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Ethical Sportswear

Ranking the ethical and environmental record of 48 brands of sportswear.

We look at the materials used including synthetics and the problem of microplastics, size inclusivity, shine a spotlight on the ethics of Lululemon and Sweaty Betty, review secondhand sportswear and give our recommended buys. 

About Ethical Consumer

This is a shopping 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 secondhand sportswear, from charity shops to online.

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

  • Are workers being respected? Look for companies that score high in our workers category 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 need specialist sportswear? Or would simply wearing organic cotton tops and bottoms be suitable? We have included companies from our ethical clothing guide that sell active wear too, and you can check for joggers and t-shirts at Best Buy clothing companies, such as THTC.

  • Does the company pay fairly? Many companies pay executives millions, while garment workers are in poverty. Subscribers can see director compensation details in the company ethos ratings, and living wages details in the workers ratings.

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 100) Ratings Categories

Our Analysis

Very few things are as important as exercise when it comes to our physical health, and the positive links between physical activities and mental health are also much better understood now.

This guide explores how to buy sportswear ethically to make sure that the people who make our garments can feel good too, and to have less negative impact on the environment.

To rate which brands of sportswear are the most ethical we looked at what materials they use, their supply chains and workers' rights, as well as greenwashing and whether brands are inclusive of all people or not. 

With nearly 50 brands of sportswear and active leisurewear in this table, it's disappointing but not surprising to see nearly half of them scoring under 25 points (out of 100). But the good news is that there are ethical sportswear brands available, and more secondhand options available. 

Read on to find out who's the leader of the sportswear race! 

Which brands of sportswear and activewear are included in this ethical guide?

In this guide to ethical sportwear brands we have included brands that are bigger in yoga or gym wear like Gymshark, Lululemon and Sweaty Betty, along with the big mainstream sports clothing brands like Decathlon, Fila, Nike, North Face, Puma, Under Armour, and USA Pro. We have also included some smaller ethical alternatives such as Girlfriend Collective, Gossypium, Pangaia and Tala

In this newly updated guide we have also included more secondhand retailers and now have eight brands listed like Beyond Retro, Depop, Oxfam, Preloved, and Vinted

For many sports and activities you don’t necessarily need specialist sports clothing or the added stretch of spandex or elastane. If you're looking for clothes for walking or relaxing at home our ethical t-shirts guide has loads of Best Buy options, and several brands in our ethical clothing guide sell leisurewear like leggings and comfy tops.

What is sportswear made of?

Flexible, breathable, durable and comfortable are some of the qualities shoppers look for when buying sportswear. The three most popular fibres in technical sportswear appear to be polyester, elastane and nylon. All of them are fossil fuel based, although some in the industry have started to replace or reduce these materials.

Polyester vs recycled polyester

Polyester is the most commonly used sportswear material. It is made of fossil fuels (petroleum-based polymers) – or in the case of its recycled version, PET bottles. 

Because of its light weight, stretchiness, and good wicking quality, it is an extremely popular sportswear material. But, because it is made of plastic it does not break down and will pollute the environment forever.

How sustainable is recycled polyester?

The Textile Exchange’s recycled polyester challenge has created a bit of a revolution: since 2017 dozens, if not hundreds of companies have switched from virgin polyester to recycled polyester in their garments. Almost all of the companies in this guide use some percentage of recycled polyester in their sportswear. The few companies that don't include Community Clothing, Howies, Rapanui, and Sweaty Betty, whose go-to recycled synthetic fabric is recycled nylon.

But campaign group Changing Markets claims in its latest report that

“polyester made from recycled […] bottles as the main sustainability strategy for synthetics has been facing increasing scrutiny over the past year from regulators and consumers concerned about misleading environmental claims.” 

Clothing fibres are rarely recycled into more clothing because of technical difficulties. This means that the bottles are effectively ‘down-cycled’ when they are used for fabric production, when they could be reused over and over again as recycled plastic bottles. Changing Markets calls this a “false solution and a far cry from a circular model”.

Recycled polyester currently accounts for 13.5% of all textile polyester. The fabric is mainly made from PET plastic bottles, which make up an estimated share of 99% of all recycled polyester feedstock. 

However, recycled polyester can also be made from other post-consumer plastics such as ocean waste and packaging waste, and most importantly, of discarded polyester textile or pre-consumer fabric scraps. Developing and scaling textile-to-textile recycling is an important strategy to ensure future feedstock supply for the recycled polyester industry, as PET bottles are also in high demand to be recycled into… bottles.

Our conclusion? If you do need specialist, technical sports clothing, then recycled polyester is still a better option than virgin synthetic fabrics. 

Microplastics in clothing and water sources

Researchers found that an average load of laundry releases more than 700,000 microscopic plastic fibres into wastewater. Current technology is not able to filter these tiny plastic pieces from sewage.

Microfibres can absorb chemicals present in the sewage sludge, which then becomes a fertilizer for agricultural land. According to the MINAGRIS-Project (MIcro- and Nano-plastics in AGRIcultural Soils), it is estimated that 31,000–43,000 tonnes of microplastics are spread to European soils in sewage sludge annually, as fertiliser.

To reduce microplastic pollution, use a microplastic filter or washing bag in your washing machine. (And consider airing your clothes to freshen them up if they don't need washing just yet.)

Is nylon or recycled nylon better than polyester for sportswear?

Nylon (or polyamide) accounts for only a tenth of synthetic fibre use worldwide but, when it comes to sportswear, it is the second most commonly used fabric. 

The virgin fabric is made of fossil fuels but recycled nylon can also be made from materials such as discarded fishing nets, carpets, or other used textiles. Currently, this only accounts for around 2% of all polyamide fibre production. 

Several companies in this guide use recycled nylon, including some of the higher scoring companies such as 3rd ROCK, Bamboo Clothing (BAM), and We Are Tala, and some in the lower half of the table, such as – but not exclusively – the Frasers Group (Sports Direct) and Sweaty Betty (Wolverine). 

Woman hitting boxing bag

Can cotton clothing be worn for sports and exercise?

Among sports enthusiasts, cotton is thought of as a fabric that doesn’t absorb sweat and therefore is inferior to synthetic sportswear. This may be important for athletes and for those that are doing strenuous exercise. 

However, if you are going to the gym a couple of times a week or run 5-10K, then cotton gear could work just as well.

All of the companies in this guide used at least a small percentage of cotton – usually blended in with synthetics but occasionally on its own. 3rd ROCK, Howies, Rapanui and We Are Tala used exclusively organic cotton, Bamboo Clothing and Community Clothing used some organic cotton, while all of Adidas’, Decathlon’s and Yogamatters’ cotton was Better Cotton Initiative certified or other sustainable cotton.

And even better, we found that all secondhand shops stocked cotton sportswear, ultimately the most sustainable option.

Find out more about the ethics of cotton production in our separate article.

Is bamboo sportswear sustainable?

Bamboo fabric has been advertised as making a breathable, yet moisture-wicking activewear which sounds like it combines the good qualities of both cotton and polyester. 

But, bamboo is subject to greenwashing because companies often cherry-pick its good qualities. These include that it grows super-fast and stores a large amount of carbon.

However, there are huge environmental issues with the manufacturing processes that transform the plant fibre into soft fabric, with some processes worse than others. 

Bamboo viscose is made through harsh chemical processes

But Modal and lyocell bamboo are better choices because they are made in a closed-loop process, which means the chemicals don’t get out into the environment.

In this guide, apart from the odd bamboo sock, only two companies, Bamboo Clothing (BAM) and Yogamatters (Gossypium) sell bamboo clothing. Bamboo Clothing does use some modal and lyocell. We couldn’t find information on what kind of bamboo Yogamatters uses but it mixes it with cotton and elastane.

To understand more about the different types of bamboo, read our separate feature on choosing sustainable fabrics.

What do Ethical Consumer readers wear for working out? 

In a non-representative survey, we asked our readers about their workout fabric choices.

Sports seem to be close to the hearts of our readership: in a matter of days we received over seven hundred responses! Thank you to everyone who responded.

The chart below shows that people who exercise strenuously seem to prefer synthetic clothing while natural fabrics have more appeal for those who exercise on moderate or low intensity levels.

‘Mixed’ fabrics are more or less equally spread across the different intensities.

Many of you said that your synthetic sportswear is very old but you will only change it to something more sustainable once it is unusable, for which we applaud you. One person said that they are “so old so I can't read the labels”.

Some of your comments alluded to broader tensions around synthetic vs animal-based fibres. 

Vegans, for example, will sometimes turn to synthetics for certain activities, as cotton cannot provide the thermal qualities of, say, wool. 

Another reader explained that they need to use synthetics because they “sweat like someone put the fire sprinklers on”, while several others referenced Britain’s capacity for rain affecting material choice. 

The most low-impact choice was probably from the reader who said "I tend to workout from home in my underwear".

Graphs of intensity of exercise low, medium and high, and percentage of what fabrics are worn. Information is in the text.
Graph showing what a sample of Ethical Consumer readers wear in terms of clothing materials for different levels of exercise intensity. Higher intensity tends to have more wearing of synthetic materials.

The carbon cost of sportswear

Large sportswear companies tally up millions of tonnes of CO2 through their operations every year. We expect them to at least explain how they have reduced the carbon impacts of their key materials and manufacturing in the past, as these make up the majority of companies’ emissions. We also rate them on their future plans.

In the table below we show the carbon cost of the three most used sportswear materials: polyester, nylon, and cotton.

Carbon emissions for different materials
Material kg CO2e /150gsm material
Polyester 6.4
Nylon 7.31
Conventional cotton 8.3

Source: CO2 Everything

The recycled versions of these fabrics however have smaller greenhouse gas emissions. Recycled cotton has 82% smaller CO₂e emissions per kilogram to that of conventional virgin cotton fibre. Recycled polyester reduces CO2 emissions by 32% while recycled nylon is thought to save about 50% of carbon emissions compared to the virgin fabrics.

Organic cotton is generally estimated to have about half the emissions of conventional cotton, although it does use more land. And 'Better Cotton Initiative' cotton, though slightly less good, was estimated by one study to reduce emissions by two-thirds as much as organic cotton.

The best way to cut emissions is buying secondhand, repairing and upcycling clothes and to buy clothes made from the more sustainable fabrics

How do sportswear brands rate for their climate policies and action?

Only seven brands got top marks (100 out of 100) for their policies on tackling climate change: BAM, Champion, Nike, North Face, Pangaia, Rapanui, and Shock Absorber bras.

At the other end of the scale, two companies – Amazon and ASDA – scored zero points in this category.

Amazon did not appear to have a target in line with international agreements. It stated its aim was to, "Achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2040—10 years ahead of the Paris Agreement". However, it did not specify % reductions in scope 1, 2, and 3. Its targets were not approved by the Science Based Targets initiative, and it was removed from the SBTi in 2023 for not meeting its criteria. And Amazon has been criticised for undercounting its carbon footprint. "Amazon takes responsibility for the full climate impact only of products with an Amazon brand label, which make up about 1% of its online sales." It added, "Under the [Greenhouse Gas] protocol, retail companies should be counting all the products they sell directly to consumers, said Alberto Carrillo Pineda, managing director of the Science Based Targets Initiative."

Similarly, ASDA did not appear to have a target in line with international agreements. ASDA made a commitment, in 2022, to establish a near-term science-based carbon reduction target, approved by the Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTi) which should be concluded in late 2023. This was not to our knowledge concluded, disclosed or approved by December 2023. ASDA was also criticised by the Environmental Investigation Agency for still using climate damaging HFC refrigerants in newly-installed air conditioning units.

Are animal products used in sportswear?

The times are long gone when football jerseys were all made of wool. The majority of sportswear is made of synthetic materials, and some of cotton. However, there are a lot of large companies in this guide that also sell trainers and walking boots made of leather, or outdoor wear made of wool or down. Read our outdoor clothing guide and trainers guides to learn more.

If you want to make sure that your purchase doesn’t contribute to the exploitation of animals, make sure that you shop with a company that scored well in this category. 

In the table below we’ve gathered all the companies that we recommend using if animal welfare is of utmost importance to you and note their policy on animal products. 

Use of animal products by different sportswear brands
Explicitly vegan No policy but doesn’t sell animal products Only sells insignificant amount of animal products (one or two products) Only sells second-hand animal products
Rapanui 3RD ROCK Lululemon Beyond Retro

Contra Oxfam Depop

Girlfriend collective Yogamatters Preloved Sports



We Are Tala




Our separate feature on animal products in clothing also has more information on how the animal fibres are obtained, the welfare issues involved, and if any welfare standards exist for different fibres like merino wool.

Man in turban and older woman exercising outdoors in park
Image from Centre for Ageing Better

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Are sweatshops still used in sportswear supply chains?

All large sportswear companies now have detailed supply chain policies and are going to great lengths, at least on the surface, to distance themselves from the sweatshop scandals of the 1990s-2010s. 

Whilst increased transparency and policy commitments are welcome – this is after all what Ethical Consumer has been advocating for since the 1980s – major questions remain around policy implementation and enforcement.

Adidas, for example, is hard to fault on its top-level commitments on forced labour and supply chain standards, but it continues to face allegations from NGOs and worker groups on issues ranging from modern slavery, unpaid overtime, union busting and wage theft.

Nike, too, excelled in some areas – we deemed that it had gone further than many of its competitors in working towards living wages in its supply chain. But, like Adidas, its suppliers have also faced accusations of wage theft and illegal severance compensation.

Rapanui, 3rd ROCK, and Bamboo Clothing (BAM) all stood out for their policies and practice and received 100 marks in our workers column. The secondhand brands Rokit and Preloved Sports also received our top rating. 

Can you buy ethical secondhand sportswear?

Yes, you can! In this guide we rated eight secondhand clothing companies that sell sportswear.

All secondhand companies in this guide are Best Buys, with one exception, Depop, which is owned by Etsy and scores much lower than the others.

Preloved Sports, as the name suggests, sells only sportswear and it is the top secondhand company in our guide due to it also being a non-profit. 

As well as dedicated secondhand retailers, in the last few years several large brands also launched their own resale marketplaces and secondhand schemes. These include for example Nike Refurbished and Decathlon Second Life. Both Nike and Decathlon scored very low due to their poor fabric choices, workers' rights issues in their supply chains, and lack of animal welfare policies.

While moves by all companies into reuse and repair should be applauded because they can make important contributions to rapid carbon reductions, it is felt that cashing in on the secondhand market, while doing little to address the scale of overall production and the model of disposable clothing, is not helping anyone. Our high street clothing guide talks in more detail about secondhand greenwashing.

Secondhand sportswear is readily available and, if you’re worried about other people sweating in it, here is what Preloved Sport’s founder, Michael Hill says: “it’s [secondhand sportswear] not as bad as you think. A small handful of the donations we receive do smell but once these have been washed (even on a 30-degree wash), they are usually fine”.

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 on upcycling, recycling and repairing clothes.

Three cyclists sitting together, two in adapted wheelchair bikes

How do sportswear brands rate for inclusivity?

Brands seem to have become more sensitive to inclusivity. Toned-up models are now mixed with ones that look more like real people of different shapes and sizes. God forbid, some companies have even started using models with grey hair!

When we looked at leggings for all brands to see which did sizes above UK women’s size 20, we noticed improvement on this front compared to when we last checked this in 2020. Compared to just a handful of companies, now at least half the companies in this guide go up to XXL (from XXS, small people matter too!).

Of the large companies Adidas, Nike and Slazenger go up to 4XL for both women's leggings and men's joggers, Decathlon has 4XL for women and 3XL for men, and USA Pro caters for women only, up to 4XL.

The two companies that stand out in this matter are the Girlfriend Collective and Contra. The first goes up to 6XL, featuring plus size models on its website. Contra’s largest size is 5XL (women and men) and it came up with an inclusive, anonymous labelling system from B to K. Although you still have to match the alphabetical labelling to your UK size, its innovation around inclusivity is admirable. 

Girlfriend Collective is a Best Buy while Contra is Recommended. Peak District based 3rd ROCK also deserves a mention on its efforts to make the outdoor and climbing community more diverse. It offers free coached climbing sessions to BAME participants as well as LGBTQIA+ climbers.

Is ethical sportswear more expensive?

Some people might automatically think ethical clothing will be more expensive, as it generally reflects the true cost of production. 

For this price comparison, we looked at leggings to see how various companies fare on this front. It was great to see that ethical companies are very competitively priced. In fact, the highest scoring brand, Rapanui's organic cotton leggings were the cheapest, apart from secondhand ones, at £20 for a pair.

Secondhand leggings can be picked up for as little as £2 or £4 from Preloved Sports or from any other secondhand companies. 

At the more expensive end, Lululemon 'wins' with its virgin nylon leggings that it's asking £148 for. 

The table is ranked from the least expensive starting price to the most expensive. 

Average price of pair of leggings by selection of sportswear brands
Brand Name Materials used Price range
Preloved Sports (secondhand) Varies by brand  £2-£7
‍Preworn (secondhand) Varies by brand  £4-£13
Rapanui Organic cotton, elastane £20
Girlfriend Collective Recycled polyester, elastane £20-£68
Puma Cotton or polyester, elastane £21- £65
Calvin Klein Nylon, elastane £22-£25
Gymshark Nylon, polyester, elastane £30-£50
‍USA Pro (Sports Direct) Nylon, elastane £34-£90
Nike Polyester or recycled polyester, nylon, elastane £38-£120
‍Lululemon (most expensive) Recycled polyester, nylon, wool, lyocell, elastane £64-£148
Sweaty Betty Polyamide, elastane £70 - £100
Pangaia Biobased polyamide, biobased elastane £85

(Prices as of March 2024) 

Luxury greenwash?

It's crucially important that we distinguish between ‘ethical’ and ‘luxury’ when it comes to activewear.

Expensive brands are increasingly presenting themselves as sustainable but, as with a lot of luxury fashion, this is often a matter of style over substance.

Take Lululemon, a Canadian-American multinational specialising in luxury yoga pants. Its branding oozes sustainability buzzwords – the company is apparently “on a journey to address social and environmental barriers to collective wellbeing” and strives to “create value in our communities through movement, mindfulness, and connection”.

We weren’t convinced how selling a pair of leggings for £148 achieves these lofty goals, especially when said leggings are made entirely from virgin plastic.

The company also received 0/100 for its approach to cotton sourcing. It did not appear to use any significant amount of organic or recycled cotton, and it is allegedly failing to remediate links to cotton sourced in Xinjiang, according to a Governing Forced Labour in Supply Chains report from 2022.

So, what exactly are you paying for? Their highest paid director’s $15.6 million 2022 pay cheque, perhaps?

Companies behind the brand:

Sweaty Betty is owned by leather giant Wolverine World Wide, Inc. A pioneer amongst its sister brands such as Merrel or Saucony, Sweaty Betty has its own impact report, and it calculated its greenhouse gas emissions for the first time in 2020. It also has emission reduction targets. While this was a good step in the right direction, its emissions reporting was unfortunately inadequate. It had poor workers policies, as well as a low tax conduct score. 

While it is very vocal about being “committed to using more recycled materials and sustainably sourced natural fibres”, it was criticised by the Center for Environmental Health that its sports bras contained “up to 40 times the safe limit of the chemical bisphenol A (BPA)” (according to California law).

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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Additional research by Ruairidh Fraser.

This guide appears in Ethical Consumer Magazine 208