Your Tri Gear Needs an Eco Makeover
Going green in a sport with so much stuff can be tough. We break down why eco-friendly tri gear is so rare.
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With three sports comes the potential for three times the environmental impact. This is especially true when it comes to the items triathletes use most, like clothing, shoes, and wetsuits.
“The fashion industry is one of the most polluting industries, and often because most fabrics today are plastic-based and have reached the end of their life cycle,” says Eric Ascalon, Director of Community Development & Strategic Partnerships at Terracycle North America. That means that there is nothing that can be made from them once you’re finished with them. They end up in landfills. This is as true for your everyday clothing as it is for your triathlon gear.
Consumers are getting wise to the environmental impact of their clothing purchases, but finding sustainable tri gear isn’t always so easy. The challenges with creating sustainable triathlon gear fall under three major categories: function, quality, and price.
Tri kits, sports bras, wetsuits, and even your sneakers need to be comfortable and functional for the hours you spend wearing them (and sweating in them). And for most triathletes, functionality outweighs sustainability when it comes to picking triathlon gear. Features like strategically-placed zippers or even pockets can quickly lead you to aligning with your favorite brands – and those may not align with what’s most eco-friendly.
“Whenever you’re creating a product, there are trade-offs to be made,” says Brooke Rapf, Senior Director of Footwear Development at running shoe company Allbirds. “Specific to sustainability, it can be difficult to align on trade-offs if you don’t have a clear, measurable system for what needs to be achieved in each product.”
Simply put, if a brand has a formula that works well for them, adopting an eco-friendly line or an overall implementation may not immediately work. However, most are taking baby steps toward sustainability – switching one element at a time as they develop better materials and processes.
Bradon Asher of eco-friendly tri suit brand Sumarpo says these small changes, like focusing on recycled material a brand uses, or even the type of glue that they use, can have a major impact as well as start a snowball effect of sustainability.
“The glue for making a triathlon wetsuit can also be a focus of improvement,” Asher says. “I have noticed that more and more brands are starting to use water-based glue and benzene-free glue. This is a good phenomenon of protecting the environment.”
Other brands, like shoe and apparel company Salomon, are implementing a slow rollout of sustainable products. By 2025, most of their products will use sustainable packaging, chemicals, and materials. Their mission, like many, is shifting to support a more “circular economy.”
There are quite a few brands that pledge to be sustainable, but run into stumbling blocks when it comes to meeting the unique needs of athletes. When shoe Allbirds came to Kickstarter in 2016 with sustainability in mind, most of their products were for casual use and not exercise. It took time and testing to develop a running shoe, which they launched with the Tree Flyer in May of 2022.
RELATED: Extended Review: Allbirds Tree Flyer Running Shoes
Other brands haven’t found a way to produce high-quality running shoes using plant-based materials, so they instead focus on greening other elements of the consumer experience. Sometimes that means switching to more sustainable packaging, while other times it means keeping old shoes from going to the landfill. On Running, for example, uses a shoe subscription program to recycle its Cyclon running shoe; two times per year, On sends subscribers a new pair of shoes. When the new pair arrives, the old pair is sent back in the same box, and On repurposes the raw materials to create new Cyclon running shoes.
It’s also important to note that even the highest-quality sustainable tri gear eventually comes to the end of its lifespan. When that happens, things turn a little less green. Ascalon states that they are discovering that many products, even ones that use recycled material, can only be downcycled. Downcycling keeps this material waste out of landfills for a couple of years, but Ascalon says more can be done on this front.
“We try to come up with mechanical recycling solutions that are true recycling rather than downcycling, and we have some great solutions,” he explains. He cites a partnership with Rip Curl as one example, which aims to decrease wetsuit waste. By recycling your old suit, triathletes can offset the damage caused by mining. Wetsuits are made with rubber, which can cause deforestation and pollution.
Ascalon says, “As a triathlete, I know that every two to three years my wetsuits get to the point where they can no longer be repaired, so by recycling, you can mitigate and negate the need for more virgin materials, and you’re not only saving landfill, you’re, but you’re also you’re also reducing the amount of virgin material that needs to be mined.”
To give triathletes an incentive to participate in this program, RipCurl offers a coupon to go toward a new wetsuit. Though RipCurl is a surf wetsuit company—not a triathlon one—the program shows how triathlon wetsuit manufacturers could possibly undertake such an initiative.
RELATED: How to Recycle Your Wetsuit
The bottom line when it comes to sustainability is, well, the bottom line. Most people are looking to save money, especially in a sport like triathlon, where gear costs can quickly add up. If given the choice between an expensive, but eco-friendly, tri suit and a more affordable (and less-sustainable) one, most will opt for the cash savings.
Rapf says that price can have an impact on a company adopting a greener production method. “Natural materials are often more expensive and/or have a longer lead time in the supply chain,” she says.
Allbirds accommodated this cost by allowing for longer development times, and when they couldn’t figure out the cost, they got creative with strategy. “When we haven’t found existing natural alternative materials, we’ve developed our own or invested in novel solutions like SweetFoam [a midsole material made from parts of sugarcane that would otherwise be discarded] and Plant Leather [which has 40x less carbon impact than traditional leather],” she says.
Sumapro has made a big bet with its sustainable tri suits and wetsuits, knowing price is a major consideration for athletes. Their prices are in line with competitors, with its lowest-priced wetsuit being $210 for a sleeveless model and $779 for its top-end model. But the million-dollar question remains: Will customers buy what they’re selling?
The signs suggest they just might. In one poll, 66% of consumers expressed that they would pay more for products that were better for the environment. Another measure of increasing interest can be found in the growth of Allbirds: Since its Kickstarter launch in 2016, the company has grown to 35 countries 55 retail locations.”It’s safe to say interest has grown a lot since the beginning,” Rapf says.
Before you toss, consider this
There are quite a few ways to give your gear a second chance. Secondhand stores would accept most fitness clothing and shoes, but also consider finding a local high school that has a clothing donation program for its students. Many students in low-income areas won’t be able to afford the high-end tights, shorts, tops, and bras that a triathlete might easily shell out money for.
Additionally, research organizations that make it easy to recycle your gear. SmartWool, which is known for its socks, has a material return program. You can request a bag online, and they will recycle your old socks into insulation and car materials; wool socks are separated and made into another sock.
Once you’re done with race t-shirts, you can create a quilt with them, donate them to a shelter, or cut them up and use them for cleaning or animal cages. Consider declining race shirts as well, since creating one pound of cotton uses 1,320 gallons of water.
RELATED: Ask a Gear Guru: What Should I Do With My Old Gear?
Shopper’s guide: Sustainable triathlon gear
As you replenish your collection, consider shopping for brands that ethically source materials and are conscious about their impact.
- Allbirds: The apparel and shoes are made with sustainable wool and plant-based materials. The company recently launched its first net zero carbon fitness shoe, the MoonShot.
- Nathan Sport: Aside from creating hydration packs that are reusable, all apparel materials are either Bluesign or OEKO-TEX approved, made in an eco friendly/sustainable process that is less harmful to the environment. Nathan also doesn’t use PFA’s, known as “forever chemicals.”
- Smartwool: The wool used in their products is durable and ethically sourced from New Zealand. They can also withstand a second use before a wash. When you’ve used up your socks, ship them back to the company, where their sock recycling program will give the fibers a second life.
- Fe226: As one of the only makers of sustainable trisuits, this punk rock inspired brand is on a mission to help triathlon go green. The company is based in Scandinavia, and uses ethical suppliers as well as antibacterial material that needs fewer washes.
- Swiftwick: As of 2023, Swiftwick has reached its goal of 100% of its products being made with recycled material, and each pair of socks will keep one plastic bottle out of landfills and oceans. The REPREVE sock even has a fully-recycled footbed.
- Kane Footwear: These post-race flip-flops, designed by a foot and ankle surgeon for optimal recovery, are sustainably sourced. Once you’re done with them, return them so that they can be turned into yoga mats.