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Partners in Crime: Plastic and the Sports Industry

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Partners in Crime: Plastic and the Sports Industry

person tangled in plastic bags, representing the sports and fitness industry and their relationship with plastic

Very large sports brands have been selling synthetic fibre textiles for around half a century now.

The majority of them have seen great success in sales, growth, and innovation. Customers are clearly satisfied with the products.

These large brands buy their fabrics from specialized suppliers or even make them on their own.

Whenever the purchasing staff of those brands is visiting trade shows and conventions for fabric, they are the most welcome visitors at the booths of their suppliers - for a reason.

Now imagine, a small unknown brand (like us) comes to their booth asking for a certain fabric blend without any synthetic fibres for sports use for the purpose of avoiding the creation of more microplastic pollution.

We’ve been to a few fabric and textile trade shows, our experiences varied but overwhelming we were confronted with situations that were rarely positive and sometimes made us speechless.

Before I go too deep on what kind experiences we had, let’s take a quick step back.

The History of Plastic in Sports Textiles

Synthetic fibres were not always the material of choice in sports and fitness.

While synthetic or half-synthetic fibres (like Modal) have a long history already, some being invented in the 18th century, the plastic based fibres saw their rise to glory after World War 2.

In the late 19th century cotton became more and more popular, later knitted into a jersey. It allowed the fabric to be stretchy and dyed in different colors.

"Every competitor shall wear a sleeved jersey and loose drawers to the knees, and any competitor shall be excluded unless properly attired."

Guidelines of the 4th Olympiad in London, Source: The Fourth Olympiad, London, 1908

Around the 1960’s plastic based fibers became highly popular. It was a new revolution in the sports and fitness industry.

Not without reason, they were easy and cheap to make, comfortable, fast drying, aerodynamic, etc. No natural resources needed but crude oil.

From there on, synthetic fibres were the dominant material in fabric that was used to make professional sports gear. Only some sport types like Tennis or Golf still kept their fancy Polos.

As society began to transition from cotton to plastic fabrics customers were sometimes given given 2 options; cotton or polyester sports gear.

1980s puma running outfit advertisement from sears catalog

One step at a time the sports industry grew as it became a popular leisure activity.

The industry promoted their new fabrics and that was the end to natural fabrics in most areas of sports and fitness.

So, today in 2019 we can say, cotton had a shorter life in sports history than plastic based fibres.

1900 - 1950: Cotton

1950 - 2019: Plastic

Since then, the industry kept innovating and growing at a rapid rate using synthetic fabrics.

Fabrics are constantly evolving in performance, weight, durability, and yeah even sustainability, prominently for about the past 5 years or so.

This can be a good thing. In the last part of this article we'll discuss what this term sustainability means to the industry in terms of plastic.


How Manufacturing Veterans React to Our Story

First, let's tell you what reactions we experienced when talking to fabric manufacturers about our vision.

  1. People Ignored It: In most cases when we entered a discussion with the staff working in the booths, we told them that we are planning to make fabrics without synthetic fibres and what we are looking for. What happened? The first fabric people were showing us included some plastic fibres. Some at least said “here is just a tiny bit of Polyester in there, but really just a tiny bit”. Great, at least they heard us and offered the only solution they could. But many others didn't even try to meet us in the middle and totally disregarded our mission. We definitely didn't expect so many people to just ignore what we said.
  2. People didn't understand it: When we mentioned that we would like to create awareness for the microplastics problem in the running community and would like to offer alternatives, some people nodded. What we heard more often than not was: “yeah, we are tackling this problem, you will love our fabrics. We are using recycled plastic from the ocean and make new plastic shirts out of it.” Come oooooon …many people have just not heard about the problem microfibres can cause - even though they’ve been working in the industry for years. Before you think we are just a bunch of ***holes, we understand many of these people are just doing their jobs and that’s fine, no hard feelings. Microplastics are just a large and scary problem, it’s surprising to see how many people aren’t aware of it.
  3. People laughed at us: At one booth we had a “funny” experience where the person we were talking to was laughing at us. It was an industry veteran in his late 50s. He said this doesn't make any sense and that he is too old for this shit. His solution was that we should just work harder at ensuring the plastic we use actually gets recycled. Cool, we think so to. The really interesting part was that this person was even working for a company mainly focused on merino wool. Ahhh… what a blast.

Now, of course we had really good meetings with people being very helpful, talking about developments, showing us their great blends without plastic, setting us up with other people, companies and experts.

What's Hot in the Industry Right Now?

When walking around these trade shows we could clearly figure out the hottest trends that everyone in the textile industry is jumping on right now: recycled plastic.

Almost every company has a line with recycled polyester or ocean plastic instead of virgin material (i.e. produced new).

dual images showing ocean plastic being recycled into new products

It is definitely a good thing that all those companies become active in recycling but the microplastic problem from the textiles will not be solved with that method, in fact it will continue to add to the problem. Also, Health organizations see issues in wearing dumped plastic on the skin for toxic reasons (Link). We talked a bit more about the recycling issue from our perspective in this BLOG POST.

Some companies are experimenting with innovative materials (coffee grounds, milk proteins, soy, potato starch…). Some also did cool stuff in the past, e.g. a biodegradable Nylon, but demand was not high enough and therefore they’ve been forced to push those ideas to the side.

Fortunately, some known alternatives have been growing in popularity. Many of them have been known for decades (Tencel) and even a millenia (wool, hemp, silk).


Bottom Line: Things Will Change

Everybody can admit that plastic fibres can do awesome stuff, from it’s technical performance and also it’s design opportunities.

However, everybody needs also to admit, that there are serious downsides of the massive plastic production and usage: non-renewable materials are needed, they’re non-biodegradable for centuries, and the microplastic issue, which was identified some years ago and poses a huge threat to our society and planet.

We could keep going and ignore this serious problem, but this would probably come at a high price for humanity… even if research is only in its early stages in the microplastics area.

The industry needs to re-invent itself, it needs to find alternatives to synthetics, re-use materials, create closed loop systems, and use natural or chemical alternatives again for their garments.

This will take a while for the industry, they first need more scientific proof points that they are harming the environment.

In the meantime, we and some other cool brands keep exploring this non-plastic-playground for you. We believe making this change will start a new revolution. A revolution that makes us feel good and keeps our planet healthy. Stay tuned.

 

Sources used:

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17569370.2016.1221931

https://visforvintage.net/2012/08/03/olympics-sportswear-a-complete-history/