a rep for the brand says of their 360-degree approach to sustainability.
NoMiNoU was born from a maternal motivation—literally. Named after founder Julianna Smith’s mother, Naomi, and the phrase “know me, know you”, the brand known for its leggings, incorporates Smith’s “hippie” mother’s original art printed on every piece of fabric.
While every pair is made from 100 percent post-consumer recycled material, including water bottles and bamboo, Smith didn’t want her mother’s artistic addition to lessen the ecological benefits, which is why the founder uses sublimation when printing: “Sublimation uses a process much like a photocopier that prints the art straight onto the fabric, versus screen-printing, which uses a bath of ink to create the art—thus wasting considerably more ink,” Smith explains.
No stranger to the importance of a well thought-out plan, the brand also uses a 100 percent natural anti-bacterial and anti-wicking finish on the fabrics that is made up from—wait for it—crab and shrimp shells. (Allergic to shellfish? Don’t worry, Smith promises that the protein that causes allergies is no longer present in the finished product—phew!)
You might recognize Teeki from your Instagram feed, but there’s way more to the brand than just some perfectly posed #yogaeverydamnday photos.
Every pair of leggings is made in California entirely of BPA-free recycled plastic—with about 25 bottles going into each one. (But they’re so soft, you’d never guess it.) That’s not all: The brand received a Green Mark certification, which basically ensures that every part of production meets the highest levels of environmentally friendly practices. Yes, that includes the printing of the brand’s iconic skulls, sunsets, and other bold patterns.
Now that you you're wearing clean-and-green activewear, when was the last time you washed your yoga mat? It may be grosser than you think—here's how to really clean it.
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