Under Armour is on a mission to develop the chemistry and processes to implement sustainable design principles across at least half of its product range within the next five years.
The Baltimore-based athletic wear group announced the goal in its 2021 sustainability and impact report this week, underscoring a growing focus on recycled, renewable and durable materials, as well as end-of-life solutions for its shoes and garments.
Like most performance apparel brands, polyester was Under Armour’s most used fabric in 2021, making up 73 percent of the raw material used in all of its products. The brand said it is committed to upping its usage of recycled polyester, like Repreve’s post-consumer plastic yarns, to limit the creation of virgin poly fibers. Last year, just 2 percent of total synthetic fiber purchased by the brand was recycled, though the brand has targeted an increase to 15 percent in 2023.
In addition to revising its raw material intake, Under Armour also aims to design for recyclability using more responsible inputs. By the end of 2021, the brand said about 40 percent of the fabrics used across its apparel and accessories lines were made from materials capable of being recycled, from it’s UA Tech T-shirts to its UA Microthread line of tops and bottoms, which use an elastomeric hard polyester yarn engineered to be melted down and extruded into fresh yarn for new products.
Under Armour plans to up its use of the fast-drying yarn across the range to increase the capacity for circularity and replace elastane, which currently gives items in the line their stretch properties. “We’ve been able to work with DuPont and North Carolina State University to solve a key challenge in performance apparel and footwear, [engineering] a recyclable stretch yarn that also delivers elite performance in power, moisture management and comfort,” materials and manufacturing innovation vice president Kyle Blakely said. “This is a huge step forward in our path to circularity and our commitment to performance-driven sustainability,” he added, noting that the yarn could prove transformative not just for Under Armour’s range, but for the textile industry at large. By 2030, it aims to eliminate all spandex from its products.
The brand’s Baltimore innovation lab, known as UA Lighthouse, serves as a venue for testing new materials and product performance. Researchers have expanded their efforts beyond finished products to include fabrics, reducing the impact of sampling and shipping. The UA Lighthouse team developed a simple technique for testing water-repellance, for example, that allows mill partners to use water containers instead of advanced equipment to conduct in-house textile testing. The process limits the need for third-party assessments, so mills can avoid the transportation-related emissions that would come with shipping fabrics to another location.
Chief product officer Lisa Collier said that the company believes that “creating sustainable products and relentlessly focusing on performance are perfect complements to one another.”
“Product performance not only delivers quality, comfort and function to our athletes, but it also drives sustainable solutions and vice versa,” she added.
The sportswear maker is also working with the industry at large to develop standards and guidance around fiber shedding, which occurs during the manufacturing process as well as when consumers wash their product at home. In 2018, Under Armour developed the UA Keeper, a washing machine filter that traps microfibers and other particles before they are flushed out into waterways during the washing process. The brand now uses the filter to test its products for shedding.
It also co-developed testing methods with Germany’s Hohenstein Institute, which has been conducting analysis on the types of fiber and material constructions that run the biggest risk of shedding. The groups have worked to standardize a scalable industry evaluation standard alongside one of Under Armour’s textile mill partners.
Going forward, the brand said it plans to move toward using longer staple filaments that don’t break or shed, develop fleece alternatives processing methods that limit shedding, partner with washing machine manufacturers to develop a commercial filter that traps fibers, and eliminate flocking, wherein millions of tiny fibers are applied to an adhesive surface on fabric. By 2023, Under Armour aims to see 75 percent of its products made with low-shed materials.
While Under Armour is heavily focused on material innovation, the company said it also has plans to change the way it does business post-production. It will reduce the single use plastic in its branded product packaging by 50 percent next year, and 75 percent by 2025. On the same timeline, the brand has vowed to extend the life of at least 75 percent of damaged and defective products and reduce manufacturing waste through recycling and repair.
A take-back program is also a goal for the near future, with the aim of creating a scalable solution that can be implemented globally in the next three years. A full roadmap that ensures recyclability for all gear will be created by 2030.
The brand is “mindful that lasting change will require global cooperation across communities and industries,” according to interim president and CEO Colin Browne, who noted that the company is committed to improvement through “industrywide collaboration, and transparent communication with our stakeholders in our ongoing sustainability journey.” The executive said he believes the performance footwear and apparel maker has “an important role to play in addressing impending challenges facing our society, industry, and planet.”