Here to spruce up your wardrobe with some leggings? Or perhaps you already own a closet full of leggings and are here to explore the sustainability of your favorite piece of clothing. Or maybe you are here because you are curious as to what all the fuss is about. No matter the reason, you have come to the right place. Don't worry, you are safe here, amongst other lovers of leggings.
Vera Wang once said that a woman is never sexier than when she is comfortable in her clothes, and leggings are the embodiment of this. Not only are they the ultimate comfort wear, but they also come in every color under the sun. Be it lounging around on the sofa with a book, or meeting a friend for coffee, or dragging yourself reluctantly to your fitness classes while chanting the benefits of it like a mantra, you can never go wrong with leggings.
- What Are The Fabrics Used To Make Leggings?
- Cotton Leggings
- Organic Cotton Leggings: Why Are They Better?
- Polyester Leggings
- Are Polyester Leggings Sustainable?
- Recycled Polyester Leggings
- Nylon Leggings
- Are Nylon Leggings Sustainable?
- Recycled Nylon Leggings
- Cotton vs Polyester Leggings
- Nylon vs Polyester Leggings
- Sustainable Leggings Brands
- People Tree
- Rose Buddha
- Indigo Luna
- Groceries Apparel
- Girlfriend Collective
What Are The Fabrics Used To Make Leggings?
Being one of the most versatile pieces of clothing, leggings come in all sizes.. and fabrics. If you have ever sweated through your polyester clothes on a particularly sunny day, you know how important it is to choose fabrics that are suitable to your needs. But before we dive into the world of fabrics, here is a little fun fact for you. The first leggings ever documented were from 14th century Scotland, and they're actually worn by men. They consisted of two separate boot-like apparatus of hip-length, and were fashioned out of leather - and you’ll never guess it - chainmail! Although leather leggings are still around, chainmail has, thankfully, gone out of fashion.
Today, in the 21st century, leggings are primarily made out of three types of fabric - cotton, polyester, and nylon. Let us take a look at the properties of these fabrics, and explore how sustainable they are.
Cotton has been around since the time of ancient civilizations. As one of the softest fabrics, cotton is extremely comfortable. It is harvested from plants grown annually, which makes it a natural fiber. Cotton fibers are good dye absorbents and retain the colors well, which makes it a favorite among leggings manufacturers as they can be easily dyed into a myriad of colors. It is soft and breathable and is capable of absorbing water up to 27 times its own weight. Its properties and versatility make it an extremely desirable fabric.
If you are looking for comfort wear, cotton leggings are your friend. They feel very pleasant on your skin, especially when they are fresh out of the laundry. So it can feel like a warm hug, making them the perfect loungewear! So grab that hot drink, put on your cotton leggings, and enjoy a cozy day in.
When it comes to sustainability, however, cotton leggings have many drawbacks. Being a natural and biodegradable fiber, surely they are sustainable? The answer is, unfortunately, no. Leggings are usually made using conventional cotton which is one of the most chemically intensive crops and is harmful to the environment.
Organic Cotton Leggings: Why Are They Better?
Nearly 34% of all textile products are made out of cotton, and this fiber utilizes more than 10% of pesticides, and nearly 16% of insecticides globally, many of which are known human carcinogens. It is also a very water-intensive crop and degrades the land and soils on which it is grown, thereby also causing harm to biodiversity, so it ranks low on the sustainability meter.
An alternative to this is organic cotton, which is grown using beneficial insects. Compared to conventional cotton, it is grown in regions with sufficient rainfall, so it requires much less irrigation, which helps in reducing water scarcity. It also cuts down carbon emissions, so it is a better alternative than conventional cotton.
However, before they can hit the stores, organic cotton leggings need to be ‘cleaned’ - a process that usually involves desizing, scouring, and bleaching - and dyed. Toxic chemicals are often used in these processes, so it is best to make sure that your organic cotton leggings are either GOTS, OCS, or OEKO-TEX certified. These certifications make sure that the fabric is free from hazardous chemicals, made using ethical practices, and is safe to wear.
Polyester is a synthetic fabric derived from a chemical reaction between petroleum, air, and water. The most common form of polyester is polyethylene terephthalate (PET). You must have come across this word on plastic bottles. You can probably make the connection here, which is that polyester is basically a plastic fiber. As the NSI so eloquently put it, when you wear polyester, you are wearing plastic.
Polyester is one of the fabrics that is widely used in the manufacture of leggings. Compared to natural fibers, polyester is inexpensive. It is a strong fabric and does not wrinkle. Polyester is resistant to shrinking as well, so it won’t go out of shape, unlike cotton. It also has great color retention. It doesn’t absorb moisture, which means it is a sweat-wicking fabric and also will dry quickly after washing. It is also stain and abrasion-resistant, so polyester leggings are a great fit for outdoor applications.
If you are looking for activewear leggings that will last for a long time, polyester leggings are the way to go. They also add style to your outfit, which certainly can’t hurt! So go, put on a pair of polyester leggings, and work out in style.
However, polyester leggings are also not very breathable, so they have the tendency to trap heat and moisture. So, the weather also plays a role in choosing which pair of leggings to wear. Moreover, the fabric offers a very nice climate for bacteria to thrive, which can cause bad odor. Like any sane person, if you want to avoid your leggings becoming smelly, it might be best to look for ones that have an antimicrobial treatment.
Are Polyester Leggings Sustainable?
Since polyester is derived from petroleum products, which are non-renewable resources, it is not sustainable. It is estimated that, at the current rate of consumption, fossil fuel resources will run out within 50-100 years.
Polyester is non-biodegradable, which means that generations of humans will come and go, but polyester will sit in landfills for hundreds of years before it is broken down into tinier pieces of microplastics. It also sheds microfibres, which means that, during washing, some of the tiny damaged threads get separated from the cloth, and land directly into the sea in the form of microplastics, where they cause harm to aquatic life. It is said that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. If this isn’t enough to scare you, in 2020, microplastics were reported to have been found in the fetuses of unborn babies.
In 2015, polyester was responsible for 706 billion kg of CO2 emissions. Since it is a synthetic fabric that does not rely on the availability of land, climate, and natural resources, it can be manufactured by the tons easily in factories.
Recycled Polyester Leggings
Okay, so you care about the environment, but you also really need those polyester leggings that make your legs look great at the gym. Is there a way you can have the best of both worlds?
Thanks to these wonderful companies called Polartec and Patagonia, we now have this thing called recycled polyester. And today (well, in 2019 actually), the share of recycled polyester has gone up to 14%.
Recycled polyester, also known as rPET, is basically fabric that is made by recycling old used plastic bottles. Five soda bottles have just enough plastic to create one large t-shirt. The pros of rPET is that it gives a second life to plastic bottles that would otherwise just have gone into a landfill. Moreover, it is just as good as virgin polyester when it comes to quality. The best part is that you can get the same quality, but with the usage of fewer resources. rPET causes 32% less CO2 emissions than virgin polyester, and the energy required to manufacture it is also 59% less.
So, the good news is that lots of brands provide recycled polyester leggings, so you can have the best of both worlds. The bad news is that polyester cannot be recycled infinitely without leading to a decline in quality, so although recycled polyester can be further recycled, it will eventually need to be disposed of in a landfill.
Note: A large portion of leggings usually contain spandex (also known as elastane, or lycra) to improve elasticity, durability, and stretchability of the fabric, making it a favorite in the manufacture of activewear. Spandex has a similar environmental impact as that of polyester and nylon. Since, in leggings, it is blended with other fabrics, it is almost impossible to recycle.
Nylon is an entirely synthetic fabric that was propelled to fame during World War II. Much like polyester, nylon is also a plastic fiber derived from fossil fuels. Globally, the share of nylon in fabric production is very little - around 5%. But it is one of the most versatile fabrics ever made, and commonly finds its use in yoga pants and leggings.
Known for their elasticity and lightness, nylon leggings are the best choice for athleisure. They usually stand the test of time, which means you can use them for a long time. Nylon is also stain-resistant and is easy to clean. Nylon leggings are very form-fitting, so if you are looking for something that will show off your curves, these are your best bet! The soft fabric also makes it more comfortable for outdoor usage. Although nylon is a sweat-wicking fabric, it does tend to absorb some moisture. When saturated, the breathability of the fabric also reduces, making them unsuitable for very intensive workouts. Nylon also has the tendency to shrink sometimes, so care must be taken while washing your nylon leggings.
Are Nylon Leggings Sustainable?
Nylon is derived from non-renewable fossil fuels, and the manufacturing process for this fabric is very energy-intensive, making it non-sustainable. In fact, it requires 2x more energy than polyester, so we can safely say that nylon emits more CO2 than polyester. The production of nylon generates a lot of waste, and nylon fabric fibers also require a lot of water to cool down. Nylon fabric contains adipic acid as one of the main components, the manufacture of which releases nitrous oxide into the atmosphere. If you thought the emission of CO2 was bad, nitrous oxide is said to be a whopping 300 times worse for the environment. Like polyester, nylon is also non-biodegradable, and sheds microfibers when washed, making up 10% of the total waste dumped into the ocean.
Recycled Nylon Leggings
Nylon can be recycled and is typically done by using pre-consumer fabric waste or post-consumer waste such as used fishing nets. It has the same benefits as that of recycling polyester - a lesser environmental impact than that of virgin nylon.
Nylon is, however, harder and more expensive to recycle than polyester. We still have a long way to go when it comes to recycling.
Italian firm Aquafil, however, is making some strides by recycling old fishing nets into fabrics, which can then be used to make clothes including leggings. These fabrics are known as ECONYL. Another alternative is bio-based polyamides, which are nylon fabrics derived from 100% renewable materials such as fats and oils.
Cotton vs Polyester Leggings
Cotton and polyester leggings are fundamentally different, especially when it comes to personal comfort and performance. As much as we love cotton's soft and cool touch to our skin, we all know how heavy, wet, and honestly useless it can get when we are drenched in sweat. On the other hand, polyester may not be something that your body is naturally attracted to, but nothing beats it when you start pushing the limits.
|Origin||Natural (Plant)||Synthetic (Plastic)|
|Best for||Loungewear, everyday outfit, low-intensity workouts||Activewear, intense workouts, yoga, outdoor|
|Durability||Medium-strong, doesn't stretch, may shrink up to 20%||Strong, abrasion-resistant, doesn't stretch or shrink|
|Comfort||Soft, cozy, breathable||Light-weight, skin-tight|
|Aesthetics||Versatile, colors tend to fade faster||Slick, great color retention|
|Sweat & Heat Management||Keeps you cool, but is highly water absorbent, so it is not moisture-wicking||Doesn't absorb water, but low-quality fabrics may trap heat and sweat|
|Maintenance||Takes longer to dry, wrinkles, washing below 30°C||Very quick-drying, stain resistance, doesn't wrinkle|
|Environmental Impact||Biodegradable, water-intensive, affects the biodiversity and causes land degradation||Non-biodegradable, made of non-renewable fossil fuels (petroleum), high energy demand, high CO₂-eq emissions|
|Eco-friendly Options||Organic Cotton, Recycled Cotton||Recycled Polyester|
|Certifications||GOTS, OEKO-TEX®, OCS||OEKO-TEX®, Bluesign, GRS|
Nylon vs Polyester Leggings
You have probably noticed that nylon and polyester leggings are both widely popular for most athletic endeavors, but you may be wondering which material is better for you? In reality, the two fabrics can be often used interchangeably at the gym, your yoga class, and any other high-intensity activity. However, keep in mind that leggings can look, feel, and behave very differently depending on how much spandex they contain, their yarn density, weaving/knitting pattern, and finishing. The difference between nylon and polyester is subtle so the quality of the fabric is what usually matters the most.
|Origin||Synthetic (Plastic)||Synthetic (Plastic)|
|Best for||Athleisure, intense workouts, yoga, outdoor (cold weather)||Activewear, intense workouts, yoga, outdoor|
|Durability||Very strong, abrasion-resistant, may stretch or shrink||Strong, abrasion-resistant, doesn't stretch or shrink|
|Comfort||Soft, light-weight, elastic, warm, skin-hugging||Light-weight, skin-tight|
|Aesthetics||Form-fitting, lustrous, colors tend to fade faster||Slick, great color retention|
|Sweat & Heat Management||Low water absorption, but low-quality fabrics may trap heat and sweat||Doesn't absorb water, but low-quality fabrics may trap heat and sweat|
|Maintenance||Quick-drying, doesn't wrinkle, cannot be dry cleaned||Very quick-drying, stain resistance, doesn't wrinkle|
|Environmental Impact||Non-biodegradable, made of non-renewable fossil fuels (petroleum), very high energy demand (x2), very high CO₂-eq emissions||Non-biodegradable, made of non-renewable fossil fuels (petroleum), high energy demand, high CO₂-eq emissions|
|Eco-friendly Options||Bio-based Nylon, Recycled Nylon (ECONYL®, Q-NOVA)||Recycled Polyester (REPREVE)|
|Certifications||OEKO-TEX®, Bluesign, GRS||OEKO-TEX®, Bluesign, GRS|
Sustainable Leggings Brands
We have put together an epic list of brands that we think are genuine so that you can shop sustainable and shop stylish.
Fabrics: Organic Cotton
Certified: GOTS, Fair Trade
Sizes: XS - XXL
PACT is a brand that not only creates organic leggings but also goes one step further for the environment. With each delivery, they calculate the carbon footprint and offset it. Their leggings come in cool prints. And the best part? They have pockets so that you can strut around in style! They also offer a range of maternity leggings for all moms-to-be.
From: London, UK/ Tokyo, Japan
Fabrics: 100% Organic Cotton
Certified: GOTS, Fair Trade, PETA Vegan
Sizes: XS - XXL
As the first fashion brand to be awarded the WTFO (World Fair Trade Product Organization) label, People Tree is really committed to sustainability, with an aspiration to only use natural and closed-loop fibers. They have a range of yoga pants, which they claim are so comfortable that you’ll never want to take them off.
Fabrics: Recycled Polyester
Certified: OEKO-TEX 100
Sizes: XXS - XXL
Handmade in Canada, their yoga pants are made from recycled plastic bottles and dyed using non-toxic dyes. They are committed to reducing as much waste as possible. Their leggings are soft, breathable, and light, and come in cool designs. Perfect for that downward dog pose during yoga, and for a casual trip to the grocery store.
Fabrics: Organic Cotton, Recycled Nylon using ECONYL and REPREVE
Certified: GOTS, OEKO-TEX 100
Sizes: XXS - 3XL
Indigo Luna has a range of leggings in soft pastel colors that radiate calm. Their products are handmade in a small factory in Indonesia that is entirely run by women, quite unusual in that country. They pay an above-minimum wage, dye their products by hand with locally-sourced natural dyes, and also use eco-friendly packaging. Their leggings are also size-inclusive. Perfect for activewear and yoga.
From: Los Angeles, USA
Fabrics: Organic Cotton, Recycled Polyester
Sizes: XS - XL
This brand sells leggings in a variety of fantastic colors. All of them are hand-dyed locally using vegetable dyes! They manufacture their products locally to reduce their carbon footprint. Their whole process from start to finish is very ethical. Their activewear leggings are breathable and designed for workouts.
From: Seattle, USA
Fabrics: Recycled Polyester, Recycled Nylon using ECONYL
Certified: OEKO-TEX, Bluesign
Sizes: XXS - 6XL
A true size-inclusive brand, they sell amazing leggings made from recycled plastic bottles and fishing nets. They use eco-friendly dyes and clean the wastewater before releasing it. Their leggings are so soft that you can even sleep in them!
Fabrics: Recycled Polyester
Sizes: XS - 5XL
If you like to wear funky patterns when you work out, don’t worry. Day/Won has a range of them, and they are size-inclusive! They are super soft and stretchy, and their fabric feels like silk to the touch. Their fabrics are also antimicrobial. All of their patterns are digitally structured to reduce the use of water-based dyes.
Fabrics: Bio-based Nylon
Sizes: XS - M
Pangaia's activewear leggings are made out of bio-based nylons, which means they use 100% renewable raw materials such as seaweed and eucalyptus. Their products are completely eco-friendly and manufactured locally in Europe to save resources.
Fabrics: Bio-based Recycled Nylon (Q-Nova), Recycled Polyester
Sizes: XS - M
Yet another brand that makes leggings using bio-based nylon. They aspire to become completely carbon neutral by 2030. All their stores and headquarters use renewable energy. Their fabrics are breathable, soft, and light. They hug your body, so you can show off your curves while you do yoga.
Leggings are one of the best pieces of clothing ever made. They feel like hugs in the form of pants. So don’t listen to the nay-sayers out there, and rock your leggings!