That’s what ethical fashion organization Project Just discovered when it tried putting together the second edition of Just Approved, a series of guides designed to help consumers make better choices. Athletic wear, a category chosen by users after the denim list was announced earlier this year, proved quite the pickle.
Of the 90 brands nominated for the category by users, including Lululemon and Sweaty Betty, only four made the list: Patagonia, Samantha Yogi, Elle Evans and Fibre Athletics. Blame it on all the materials and chemicals used to produce performance-level apparel.
“We were surprised by how few of the brands were thinking about both environmental and social considerations—typically only one element was under consideration rather than a holistic approach to ‘do no harm,’” Project Just co-founder Natalie Grillon explained to Sourcing Journal, adding, “Brands may be working hard on these things but they don’t share enough information about it on their website for us to really know. We reached out to quite a few brands to tell us more about what they were doing; however, it was difficult to find any that were willing to share enough information with us to approve them.”
The selection process was based on three criteria: Project Just’s eight “do no harm” research categories, including labor conditions and traceability; the athletic wear context, mainly concerning raw materials and chemicals; and innovation.
Meanwhile, the panel of experts evaluating the brands included: Justin Dekoszmovszky, co-founder and chief impact officer at Inbonis; Amy DuFault, the Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator’s digital content and communications director; Timo Rissanen, assistant professor of fashion design and sustainability at Parsons; and Project Just’s chief product designer, Rhea Rakshit, and co-founder Shahd Alshehail.
A common argument that crops up during any discussion on sustainability is the use of natural versus synthetic fibers. Recognizing that while natural fibers are always better for the environment, sometimes synthetics perform better under pressure. For that reason, Project Just’s list of preferred materials includes both organic cotton and recycled polyster and nylon.
On the chemicals side of things, the organization pointed out that several chemicals used to produce “magical” properties in performance apparel have hormone-disrupting effects and, in some instances, can even cause cancer.
While Adidas and Nike were given honorable mentions for making huge strides in innovation, Patagonia was far and away the winner. Project Just praised the brand for its use of organic cotton, responsible wool, recycled polyester and Tencel, as well as holding both Fair Trade and Bluesign certifications. Patagonia also offers repairs and upcycling options for its products.
The other brands that made the list are “young,” with limited product ranges, small teams and shorter supply chains—according to Project Just that means less things to worry about.
“We recognize that as a brand grows and scales its production, it becomes harder to stay true to its original commitment to sustainability, but we’re willing to take a bet on these rising stars and want to champion their commitment to sustainable and ethical production from the start,” the organization said.
Activewear brands looking to step up their sustainability game should take Trillon’s suggestions into consideration:
• “Consider better fabric options, like recycled nylon and polyester and organic cotton.”
• “Be more transparent by sharing information with your shoppers and with us—even if it’s admitting you don’t know.”
• “Look for facilities that pay higher wages, reliably. A certification or a union can help to assure this.”
• “Think about the chemicals used in production and the impact they can have on people and the environment.”