A wise woman (i.e. random Instagram post) once said, “If leggings are wrong, I don’t want to be right.” And it just so happened that at that exact moment I found my new life motto.
On average, I would say that I wear leggings 8 out of the 7 days of the week. So it’s safe to say they are 100% a wardrobe staple for me. They can be worn as a base layer when it’s cold; I usually wear a pair when I’m working out; they’re good for lounging about the house; and, thanks to the athleisure trend, I can now confidently wear them out of the house and still be considered fashionable.
And because leggings are a regular in the rotation that is my closet, it’s also safe to say that the pairs I have are starting to get a little worn out. The majority of them are actually years old (like, years and years and years), because finding a really good pair of leggings, well, let’s just say the struggle is real.
Sizing is inconsistent. Finding a flattering (or as flattering as a pair of leggings can be) fit is tough. They often don’t retain their shape. And finding a pair that isn’t see through may present one of the biggest challenges of them all.
That struggle gets even more real when you’re looking for sustainable and responsible options. Because, let me tell you, that the $5 pair of leggings from H&M, isn’t going to cut it.
Let’s first start with the glaringly obvious issue with cheap leggings. If you’re paying $5, $10, $15 for a pair of leggings, you can bet your bottom dollar that the person who made those leggings probably did not receive a fair wage and almost certainly wasn’t working in the best of factory conditions.
Second, because they are so cheap, you can also put money on the fact that they probably aren’t going to last you very long. Once upon a time before I started on this little journey to become a better consumer, I bought a pair of those $5 leggings from H&M. And they lasted exactly one wash before the seams started to fall apart and the fabric started to wear through. Hello disposable clothing — going darn near directly from the store to the landfill.
Third, most leggings are made from either one or a combination of multiple synthetic materials. A large majority of leggings are made using nylon. Nylon is a synthetic man-made fiber, or thermoplastic, derived from petrochemicals (yay, oil!). Nylon production creates nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that is a hefty contributor to climate change. The process is also very energy and water intensive and because nylon is not suited to natural dyes, dyeing the fabric is a significant contributor to water pollution.
And while the fabric is extremely versatile, it is also extremely non-biodegradable. Even worse, new research shows that nylon is one of the biggest culprits of breaking down into tiny plastic threads called “microfibers” when they go through the washing machine. These microfibers break off into the water inside the washing machine, are then flushed into wastewater treatment plants and are then released into bodies of water where they are consumed by fish and other marine life. Sounds nice, right?
Another big contender in the world of leggings, especially cheaper versions, is polyester. Polyester is another synthetic beaut made from petrochemicals. So, not only does it require lots of petroleum to produce (some say nearly 70 billion barrels of oil are used every year to produce polyester), it also requires lots of energy and heat to power the process. The production of polyester uses harmful chemicals, including carcinogens, that can cause significant environmental damage if emitted to the water or air. And, just like its friend nylon, polyester is non-biodegradable and breaks down into the same microplastic threads released into our waterways.
Last, but not least is spandex (or elastane or lycra). Spandex is another synthetic polymer fabric that gives those leggings their stretch (hello comfort). Similar to the synthetic fabrics above, the process to make spandex takes raw material, toxic chemicals and a good chunk of energy, and is also non-biodegradable.
So with all of that, what is a legging loving lady to do? Well, there are a few things you can do and fabrics to look for as you’re shopping for your favorite new pair:
- Best option is to go for naturally occurring fabrics:
- Many companies make 100% cotton workout/lounge clothing (just look for fair trade and organic).
- Wool is also a great option, as one of the absolute best performance fibers — it is renewable, comfortable, regulates body temperature, is naturally odor resistant and insulates when wet (look for chlorine-free wool from humanely treated animals from sustainable farms).
- Bamboo is hardy, highly renewable and generally grown with few chemical inputs. It also has natural antibacterial properties, breaths and is said to be odor resistant. However the downfall of bamboo is that toxic chemicals are often used to turn the plant into fabric.
- Look for companies using recycled nylon like Econyl, which is a certified recycled nylon textile made from discarded fishing lines and other post-consumer waste that has been collected from the oceans. The good thing is that it is recycling some of that pollution and allows for the same functionality of nylon. The bad thing is that it’s still a form of nylon and the recycling process is actually quite energy intensive, uses harmful chemicals and releases greenhouse gases, and the fabric still sheds microfibers when washed.
- Similarly, look for recycled polyester. Repreve is turning recycled plastic bottles into clothing that is commonly used in sportswear and men’s swimwear. There are also companies like Eco Intelligent Polyester that are recycling old polyester to create new polyester. So while both great options, they still have similar downfalls to recycled nylon.
- Spandex is kind of a necessity when it comes to leggings, but you can find options that have a lower spandex content, preferably blended with above organic fabrics.
- If you already own leggings made with synthetic fibers? You can wash them in filter bags to trap the microfibers before they get into the water.
And you better believe I’ve found us some options — check out some of my faves below.
I just received my pair of Girlfriend leggings last week, and they have quickly become a favorite. These puppies are made with recycled water bottles (the company diverted 6 million post-consumer plastic water bottles from landfill with their initial orders) and fabrics certified by Oeko-Tex, Global Recycling Standards and Bluesign (79% recycled poly, 21% recycled spandex). They use fair trade practices, producing all of their leggings at their SA8000 (a social accountability standard and certificate created to protect workers worldwide by ensuring zero forced or child labor and providing living wages and safe conditions) facility in Vietnam.
And the leggings themselves are bomb dot com. The fabric feels super silky soft. They are shaping, and yet ridiculously comfortable. The fabric is quick drying and moisture-wicking. It keeps you warm when it’s cold, cool when it’s hot. And with a silhouette that is simple, polished, slimming and flattering, these are appropriate for working out or wandering the streets.
Girlfriend Collective lured customers in (including myself, obvi) by letting them fall in love with their leggings for just the cost of shipping ($19.95) last year. And while the promotion has since ended, the brand will be launching their full collection sometime this spring.
Certified B-Corp, PACT Apparel makes ethical and sustainable organic cotton basics for a reasonable price. These staple leggings from PACT are made with organic cotton (92% organic cotton, 8% elastane) and are certified Fair Trade. They have a comfortable rise that fits at the waist and are made with super cozy cotton that is never see-through.
YOGiiZA creates leggings that are silky soft, breathable and free of bad Karma. Count. Me. In. The company uses Organic Pima Cotton (90% organic pima cotton, 10% lycra), no chemical pesticides and zero chemical herbicides to make their leggings. They also use Fair Trade labor.
Alternative Apparel is a “fabric first” company, with over 70% of it’s clothing made from sustainable materials. They produce their clothing in factories in Guatemala and the Dominican Republic that adhere to the stringent Fair Labor Association (FLA) Workplace Code of Conduct, and are committed to using non-toxic, low-impact dyes and keeping toxic substances off the production line. Their leggings are made from spandex jersey (47% cotton, 47% modal, 6% spandex) and have a flattering fit with a banded high-waist and contouring, making them perfect for any outing.
People Tree is recognized by customers and the fashion industry as a pioneer in ethical and environmentally sustainable fashion. For over 25 years they have partnered with Fair Trade producers, garment workers, artisans and farmers in the developed world to produce ethical and eco fashion collections, and these leggings are no different. These black leggings are made from organic cotton (95% organic Fairtrade certified cotton, 5% elastane), are soft stretchy, and added bonus they’re a People Tree customer favorite.
Groceries Apparel prides themselves on localized manufacturing (and good-paying jobs), and tracing their fabrics (they use only 100% recycled or organic, 100% GMO-free, pesticide and herbicide-free) from farm through the supply chain to guarantee you never have to compromise. These LA made leggings are made with thick organic stretch cotton (87% organic cotton, 13% spandex) with a high rise, and a seam down the front and back of each leg, making for a more formal look that can take you from day-to-night-to-yoga or just from bed-to-couch — your call.
Okay, so these are technically leggings, but if you need to look the part of an adult, they allow you to do so while still feeling like a legging. The perfect skinny pant in a mid-weight ponte knit (69% viscose, 26% polyamid, 5% elastane) offers comfortable stretch, while the side zipper and elastic waistband add an extra slimming effect.
What is your favorite pair of leggings? Do you struggle finding them from ethical companies?