2021 : An era full of dynamics rebuilding the sportswear industry towards eco-responsibility

September 2022

In March 2021, the journal Business of Fashion published its "sustainability index" built on more than 5000 specific data gathered from the 15 largest fashion groups. In the sportswear category, Nike is positioned as the leader in terms of sustainable impact, with an overall score of 47/100, offering the American giant the second position overall behind the Kering group and its score of 49/100. These results show that by 2021, momentum is building towards a sustainable sportswear industry. The giants are moving towards a new model and taking with them the smaller groups seeing an opportunity. However, the index also notes that even the greatest efforts and heavy investments of the sportswear leaders do not achieve an overall score above 80. The sportswear industry is now facing a new challenge to achieve sustainability, but nowadays, and especially since 2020, we see strong dynamics full of innovation and desire for change that INMOUV would like to highlight today!

Back to basics: why is sportswear so trendy but not sustainable?

The fashion industry in general is known for its unsustainable impact on the environment. After agriculture, fashion ranks as the second most polluting industry, accounting for 4% of greenhouse gas emissions in 2018 according to McKinsey's "Fashion on Climate" report! Unfortunately, the sportswear category is one of the most polluting. This exploding trend market will, according to forecasts, experience a meteoric growth that will not help reach the objectives of the Paris Agreements signed in 2015, which are essential to not exceed the increase in temperature on earth of 1.5 degrees compared to the pre-industrial era. For example, the activewear category alone is estimated at $355 billion in 2021 and will reach $440 billion in 6 years! In short, this would mean more consumers, more production, and of course, more greenhouse gas emissions.

Activewear market forecast - Statista / McKinsey "Fashion on climate" report, emission abatement scenarios

But why does sportswear have such a heavy impact on the environment?

The material is the easiest and fastest answer! The most used materials in this category are Cotton, Polyester, Spandex and Nylon. Cotton requires huge amounts of water to be usable (10,000 liters for 1 kilogram of cotton). Moreover, this resource is often exploited with pesticides destroying biodiversity and causing sanitary crises in the production regions such as Central Asia. Polyester, Spandex and Nylon are synthetic materials derived from petroleum, which as we know, cause carbon emissions and threaten biodiversity. These chemical innovations release microfibers that cannot be processed by recycling centers, and which end up in the oceans with heavy consequences on the marine environment.

Let's take the example of a pair of sneakers, the flagship product of sportswear:

Sneakers are mainly made from petroleum-derived products (polyester, thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU), polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA)), which are the most carbon-intensive materials in fashion today. Thus, the footwear market in 2020 was responsible for 1% of global carbon emissions, a significant figure when compared to the 2.5% of the aeronautics sector.

The main problem is that sneakers, and sportswear in general, require comfortable, breathable and light materials of which synthetic materials perfectly fulfill the specifications. Unfortunately, these materials cannot be fully recycled and are thrown back into the oceans as we explained earlier.

Ending the dependence on plastic and oil in the sportswear industry is the biggest challenge to achieving the goal of a sustainable industry that meets demand without involving massive carbon emissions that accelerate climate disruption. Today, 85% of sneakers are still incinerated in landfills, and the global market for eco-friendly sneakers (using recycled or responsible materials) represents only 10% of the sneaker market.

Nevertheless things are changing! In 2013, according to MIT, the eco-friendly sneaker market represented only 3% of the overall market, a gain in market share of one point per year. Major leaders such as Nike and Adidas took the first big step by investing in sustainable materials, and today, other players such as the French brand Veja, offer a wide range of sneakers designed from recycled, organic and ethically manufactured materials in Brazil. However, current technologies and recycling processes are not advanced enough to ensure that an eco-friendly pair of shoes is the final alternative. Still according to the American university, a pair of eco-friendly sneakers emits 50% less carbon than a classic pair. A result that is not optimal but whose decrease in carbon footprint needs to be highlighted.

'MIT Manufacturing-focused Emissions Reductions In Footwear Production' by Cheah et al. 2013

Despite the absence of the literal term, many of the market's leading brands are using outleisure codes in their recent collections. Our sportswear experts will explain the trends, materials and designs guiding these brands to dominate this fast-growing market during our outleisure showroom!

Despite structural challenges, we are witnessing an era where sportswear is investing time and resources to achieve sustainability goals.

Sustainability is no longer just a trend. Political, scientific and consumer pressure is making sportswear brands accountable for their actions and offerings. This market shift is accelerating R&D towards sustainable technologies, proving that there are solutions to achieve a sustainable sportswear industry, of which we are only seeing the beginnings today!

Adidas FUTURECRAFT movement: Bringing circularity to a mass market

In 2019, Adidas introduced the FUTURECRAFT.LOOP project, transforming the production model to achieve sustainable goals. The first shoe of the project called FUTURECRAFT.LOOP Shoe is designed from 100% recycled TPU from plastic waste dumped in the oceans. Moreover, the FUTURECAFT project shows itself as an impactful initiative for sportswear and its consumption patterns. The project aims to collect all used or unused Adidas shoes from customers in order to recycle their materials to produce a second generation of shoes that can be recycled.

Adidas' new project also fights waste through technology. The German company revealed their new FUTURECRAFT.STRUNG shoe, available in 2022, using a recyclable sole designed by 4D printers. The shoe uses only one material and the entire upper is woven with 1,000 threads each with a function intended for performance. Adidas' goal is to achieve products with low material waste, limiting the use of chemical processes, while ensuring optimal performance.

FUTURECRAFT program process from generation 1 to 2 shoes

Adidas Strung shoe available for 2022

Lifa infinity pro from Helly Hansen: A textile revolution for the outdoor market

The Norwegian brand has taken innovation to the next level for the winter category with a new fabric available this year. The Lifa Infinity Pro technology responds to a major challenge in the chemical processes required to achieve waterproofing of outdoor textile products. This new fabric blocks water without the use of Perfluorinated Carbon or Hydrocarbons (highly polluting chemicals) in the design. The fabric also prevents moisture naturally, unlike polyester which requires chemical steps to counteract this effect. Best of all, the fabric is solution dyed, a process that does not require the dizzying amounts of water required to dye garments. High quality and durability are achievable goals, and HH proves it without a doubt!

Helly Hansen Lifa Infinity Pro tech

2021 is also a key year in changing consumer and producer behavior, accelerating the transition to sustainable sportswear:

2020 was a year full of challenges that will surely appear in our next history books! In addition to the global pandemic, social movements such as "Black Lives Matter" having spread to the 4 corners of the globe after the assassination of George Floyd, then the revelation by NGOs and journalists of the persecution of the Uighur people in China, but also the "Stop Asian Hate" movement that went viral this March on the networks, are just a few examples showing how consumers are using digital platforms to convey strong messages, expecting brands to support these movements and use their voice to create change.

Today, Sportswear brands are at the forefront of advocating movements and sustainability. Generations Z and Y (born between 1990 and 2010 approximately) are the most sensitive targets for social progress, using social networks to share information. Not to mention that it is also the most massive group of sportswear consumers! For example, in 2020, the European parliamentarian Raphael Glucksmann targeted 83 brands producing their clothes in Xinjiang, involving a protest movement on Instagram of "blue squares" shared in part by young consumers defending a boycott of certain brands such as Nike or Zara if they did not change their production sites.

So, 2021 is a special year where we witness ethical and eco-responsible actions driven by consumers and not judicial or political bodies forcing brands to change! This March, H&M and Nike made the courageous choice to write a statement explaining their concerns about the humanitarian crisis in Xinjiang and pledged to stop sourcing products from the region. These actions have negatively impacted brand sales, with Alibaba pulling H&M products, contract freezes from major Chinese muses, as well as disgruntled messages from consumers on social media, burning Nike pairs in livestreaming for example. This initiative shows that we are in a new era where big brands are willing to lose massive revenues due to pressure from young consumers wanting strong ethical actions from their favorite brands.

Statement of Nike on Xinjiang / Nike shoe burned by a Chinese citizen in March 2021

BLM demonstration in Washington DC

These big changes are spurring the emergence of sustainable sportswear startups, gaining traction in the industry:

Outdoor Voices

Outdoor Voices is a perfect example of a brand that grasped the need for a transition in fashion long before the competition in 2013. The brand, which was only worth $7.5 million in 2014 and now reaches $100 million, has vowed to achieve specific sustainable goals. For fabrics, all materials are designed to last and are sourced from recycled and ethically sourced synthetics and some labeled "Bluesign."

Not only are the fabrics eco-designed, but so are the packaging and internal brand operations. The group aims to launch a "Recover and Repair" program, a rate of 50% of fabrics labeled Bluesign, the construction of new stores from ecological materials, and collaboration with NGOs such as WWF or CHOOSE to raise funds invested in education for sustainable development.

Outdoor Voices Campaign

OV x Rachel Kaitlyn Johnson Sourcing Report


On a smaller scale, the young French startup that launched their venture in 2019, created their brand based 100% on an eco-responsible model, after reaching 300% of their crowdfunding goal via the Ulule platform. Their products travel an average of 4,500 km to reach the end customer (compared to an average of 45,000 km for a classic garment). The brand obviously focuses on ethical and sustainable clothing (with 10 certifications including the Bluesign label, the EU Ecolabel). In addition, Circles optimizes its designs to avoid wasting material during factory production.

The brand offers a bike delivery service in Paris and aims to expand the initiative in some major French cities. A "recovery and repair" system is being developed, proving that you don't have to be a billionaire giant like Adidas to provide a circularity program! This dynamic on the part of the French start-up is an example of the evolution of the market and its ability to rebuild its business models on sustainable pillars that attract consumers ready to finance these projects via crowdfunding platforms.


But let's not forget that the global adaptation of our generation to the pandemic has allowed the arrival of new tools that have favored the acceleration of ethical and less polluting consumption patterns.

The pandemic has catalyzed the growth of the second hand market and particularly in the sportswear sector! In the fashion sector, the second hand market has exploded for several reasons (digitalization, consumer awareness, the rise of second hand products in the streetwear and sneaker sector or the decrease in household fashion spending budgets). The ultimate example of this growth is the revaluation of the French luxury unicorn, Vestiaire Collective, at $1 billion in March, of which 5% of the shares belong to the giant Kering.

Indeed, the pandemic has accelerated the trend not only in luxury but also in sportswear! Consumers' physical exercise time has increased and young and old targets have become familiar with e-commerce tools, explaining an increase in demand for sportswear and e-shopping.

American second hand giant Thred up has doubled its sales from retail products and expects a 415% increase in retail sales on their online platform in the coming years. Thus, sportswear brands have a new market within their reach that would allow them to reduce inventory, increase sales and improve brand exposure through internal or external second-hand platforms.

In 2020 the outerwear category was the second largest category in terms of sales on Thred up, showing the opportunity that sportswear brands have to sell on these second hand platforms. Not to mention the rise of second hand consumption from generations Y and Z, a crucial target for sportswear players.

Thred Up 2020 Annual Sales Report

2021 is definitely a pivotal year for the sustainable sportswear industry. Sustainability in this sector is coming of age, illustrated by the massive investment of resources and time by many brands. Innovation is blossoming both from brands at the top, and from small (but ambitious) start-ups building new business models. Despite the various structural challenges that the fashion industry has, we are currently entering a new decade where consumers are highly sensitive and demanding in terms of sustainability and ethics. On the one hand, greenwashing strategies are limited and weakened by young consumers with strong expectations of action, and on the other hand, by innovative brands proving that it is possible to improve the industry today through innovation and a grain of courage!

Nicolas Boye
Assistant business developer

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