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Ethical Sportswear

Ranking the ethical and environmental record of 26 brands of sportswear

We also look at workers' rights, materials used including synthetics and the problem of microplastics, size inclusivity, shine a spotlight on the ethics of Gymshark and Lululemon, and give our recommended buys. 

About Ethical Consumer

This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

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What to buy

What to look for when you are buying sportswear:

  • Do you need it to be new? There are many places to get second-hand sportswear, from charity shops to specialist online stores.

  • Is sustainability core to the company? Look for companies that use more sustainable materials across the board, rather than just a token amount.

  • Are workers being respected? Look for companies that score best for supply chain management or don’t have workers’ rights criticisms.

Subscribe to see which companies we recommend as Best Buys and why 

What not to buy

Unfortunately there are still some fairly unhealthy processes involved in the manufacture of sports clothing.

  • Do you actually need specialist sportswear? Or would organic cotton tops and bottoms actually be suitable? See our T-shirts guide, and THTC for organic joggers.

  • Does the company pay fairly? Many companies pay executives millions, while garment workers are in poverty. See our Excessive Remuneration ratings under Politics.

  • Does it use toxic chemicals? Look for companies scoring best for Toxics, or using only recycled or organic materials.

Subscribe to see which companies to avoid and why

Score table

Updated live from our research database

← Swipe left / right to view table contents →
Brand Score(out of 20) Ratings Categories Positive Scores

Our Analysis

Along with a growing interest in fitness and wellbeing, ambitious sportswear and activewear brands are furiously competing for attention, especially from women. With internet searches for “sustainable fashion” tripling between 2016 and 2019, more and more companies are seeing the benefits of showcasing environmental credentials.

With the rise of greenwashing, we look at eco labelling and what brands mean when they use the word sustainable or eco, and if they are really committed to sustainable sportswear. We also look at whether the brands really care about the people who make these clothes.

Which brands of activewear are included in this ethical guide?

For this updated guide we have included newer brands that are big in yoga or gym wear: Gymshark, Lululemon and Sweaty Betty. We’ve also added several more ethical alternatives: Girlfriend Collective, Pangaia and Tala, and two brands from our Ethical Clothing guide Beyond Retro and People Tree, bringing second-hand and Fairtrade items into this guide as a result.

Of course, for many sports and activities, you don’t need specialist sports clothing or the added stretch of spandex or elastane. Our Ethical T-shirts guide has loads of Best Buy options for classic t-shirts – the THTC brand also has a range of organic cotton joggers for men and women.

Which sportswear brands sell what clothing for whom?

Most brands included in this guide sell a range of sportswear including sports bras, leggings, tops, yogawear and leisure or lounge wear. Beyond Retro is all second-hand so less predictable in terms of range, but relatively cheap. Yew Clothing only sells tops. Girlfriend Collective, People Tree, Sweaty Betty, Tala and USA Pro are aimed at women only.

Large woman in sportswear doing yoga at home with laptop

Size inclusivity and ethical sportswear

We looked at women’s leggings for all brands to see which made these in sizes above UK women’s size 20. Of those listed below, Adidas and Girlfriend Collective also used plus size models. Girlfriend Collective is one of our Recommended brands.

Workers’ rights issues in sportswear - the real sweatshops

In our research into ethical sportswear, we found evidence that sweatshops exist. Some suppliers are not even paying the local minimum wage.

The legal minimum wage in many countries is already much lower than that needed to escape poverty, but over the last year or so it’s got even worse for some workers. The international Workers’ Rights Consortium (WRC) says that 400,000 garment workers in the Indian state of Karnataka have not been paid even the minimum wage since April 2020.

One worker was quoted as saying,

“Throughout this year I have only fed my family rice and chutney sauce”. “I tried to talk to the factory management about it,” she added, “but they said, ‘this is what we pay to work here. If you don’t like it, you can leave.’”

The executive director of the WRC said it had demanded for two years that western brands including Puma and Nike intervene, but that they had let it continue.

The minimum wage had gone up by just £4.10 a month in April 2020, but had never been paid. Suppliers argue that a legal complaint over the raise was still in the courts, but the Karnataka high court had ruled in September 2021 that the new minimum wage and all arrears should be paid.

Brands need to take responsibility over sweatshops

In Sri Lanka, The Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA) has submitted a legal complaint against Columbia Sportswear Company, Asics, and Tommy Hilfiger, claiming they are acting as ‘shadow employers’ and should be held accountable along with suppliers for alleged wage violations during the Covid-19 pandemic.

AFWA released a report in July 2021, looking at what it argued was wage theft in six garment-producing countries. It listed 15 global fashion brands as jointly responsible with suppliers for the destitution of millions of garment workers, and the poverty wages before the pandemic that did not provide any safety blanket to tide them over.

"These suppliers, are not independent manufacturers, having garments produced and selling them on the global market. Rather, they are contract manufacturers" said the report. It argues that brands should have responsibility to sustain workers in times of recession. Instead, workers, and especially women workers, had to reduce consumption, deplete savings and increase debt. It was in fact the workers who "subsidised the stabilisation and recovery of brand profits".

The report argues in its Foreword that

"the risks of business were basically transferred to suppliers from the Global South and, in turn, to their workers." Global brands, it says, sacrificed workers from the Global South to protect their share value in the Global North."

Asics said it did not agree that it had a joint business relationship with its suppliers. Columbia Sportswear Company said, “We believe that the strategies we enacted were able to reduce the impacts of the global pandemic on our supply chain partners and their employees.” PVH, parent of Tommy Hilfiger, did not comment.

Go to the Clean Clothes website for a live blog on how Covid-19 continues to affect garment workers’ rights.

Which sportswear brands are doing better for workers' rights?

The only brands to get our best rating for Supply Chain Management were Beyond Retro, Ellesse, Girlfriend Collective, and People Tree.

Comparing workers' wages with executive pay

A recent report from Asia Floor Wage Alliance highlight the huge discrepancy between what garment workers are paid, and what the company executives are paid.

The quotes below are from the report 'Money Heist: COVID-19 Wage Theft in Global Garment Supply Chains'.

Executive pay vs workers' wages and experience
Brand Executive pay Workers' wages and experience
Nike Highest paid director in 2020: $53m Workers’ wages: “Unable to meet even daily expenses, we are now forced to take debt of 150-200 USD almost every month at 20% interest ... to pay off our previous debt. I cannot sleep at night, thinking of how to pay back our debt.” (Worker from a Nike supplier factory in Cambodia.)
VF Corp (The North Face) Highest paid director in 2020: $16.6m Workers’ wages: “I didn’t receive any wages during the lockdown period in April and May [2020]. The wages from March were also pending. We had to go door to door asking our neighbours and relatives for some spare money so that we could afford food.” (Worker from a VF Corp supplier factory in India.)
Adidas Highest paid director in 2020: €6.8m Workers’ wages: “After the no-work-no-pay policy started in my factory, I work only 14-18 days a month ... My wages have now fallen by more than 25% a month.” (Worker from an Adidas supplier factory in Indonesia.)

Take Action

Nike is currently the focus of the Pay Your Workers campaign, over unpaid severance pay at Violet Apparel in Cambodia, where hundreds of workers were fired with just a day’s notice.

There is a 3-minute video and link for Twitter action on the Pay Your Workers website.

Black man running in forest

Pollution and microplastics in sportswear

A 2021 report by Business of Fashion stated that while industry coalitions like ZDHC (Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals) and the SAC (Sustainable Apparel Coalition) have been good at creating a “harmonized infrastructure for more effective chemicals management”, this hasn’t translated enough into actual reduction of toxic chemical use.

It identified fashion as a “thirsty and dirty” industry, and Under Armour as a particularly bad performer among the largest sportswear, high street and luxury brands. It recommended companies should publish their ‘chemical footprint’, as most currently don’t disclose regular or complete data on this.

It also referenced a 2020 report by the not-for-profit charity CDP (previously known as the Carbon Disclosure Project but now with a wider remit), which concluded that many companies in the fashion and textiles industry are “largely blind to the risks of water pollution” despite being major water users and polluters.

This pollution can come at all stages of production, from agricultural run-off from cotton fields to chemicals used in dying, to the microplastics released when synthetic clothes are washed or disposed of. Natural microfibres can also be persistent in the environment if they are coated in chemicals.

Our outdoor clothing guide has more detail about the problems from synthetic materials and microfibres.

What are sports clothing brands doing about water pollution and toxic chemicals?

The CDP report 'Interwoven Risks, Untapped Opportunities' includes several companies which are featured in our guides: Adidas, Asics, Gap, Hanesbrands, H&M, NIKE, Puma, PVH, Under Armour, and VF Corp (The North Face). The CDP had requested data from many more companies, but more than half failed to report.

Hanesbrands (Champion and Shock Absorber) was named as one of the most risk-aware companies in terms of water pollution. H&M was the only reporting company to mention microplastics, even though washing of synthetic clothes is said to account for a third of all microplastics released globally.

Some companies appeared to show little responsibility, with VF Corporation “reporting that due to the flexibility of their global supply chain, water pollution does not pose a reputational risk as the company has the ability to move capacity from one facility to another if an environmental incident were to occur.”

The report mentioned Sweden’s then plans for a new tax on toxic chemicals in clothing, which would have applied per kilo of clothing or footwear produced or imported to the country. Up to a 95% deduction would have been possible for companies which could prove certain chemicals had not been used. However, in September 2021 the government announced it would not proceed. H&M was reported to have opposed the tax, saying it would have required expensive testing for chemicals that were known not to be in most products.

Are any sportswear brands taking action on pollution and chemicals?

Companies that got our best rating for Pollution and Toxics were Beyond Retro, as it only sold second-hand textiles, Girlfriend Collective (90% recycled polyester), Pangaia (no virgin synthetics), People Tree (approximately 90% organic cotton) and Yew Clothing (100% recycled polyester or organic cotton).

Our rating did not include packaging, because although this is one area in which companies can take action, their core materials are more important.

Woman sitting in yoga pose on mat in living room

Materials used in activewear

Cotton

Our article on choosing sustainable fabrics has information about the pros and cons of various natural and synthetic fabrics, including environmental concerns as well workers' rights and cotton sourcing to avoid forced labour. In general, organic cotton is one of the better fabrics to choose.

Although many companies now use some organic or recycled cotton, only a few solely use these with no conventionally grown cotton: Girlfriend Collective, Gossypium/Yogamatters, Pangaia, Yew Clothing (t-shirts only). Almost 90% of People Tree’s cotton is organic.

Animal products used in sportswear

Our updated outdoor clothing guide highlights issues with using animal products in clothing, including leather, wool and down.

A few companies do not use any animal products: Champion, Shock Absorber, Girlfriend Collective, Gossypium, Yogamatters, Gymshark, Tala, Yew Clothing.

Several use down (feathers): Adidas, Lululemon, Nike, Puma, Sweaty Betty and Under Armour. Only Puma's down was RDS certified. You can read more about issues with live-plucking and animal down in our feature article.

Of those that used merino wool, Lululemon and Sweaty Betty did not appear to have a policy against mulesing, criticised as a cruel practice used on merino sheep.

Cartoon showing two people running and one says 'There really isn't a down side to keeping fit' whilst wearing clothing made of animal down.
Cartoon (C) Mike Bryson for Ethical Consumer

Which brands use the more sustainable materials in their sportswear?

Two brands stood out with their 100% organic/recycled cotton or 100% recycled polyester items: Pangaia and Yew Clothing. Pangaia also use a bio-based nylon made from castor oil, with a stretch fibre that degrades faster than elastane.

In addition, People Tree activewear was 95% Organic Fairtrade cotton, with 5% elastane. Girlfriend Collective wear was 80-90% recycled polyester or nylon, and Beyond Retro sportswear was all pre-worn/vintage.

Confusing eco labels on sportswear

Almost all brands are now using recycled polyester and organic cotton, at least in some products. We delve more into polyester problems in our guide to outdoor clothing.

There are only a few brands fully focusing on sustainable materials, and the messaging from other companies is often murky.

We looked for sustainability filters or labels on the companies’ websites, and whether they clearly explained their meanings. Some were unclear, or even quite misleading.

As shown in the table below, most items somehow labelled as sustainable are a blend of material types. Although textile recycling is barely happening as yet, blended materials make it problematic. We found that:

It’s also worth remembering that most companies are still using huge amounts of virgin synthetic materials, even if they do have some that are recycled. Nike alone is said to use 10 million gallons of oil a year to produce their clothes.

Some synthetics are used because they can stretch and then recover their shape, like nylon, or elastane which is also known as spandex or Lycra. Others are used because they are especially moisture-wicking and quick-drying like polyester, i.e. moisture is drawn away from your skin so it can evaporate.

Bamboo however is also good for not getting sweaty, and cotton, while it doesn’t dry as quickly, doesn’t hold sweaty smells like synthetics can. But these materials also have pollution problems if produced in the conventional way, which is why we recommend choosing lyocell bamboo and organic or recycled cotton.

Sportswear brands and eco labelling

In our research into the materials used in sportswear and how this is labelled we found many examples of  incomplete or less than ideal information. The table below shows how confusing this is for consumers who are looking to make informed choices about what is the most sustainable material or item of clothing to buy.

Company/Brand Look out for: Examples found under this label/filter
Incomplete information    
Puma 'SUSTAINABLE MATERIAL’ or ‘RECYCLED’ SUSTAINABLE MATERIAL – “Contains Recycled Material”, item found made from 85% polyester, 15% elastane. Unclear % of either material that was recycled. RECYCLED item found made from 32% recycled polyester, mixed with conventional cotton.
The North Face Had a filter for 'recycled' or 'our most sustainable' Only some pages allowed these searches. 'Our most sustainable' could mean it contained recycled material – e.g. item found made of one layer 100% nylon ripstop and one layer 62% nylon, 38% polyester – unclear % of any material that was recycled.
Calvin Klein 'SUSTAINABILITY'

"A curation featuring organic, recycled and responsibly sourced materials, to lower impact finishes". Some items with this label had no detail on which of these features they had.

Columbia 'ECO FRIENDLY' No further information!
Tala Its Factory page included detail on GOTS-certified cotton

However, only one part-organic product was found.

Blended materials, some with less sustainability credentials    
Adidas ‘Made with recycled content’ Item found made from 56% BCI (Better Cotton Initiative) cotton, 40% recycled polyester, 4% elastane blend.
New Balance 'Green Leaf Standard’ “Made of 50% or more environmentally preferred materials” – e.g. item made from 77% recycled polyester, 23% spandex blend.
Nike 'SUSTAINABLE MATERIALS’ “At least 50% organic cotton, recycled polyester or a blend of organic cotton and recycled polyester” – e.g. item made from 78–83% polyester/17–22% elastane blend.
Tommy Hilfiger 'Sustainable Style’

Item found made of 65% organic cotton, 35% polyester blend.

Yogamatters / Gossypium Organic

Item found made of 46% Organic Cotton, 42% TENCEL modal fibre, 12% Lycra. (Yogamatters)
44% Organic Cotton, 44% Beechwood Fibre, 12% Lycra. (Gossypium)
(Modal is made from beechwood cellulose, and TENCEL is a more sustainable branded version).

Reebok Had a filter for ‘Sustainable’

Item found made from 93% cotton/7% elastane, where the cotton was from BCI (Better Cotton Initiative)

Champion 'ECO Future’

Item found made from 72% Organic Cotton, 28% Recycled Polyester blend.

Girlfriend Collective Each product has a ‘Sustainability Report’ Items found made from 90% recycled polyester, 10% spandex. Reports show a CO2 and energy saving, but it doesn't say how it's calculated.

Carbon ratings and sportswear

This is the first time we have rated sportswear companies for what they are doing to tackle their carbon footprint from clothing. We expect them to at least explain how they have reduced the carbon impacts of their key materials or manufacturing, as these make up the majority of companies’ emissions. For footwear manufacturers this includes their use of leather.

Nike states that about 70% of its environmental impact comes from growing, processing and finishing materials. It was the only one of the biggest companies that was seen to be doing much to reduce leather impact, by using leather scraps to make ‘Flyleather’.

Whatever materials brands use, over-consumption still needs to stop. Fashion production has doubled since the early 2000’s, and 69% of clothing is made from plastics. Cheap, throwaway fashion is currently dependent on fossil fuels, and therefore contributing to fossil fuel extraction.

Lower carbon alternatives

Several small companies were seen to be providing lower-carbon alternatives overall and so got a middle or best rating: Beyond Retro, Girlfriend Collective, Gossypium/Yogamatters, Pangaia, People Tree, Tala and Yew Clothing.

Second-hand sportswear

These days many people are happy to bag a well-worn pair of second-hand jeans, but pre-worn gym gear might feel a lunge too far. But with most clothing massively underused, the best way to reduce the environmental impact of what we wear is to give it a long life.

Our best buy Beyond Retro sells a whole range of second-hand clothing including sportswear. We also found a couple of new companies which we haven’t rated but which specialise in second-hand sportswear, and which state their mission as reducing the amount of clothing sent to landfill.

Rerun Clothing sells second-hand sportswear and trainers and also has an upcycled range. The company also works with a humanitarian charity, in contact with refugee camps, to distribute race t-shirts which it can’t resell. You can donate £10 to help with transport costs.

What to do with sportswear you no longer want?

If you have sportswear you no longer need, ReRunClothing take donations, or you can donate to charity shops.

Our article on upcycling, repairing and donating clothing gives more ideas and tips.

Which sportswear brands score positive marks for their company ethos?

Three companies received positive Company Ethos marks:

  • People Tree for being certified by the World Fair Trade Organisation
  • Beyond Retro for using only recycled materials
  • Pangaia for using and developing many innovative environmentally alternative materials, such as FLWRDWN™ – "A downfill material made using a combination of wildflowers, a biopolymer and aerogel."

Additional research for this guide by Shanta Bhavnani.

Companies behind the brand:

Gymshark is a British company founded in 2012 by two 19-year-old students.

Gymshark retails exclusively online, making heavy use of social media influencers and celebrity endorsements. Growth has been fast. In 2020 the company had profits of over £30 million, a more than 50% increase on the previous year, despite, or possibly because of, the pandemic. According to one of the founders “Caring – for our people, our planet and their respective futures – is a value at the very heart of Gymshark.” But by our standards the company has a long way to go.

Lululemon is a Canadian sportswear brand selling some of the most expensive products in this guide, and is the leading yoga wear brand in China, marketing itself through influencers, lifestyle events and social media. The company was criticised by the Guardian and Canadian NGO Steelworkers Humanity Fund for its connections to Bangladeshi suppliers alleged to be paying poverty wages and physically and verbally abusing workers. Meanwhile the company’s CEO received a compensation package worth over US$10 million in 2020.

Want to know more?

If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table. 

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