Cycling Apparel Brands are Trying to Make Clothing More Sustainable Than Ever. What Does That Mean?

The fashion industry as a whole has one of the biggest ecological footprints in the world. Cycling apparel brands have the potential to make a strong impact by using recycled materials for their products.
Photo: Matt Miller

Sustainability has been a cultural buzzword for years now, printed on the labels of our food and vehicles, and slowly it has become more of a focal point for the fashion industry.

While carbon fiber bikes, shipped thousands of miles from their carbon-footprint-heavy manufacturing facilities overseas, have taken the brunt of the blame for the bike industry’s ecological footprint, cycling apparel brands have been evolving into the new age of “sustainable” manufacturing, maybe more so than many bike brands, and with ample reason.

The fashion industry as a whole has one of the biggest ecological footprints in the world. Almost 20 percent of global wastewater is produced by the industry, as is 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the UN. The fashion industry now uses more energy than both aviation and shipping combined.

Considering that the majority of bike apparel is produced using plastic-enriched synthetic fibers and the oil industry, with the rise of EVs, is reportedly planning to shift primarily to plastic production, athletic apparel brands stand to make a strong impact by using recycled materials for their products.

Cycling’s dirty fibers

Photo: Matt Miller

“Recycled products, when you look at a lifecycle assessment of the impact of a material, like a raw material for instance, if it comes from a virgin source versus a recycled source, it has a significantly lower impact,” says Margaux Elliott, apparel product manager at Giro. Elliott studied fashion merchandising in New York and integrated her passion for the industry with outdoor sports. She started working at Giro in 2014.

Giro’s latest Renew collection is made with recycled nylon, polyester, and other materials, using reclaimed ocean plastics, with the intent that at least 50% of the product has to be made from recycled content. By 2026, Giro hopes that all of their apparel will be made from recycled materials. That means less new virgin materials are produced to make apparel, and that existing plastics have a second life and may avoid landfills.

“Just because you’re helping improve a litter problem doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better for the environment, but with recycled materials, most of the time it is,” she says.

Materials that are regularly used in bike apparel, which need to be durable, stretchy, and breathable are generally good materials for recycling, unlike cotton, but they are far from perfect, and both materials have their downfalls.

“Polyester is a really interesting material,” says Elliott. “For instance, it performs extremely well, especially for cycling. It’s lightweight, it dries really fast. It’s low cost, it’s durable. It has all these fantastic characteristics, but something that has come up recently is microplastics,” or the denaturing of synthetic fibers, where tiny pieces of plastic can make their way from the fiber to the washing machine, to public water systems and water sources.

Natural fibers like cotton may seem more environmentally friendly, and though they are obviously a poor choice for mountain biking, cotton requires an abundance of water to produce, so there isn’t really a clear winner in terms of environmental friendliness when it comes to natural fibers versus synthetic.

“I don’t necessarily see any fiber at this stage or any material going away at this point, it’s more just how can we do each of them better? And how can we make sure that at the end of the day, we’re creating a garment that the consumer is going to get the best experience out of and use the most?”

Like any product, a consumer can make apparel more sustainable by wearing it until its end of life, mitigating waste and the likelihood that it will end up in a landfill releasing greenhouse gases as it slowly breaks down. It’s estimated that polyester can take between 20 and 200 years to decompose.

Sending a message

Photo: Jeff Barber

Pearl Izumi has been making moves to reduce their climate impact for years now, by reducing the amount of packaging material they use, opening channels for repair workshops for torn garments, and using more recycled materials.

This year though, they’re implementing a different approach, called Pedal to Zero. Using the Higg Product Module to measure the carbon dioxide created from a product and evaluating what the product is made from, how it’s shipped, and so on, Pearl Izumi can offer a certain mileage to offset the impact.

For example, their new Rove shorts cost almost 5.9kg of CO2 to make, and using the EPA’s average auto’s MPG estimate, it would take a consumer about 15 miles of bike commuting to offset the carbon footprint. Pearl Izumi knows that not everyone is going to offset their new threads’ carbon output like that, but at least it’ll get them thinking.

“I mean the fact that a pair of shorts is, you know, like the climate impact of making a pair of shorts is equivalent to 15 miles of driving,” says Andrew Hammond, brand manager for Pearl Izumi. “Every time I get in there, and I’m driving to the hardware store, I’m like, ‘could I be riding my bike right now?’”

When they began evaluating the program, Hammond assumed that shipping would create the most environmental impact. It doesn’t.

“The number one thing – overwhelmingly – is the main body material of the garment, at least for what we’re making.”

Eliminating the unnecessary

Pearl Izumi is reducing packaging where they can, but shipping it in easy-to-recycle packaging isn’t always an option. In 2019, the brand eliminated hang tags in place of a small recyclable card and got rid of print catalogs, estimating that they would save almost ten tons of paper, nearly 200 trees, 68,00 gallons of water, and 4,500 gallons of oil per year.

The little plastic bag that surrounds the shipped jersey or pants though, that’s tough to say goodbye to.

“It turns out to be a pretty difficult challenge because that little plastic bag does a lot to make sure that the garment arrives in good condition. What you don’t want to do is take that little plastic bag away which can be recycled and then suddenly have 80% of your products or [even] 5% of your products damaged. That is not a good way to lower your impact.”

Instead, to maximize shipping efficiency, they’ll start rolling and tying items like a newspaper, and Pearl Izumi can use a smaller bag, to reduce the amount of plastic they’re using, and fit more in each shipping container. The only drawback is a more wrinkly shirt.

With all the new green initiatives for brands like Pearl Izumi, Giro, and others, sourcing recycled materials has raised the cost to produce items, which they’ve absorbed, but as each of them is doing more of it, the cost has gone down.

Is it enough?

Rapha’s new MTB line includes extra pieces of fabric to make a repair. Photo: Matt Miller

Businesses know that sustainability is a hot marketing term, and an easy word to ink on a label and attract consumers who want to think that their consumption is more responsible.

A report by the Changing Markets Foundation says that recycled plastics are where most of the fashion industry is moving to adopt a more sustainable image even though “such an approach only deals with the aftermath of the plastic pollution problem, and does very little to curtail the plastics crisis at the source.”

The report adds that especially when brands are touting the use of ocean plastics, “current volumes of extraction are minuscule; they do little to stop the flow of plastics into the environment in the first place, nor to reduce the industry’s addiction to plastic-based fibers.”

Then, the foundation says that down-cycling PET bottles into polyester is still problematic in several ways. Polyethylene bottles can be recycled numerous times, in closed-loop, bottle-to-bottle systems, if bottles are collected correctly. Recycled fiber however isn’t infinitely recyclable; it may lose durability and may also need to be combined with virgin plastics on their next use. Recycling fiber is also dependent on consumers getting that product to a textile recycling facility. But, if recycled materials are made into a product that is durable enough, that garment could live a very long life.

If something just doesn’t fit anymore, most people recommend taking old clothing or apparel to consignment stores, or thrift stores rather than sending it to a dump. In big cycling cities like Boulder, Portland, or Seattle, there are bike co-ops that accept used gear in good condition, which they can sell to fund bike repair and earn-a-bike programs.

Practicing sustainability

Patagonia gained infamy when they ran a campaign on a Black Friday that pictured one of their sweaters under words that spelled out ‘Don’t buy this jacket.’ The idea was that we can all be more responsible consumers by buying less crap that we don’t we need and using products for their full life cycle.

Hammond and Elliott agree with the notion, which is why durability remains at the forefront for both brands. Manufacturers require less plastic and oil when consumers are buying less.

“I also don’t think it’s fair to put all of the responsibility on consumers, you know,” says Elliott. “Industry and large businesses are much larger contributors to climate change than individual people.”

A major portion of a garment’s climate impact (Vogue Business reports that it’s about 30%) comes from aftercare; washing and drying clothing, and the water and energy that it takes to power those machines.

“So if you can wash stuff less, that will reduce the impact and it’s actually pretty easy to do, especially like a pair of mountain bike shorts,” says Hammond. Unless riders live in a humid environment, bike shorts tend to dry out very quickly, and can be worn multiple times before a wash.

Hammond recommends throwing some white vinegar in a wash cycle if a product has taken on a stench that won’t go away, say from stewing in a duffle bag. Then, of course, consumers can also take torn garments to a tailor to get them repaired and running longer.

Sustainability isn’t a word we’re going to see less of as time goes on. The more frequent use of the word seems to mean that what humans have been doing for decades and centuries doesn’t work anymore, and new practices must be examined. There are still wrinkles in recycled fibers that need to be ironed out, but the fashion industry and bike apparel brands seem to want to do better.

“I’ve been in the industry for a while and it’s been really encouraging to see like, ten years ago, it was next to impossible to source a material that was made from recycled materials. Even five years ago when we started down this, it was pretty limited,” says Elliott. “I think at this point, there’s really no good reason for brands to not be using recycled materials.”