Stuck in the starting blocks
Bryony Moore and Tim Hunt discover who is lagging behind in the sportswear industry.
What will be the lasting legacy of London 2012? Heroic sporting achievement and renewed enthusiasm for sports? Or a hole in our pockets and an empty stadium?
The Olympic Games sells itself to us partly with the promise that it will increase uptake of sporting activity among those who previously did less. Perhaps it will, especially if you count strolling to the shopping centre on Saturday: 12% of consumers tend to up their expenditure on sports apparel during large scale sporting competitions.(1) Adidas, an official partner of the Olympics, hopes that the Games will generate an additional £100 million in revenue and allow it to seize global leadership from arch-rival Nike.(1)
Form over function
You might think that this increased spending on sportswear means more people are taking up sport but over the years sportswear has slowly become more fashion-led – something people wear while doing anything other than sport.
High-end fashion designer Stella McCartney partnered with Adidas on the official GB team kit for London 2012 and has made other ranges of sportswear both with and without an Olympic theme. Her ‘My 2012’ collection of Olympic themed sportswear was patronisingly described as being “aimed at encouraging women to become more involved with the experience of the Olympics.”(2)
However, this gradual transformation from the functional to the fashionable has kept sportswear on the high street in a society where interest in participating in sports is declining among females.(3) In this buyers’ guide we have included both fashion sportswear and specialised performance apparel – see below ‘Scope of this report’ for more details.
These days, sportswear companies seem to attract less of campaigners’ attention than high street clothing companies (despite the tempting potential for ‘sweat’ related puns). However, the PlayFair campaign has consistently campaigned for better rights for workers producing sportswear during the run up to Olympic events, and not without some success.
While some of the companies responsible for the biggest brands in sportswear such as Nike and Adidas have well-developed mechanisms for measuring and reporting on their environmental and social performance, the same cannot be said for the biggest retailers. All of these score worst for both environmental reporting and supply chain management.
As well as rating companies on their supply chain management and environmental reports, we asked companies for their policies on the following issues:
Cotton – including a policy on reducing the use of pesticides, targets for increasing the use of organic cotton, policy on sourcing Uzbek cotton (where children are taken out of school by order of the state to pick cotton) and a policy on the use of GM cotton seed.
Sandblasting and animal testing – as mentioned above, many sportswear companies are actually in the fashion business, applying their brand to products such as aftershave, perfume and jeans. Fragrances are commonly tested on animals and sandblasting (a finishing technique which makes jeans look ‘vintage’, and has been shown to cause silicosis of the lung in the workers who use it) is commonly used on jeans.
PVC – this material has long been targeted by campaigners due to its toxicity. Most of the companies in this report have either banned PVC or are working towards this goal.
Leather – although many sports shoes are made from plastics, leather is still used in the sportswear sector. As a slaughterhouse by-product, companies using leather receive a negative mark under the Animal Rights category. They also receive a negative mark under the Pollution & Toxics category, because of the high concentrations of chemicals required to turn a raw piece of skin into a hardwearing leather. For more info see the Shoes shopping guide.
Use of materials made from unsustainable raw materials – much sportswear is made from polyester and other synthetic fibres. These are non-renewable and non-biodegradable. The use of organic cotton and recycled polyester is gradually creeping in to the sector however. Patagonia and Yew Clothing have lots of products made from such materials.
Nanotechnology – now commonly used in sportswear for ‘performance’ properties, but the full impacts of its use are as yet unknown.
A very tiny issue
Vito Buonsante, a health and environment lawyer at ClientEarth, examines the use of nanotechnology in sportswear.
Nanotechnology is the manipulation of materials about one eighty thousandth the size of a human hair. Although a new form of technology,(1) it can be found in toiletries, antibiotics, disinfectants, food packaging, sunscreen, socks, pants, sportswear and equipment, and more. But as we rush to enhance products using nanotechnology, companies and consumers need to tread with caution. The number of applications of nanomaterials is not known, as there is no mandatory reporting scheme anywhere in the world. As with many emerging technologies, we still have little understanding of the impacts these tiny particles have on our health and the environment. An unregulated rush to use nanotechnology could quickly attract the sort of controversy that surrounds GM crops.
Four years ago in Beijing, nanotechnology caused controversy of a different kind when American swimmer Michael Phelps swept the board of medals and world records wearing a swimsuit enhanced using nanotechnology. The suit absorbed only two per cent of its weight in water, which some speculated could give Phelps the sort of unfair advantage enjoyed by a racing driver in a superior car. This year in London, many Olympic swimmers will be wearing suits modified with nanotechnology far advanced of that available in 2008.
Textiles and sports clothing contain nanomaterials mainly for two purposes: stain resistance and antibacterial effects. Stain resistance is achieved through the so called Lotus Effect: Nano coatings are created and bond with the textile, so that little nano-sized molecular hooks attach to the fabric of the garment and the hair-like structures repel the water like a lotus leaf.(2) Through nanomaterials it will be soon possible to create fabrics that do not get wet.(3) Another inconvenience for outdoors enthusiasts is sweat and bad odours. Nano silver is often used as an anti-bacterial agent to stop smelly socks and odorous armpits.
Clearly, nanotechnology can improve the competitiveness of elite and non-elite sportsmen and women, but at what cost? There is a very significant gap in information on how nanomaterials behave in the environment and how our bodies react to exposure. However, there is a growing number of studies that raise concerns about the effects of some nanomaterials. Carbon nanotubes, for example, have been reported to cause Mesothelioma and to behave like asbestos in lungs.(4) Nanosilver is washed down the drains and cannot be removed by sewage treatment, so it is discharged into lakes and rivers, where fish and other aquatic life are exposed. Some fish exposed to nanosilver(5) were reported to have suffered malformations in their eyes, swim bladders and tails, and some suffered heart failure.
Further, a very dangerous indirect effect of continuous exposure to nanosilver is that micro-organisms could develop resistance to silver. This could annul the biocidal effect that this compound has, and its more important uses, for example in medical devices and silver as a disinfectant in plasters.
Until the strongest economies take action to establish the risks posed by nanomaterial use, it would be advisable to minimise exposure to them and avoid any nano-containing product resulting in direct skin contact, or where nanomaterials can be inhaled. Nanomaterials are often found in sports equipment(8) such as golf clubs, tennis rackets and skis, but in these cases they are usually embedded in a matrix. That means the likely risk of human health problems is much lower than when it is used in clothing, where the chemicals are likely to leak and exposure to skin is probable.
In July 2013, new cosmetics legislation is expected to come into effect in the EU that will indicate the presence on nanomaterials in some products. A few voluntary registers of products containing nanomaterials have been established; none of them are comprehensive but they give a good idea of what kind of products contain these substances. The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies(9) was established in 2005 and has an inventory divided by product categories. The inventory lists sports products currently on the market that contain nanomaterials.
To find out more about Vito Buonsante’s work visit ClientEarth.
1 Sports Clothing and Footwear – UK – August 2011
2 Stella McCartney’s ‘My 2012’ Adidas collection in pictures, http://fashion.telegraph.co.uk/, 03/01/2012
3 Active People Survey 5, 8 December 2011
6 ‘The dream of staying clean: Lotus and biomimetic surfaces,’ Andreas Solga, Zdenek Cerman, Boris F Strif?er, Manuel Spaeth and Wilhelm Barthlott,16 October 2007
7 National Public Radio, www.npr.org
9 European Commission call for information ‘Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks (SCENIHR) Request for a scientific opinion on Nanosilver: safety, health and environmental effects and role in antimicrobial resistance’, published on http://ec.europa.eu/ with deadline of 4th June 2012 for submissions.
10 Engineered Nanoparticles in Consumer Products: Understanding a New Ingredient, Rebecca Kessler, published on Environmental Health Perspectives website (www.ehp03.niehs.nih.gov) 01/03/11
11 Emerging Science of Nanotoxicology, with Günter Oberdörster, by Ernie Hood, published on www.ehp03.niehs.nih.gov, 08/05/09