Activewear is designed to help you work up a sweat. But it also works up a ton of carbon when made from polyester, the material traditionally used to make the world’s flexible running and gym attire.
Allbirds – the New Zealand-founded company which has drawn international attention for its range of sustainable footwear – has now expanded into activewear, releasing its inaugural collection made from natural materials: Eucalyptus tree fibre and Merino Wool.
“Our physical fitness shouldn’t hurt our planet’s health. The only way to win is to play on nature’s team,” the company declared when revealing the Allbirds Natural Run Collection. The range debuts with essential pieces: Natural Legging & Bike Short, Natural Run Form Tank, Natural Run Tank & Tee, and a Natural Run Short.
The natural fabric took the Allbirds team two years and more than 70 iterations to get right, with clothing put to the test over thousands of hours to meet industry benchmarks for breathability, sweat-wicking, quick-drying, and comfort stretch. In the end, the Natural Legging proved to be up to two times more breathable than leading synthetic brands – a fact that proves that natural materials can go toe-to-toe with plastic – and win.
But the real coup in the project was how the clothing measures up in carbon use. Allbirds’ range is the first in the industry to feature Carbon Footprint declarations on the labels of each item. Those ratings range from 4.7kg to 14.5kg of CO2e before being 100-per-cent offset by Allbirds to reach zero.
Activewear typically uses polyester – which makes up 55 per cent of all clothing – the standard go-to fabric for nearly all mainstream exercise apparel, due to its cheap production cost.
Allbirds says the polyester used in athletic wear takes enough oil to power 47,000 cruise ships, and spews 700 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere every year. “It’s even become a permanent fixture on our ocean floors, with 14 million tons of microplastics that break down into smaller and smaller particles, but will never fully disappear,” a spokesperson for the B Corp-certified company says.
“The athletic apparel industry primarily relies on polyester, so the chances are if you’re working out, you’re likely wearing synthetic fabrics made from oil.”
Allbirds was founded by New Zealander Tim Brown who was taken by the quality of merino wool and wondered why it wasn’t being used in footwear. He teamed up with engineer and renewables expert Joey Zwillinger and together, they crafted a revolutionary wool fabric made specifically for footwear.
A decade on, the company is now headquartered in the US, with annual sales of more than US$100 million in 2019 and a valuation in excess of $1 billion, after investments by several private-equity companies.
Sustainability remains at the company’s heart. It is currently working towards a goal of achieving 75 per cent natural or recycled materials in everything it makes by 2025.