The Best Sustainable Leggings
Whether you wear them out of necessity or enjoy styling outfits around them, leggings have become an essential staple in many of our wardrobes. These form-fitting bottoms are often debated in regard to their place in the fashion world or whether they’re appropriate to be worn on their own. But regardless of your stance on leggings, they’ve become a foundational item that can be used as a base layer, for exercising or just to chill out in.
The history of leggings dates back to 14th century Scotland when they were originally worn by men for both casual and military dress. They came in two pieces, one for each leg, and were secured at the waist, and at this time they would have been made from leather or chainmail. Up until the 19th century it was only men who wore these two-piece leggings. Fast forward to the 1950s and ’60s and leggings were now being created for fashion rather than just underwear, and experimentation with new materials brought about the lycra leggings in 1959.
In the 60s, leggings were being worn by women for exercising and to form outfits, often styled with miniskirts, platform heels, or shift dresses. Through the 70s, 80s and 90s leggings have kept up with the changing fashion, adapting to the shifts in the popular silhouettes, materials and fabrics used throughout each decade.
Increasingly we have seen workout leggings being designed to take us ‘from the gym to coffee dates’ and, post-pandemic, it’s possible that the comfy, easy to wear nature of leggings have made them the go-to choice of bottoms as ‘comfort dressing’ takes the reins for 2022 and beyond. Fashion Psychologist, Shakaila Forbes-Bell, says “The need to not only be physically comfortable but psychologically comfortable in what we wear will likely remain as people have come to realize that clothing can be used as a tool to aid cognitive processing and general wellbeing.”
With the rise of the athleisure wear trend showing no signs of slowing down, leggings seem to have secured a place in the fashion world’s heart for good.
What can make your leggings unsustainable?
As leggings grew in popularity from the 60s onwards, so did the demand for clothing overall. Globally, we now consume about 80 billion new pieces of clothing every year, approximately 400% more than the amount we consumed just two decades ago. As clothing has increasingly been made from poorer quality materials and at a much faster pace, these products are not lasting as long as they used to, and underwear and ‘basics’ are a large part of that problem. We are now discarding clothes at a shocking pace. The average American now generates 82 pounds of textile waste each year. That adds up to more than 11 million tons of textile waste from the U.S. alone.
Leggings are often one of the items of clothing consumers dispose of more frequently. Whether it’s due to ripped seams, fading of the material, or loss of stretchiness, leggings can lose their luster fairly quickly. Without easy access to local recycling schemes, many consumers choose to throw their old leggings directly in the trash, which is then sent to landfill or incinerated.
The most commonly used materials for leggings are polyester, nylon, spandex, and non-organic cotton. For leather leggings, cow’s leather or faux leather is used, often with a synthetic lining. With the exception of cotton, all these materials can take anywhere from 40-200 years to decompose in landfills. As they decompose, these materials release toxic chemicals into the ground polluting the waterways and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
What eco-friendly fabrics should you look for in leggings?
One way to make sure the leggings you buy are more sustainable is to look for certain materials that are more sustainably produced than the ones mentioned previously. For a material to be classed as ‘sustainable’ (or at least more sustainable), it can depend on a number of different factors. For example, if a material can be produced using much less water or energy, or if it is made using no toxic chemicals.
Generally speaking, natural organic fibers and recycled materials are the more sustainable choices when selecting leggings. Natural fibers often found in sustainable leggings can include organic cotton, bamboo (including bamboo rayon or bamboo viscose), and Tencel. The recycled materials used for leggings can be recycled nylon, polyester, rayon, or spandex. You may also see recycled elastane featured in some leggings; this is the material that gives leggings their stretch.
If you choose leggings made with recycled synthetic fibers, just be aware that these do still shed microplastics, so best to wash them using a Guppyfriend or Cora Ball to catch the fibers. You can read more on how to reduce microplastics in your laundry here.
Now, our top picks for comfy, sustainable leggings:
Materials: organic cotton, spandex
Maggie’s Organics have created the perfect Base Layer leggings, made with super soft and stretchy fabric designed to move with you. Maggie’s Organics products are made by union workers in their factory in India and they believe in real Fair Trade, from farm to finish. Choose from black or grey and enjoy easy layering and comfy hangouts.Shop Organic Cotton Base Layer Leggings
Price: $30 (currently on sale, down from $35)
Materials: organic cotton, elastane
The Go-To leggings from Pact are made with no toxic chemicals and organic cotton, resulting in soft, breathable fabric that’s not too thin.
They come in black, charcoal, pink, and 2 prints, and offer compression, curvature and all-day comfort – what else could you need!
Pact clothing is made in a GOTS certified and Fair Trade factory based in India.Shop Go-To Legging
Materials: RPET (recycled Polyethylene terephthalate), spandex
Girlfriend Collective claims this is the legging that started it all for them. The highly popular Compressive High-Rise leggings have gained massive popularity, largely due to their inclusive size range and unrivalled compression fabric that makes you feel incredibly well supported during any physical activity. Made with recycled plastic bottles and available in ten different colourways, these are a must for any athleisure obsessed woman!Shop Compressive High-Rise Legging
Materials: recycled nylon, elastane
The SilverTech™ Active leggings by Organic Basics are made with sweat-wicking, stretchy recycled nylon that help you stay fresh, meaning less need to add them to the laundry pile!
Pick from black, sea blue or burgundy for the perfect pair of minimalist leggings.
They may even be enough to motivate you to get to that exercise class you’ve been putting off?Shop SilverTech™ Active Leggings
Price: $53 (currently on sale, down from $81.95)
Materials: bamboo viscose, organic cotton, spandex
Leggings with pockets have to be one of the best inventions of our time, surely? These high-waisted leggings from Boody feature no less than three pockets, as well as a wide waistband and curved panel shaping on the side leg. Boody claims that 272.1 liters of water are saved with these leggings as organically grown bamboo uses 66% less water compared to conventional cotton. Available in olive, black and grey marl, these leggings are the perfect addition to any wardrobe!Shop Active Blended High-Waisted Full Leggings with Pocket
Materials: organic cotton, spandex
The Organic Stretch legging by Mate the Label is made with organic cotton and designed for low to medium impact exercise.
They also break down the cost-per-wear of the leggings, for example, if you wore them once a week over a year the cost-per-wear would be only $1.36!
Available in nine gorgeous colourways, these leggings were made to be seen.Shop Organic Stretch Legging
Materials: bamboo rayon, lycra
Another one with pockets! The Dressy leggings from Encircled are a great pair for any smart-casual look, perfect to pair with a white tee and denim jacket. With two side pockets big enough for your phone or passport, these would be great if you’re out running errands and don’t want to bring a bag. Made with bamboo rayon and sewn, knit and dyed in Toronto, Canada, these leggings are ticking all the sustainability boxes for us!Shop The Dressy Legging
Materials: bamboo viscose, organic cotton, elastane jersey
Perfect for styling with dresses or skirts in fall and early spring, the Essential leggings from Thought are made with super soft bamboo and organic cotton jersey, creating a natural and breathable fabric. Designed for lounging at home or doing light exercise (such as yoga) these leggings are the perfect balance of comfort and style.Shop Essential Bamboo Organic Cotton Thick Leggings
Materials: recycled polyester, spandex
The Moto Skinny legging from Threads4Thought is a carbon-neutral product as it has offset the carbon emissions throughout the production process, from raw material extraction to shipping. Made with recycled polyester to create a double-brushed performance fabric, the leggings feature body-hugging compression that gives you the perfect amount of support. Choose from jet black or raw denim colour and head out for your walk, yoga class or coffee date!Shop Moto Skinny Legging
Materials: organic cotton, spandex, vegetable dye
For those of you who like to stand out from the crowd, the Pax leggings by Groceries Apparel may be just what you’re looking for. Designed with a wide waistband that ends just above your natural waistline, these leggings will support you and flatter all the right curves. The GOTS certified organic cotton has been hand-dipped with vegetable dyes that use non-toxic ingredients like weld flowers and natural indigo.Shop Pax Leggings | Vege-Dye
Materials: bamboo viscose, organic cotton, elastane
The Enduro leggings are a BAM icon, claiming that the fabric sculpts to your bum and legs and remains opaque through deep squats and downward dogs – one less thing to worry about!
Available in a wide range of colours and funky prints, the Enduro leggings can definitely bring an element of fun to your ‘basics’ wardrobe.Shop Bamboo Enduro Leggings
Materials: organic cotton, elastane
The Sea Dance leggings by Seasalt Cornwall are perfect for relaxing or stretching, with a deep elasticated waistband for extra comfort and hidden loops to help ease on (genius!).
Opt for earthy tones or a bold geometric print, and pick petite, regular or tall for a tailored fit legging that you’ll love for years to come.Shop Sea Dance Organic Cotton Leggings
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