Yoga Pants: Comfort Clothing or Cause for Concern? Yoga pants are a relatively recent trend in modern fashion and clothing styles, and have been gaining in popularity in recent years. Picked for their comfort and ease of movement, this garment has a place not just in yoga class rooms or at-home work outs, but are a staple in many people’s daily clothing choices for running errands, attending class, or even going to work. A walk through any city street is likely to result in at least a dozen yoga pant sightings. And while controversies abound over the professionalism or scandalous, “distracting” and “revealing” nature of this particular style of pant, there are also deeper environmental issues at work here. Unbeknownst to many people who wear yoga pants, or any sort of synthetic material, pollution abounds from these items not just from their creation, but from their washing and maintenance routines as well.
A Brief History of the Yoga Pant: The history of yoga pants starts with the invention of Lycra, also known as spandex. This material was created by Joseph Shivers in 1959, after a high demand for rubber during World War II led to a decrease in its availability and a demand for an alternative (Waxman). This alternative that Shivers created could stretch up to six hundred percent its original size, and became a preferred replacement for rubber in clothing manufacturing, and when stretch pants were first made, lycra/spandex was the key material (Waxman). As casual wear became more socially acceptable, the popularity and frequency with which stretch pants were worn outside the home increased. (Waxman) This took place around the 80’s, when women saw increased freedom from social restraints and began to participate more in physical activities outside of the home that required such pants for ease of movement (Waxman) Since their introduction, yoga pants have only seemed to grow in popularity, and can be seen almost anywhere, especially in Western societies, despite moral and social controversies over their appropriateness. This is evident in the fact that in 2016, the sale of yoga pants and other stretch pants increased by 41% over the last year’s sales (Waxman).
A Political Economy Perspective: Yoga Pants are most often made of synthetic materials, many of which are plastic based. Even yoga pants made from mostly cotton or other natural fiber are still blended with spandex to create the stretchiness required of the garment. This brings along with it the obvious need for extractive practices to create spandex and other polyester fabrics, which is a plastic derived product. Procedures such as fracking and oil drilling, as well as their refining processes are involved to generate the raw petroleum required for these products. These practices have many ecological problems, from water pollution to environmental damage from drilling and the occasional oil spill, to the carbon dioxide released in both the process of retrieving and using the oil (Story of Stuff Project). If new plastic isn’t used, old plastic is: a recent trend in clothing companies is to use recycled plastics, such as water bottles, to obtain the materials needed for their fabrics (Microfibers, Story of Stuff Project). This may be touted as a green practice, as it uses recycled materials instead of extracting new ones, but there are still various problems with the fabric created. The assemblage of yoga pants is another area of concern. Brands like LuluLemon have, in recent years, come under fire for exporting their assembly lines to places like Taiwan (Thomas). The reasons for these switches are the same as any other clothing brands’: cheaper labor costs that lead to increased profit margins (Thomas). As we’ve seen in documentaries like Maquilapolis and A River Changes Course, there are many problems with companies exporting their assembly lines in order to get cheap labor. Long hours are often required and low wages are often paid, thus exploiting local populations, while factories that are created often take up land from citizens, pollute the area and the people, and disrupt local economies (Story of Stuff Project). Once produced, the yoga pants must then be shipped out consumers. This requires heavy carbon outputs as items are flown, shipped, and driven across countries to reach marketplaces (Story of Stuff Project). Depending on where the pants are produced, the distances that these pants travel to be delivered to stores and warehouses can be quite vast. On top of that, the carbon footprint of shipping out online orders, as well as the emissions from consumers driving to stores in order to make purchases, also contributes to the carbon footprint of such products, and can drive the need for oil and gas up even further. As with many products, especially clothing, yoga pants only last so long. Even with “higher quality” yoga pants from companies like LuluLemon, the garments will eventually wear out and be replaced. Add to that the likelihood that many yoga pant owners have more than one pair of yoga pants, the frequency of purchasing new yoga pants is likely to continue to increase as long as their popularity stays high and demand continues to grow.
Risks and Hazards: Aside from the problems related to the production, shipping, and consumption of yoga pants, there’s another, equally damaging dilemma with them. For quite some time this problem went unnoticed, until recent studies have shown that yoga pants, and other items made from synthetic materials, shed little bits of their plastic fibers when washed, known as microfibers (Microfibers, Story of Stuff Project). Microfibers, also called microplastics, have many ecological and health related impacts. When items are washed in our washing machines, fibers can separate from the rest of the fabric and get washed out with the water as it drains from the machines. If there are no filters in our piping to catch any fibers in the water, these likely get washed out into waste water (Microfibers, Story of Stuff Project). Water that goes through a treatment facility may be thought to be fine, but microfibers are extremely small, and many of them manage to escape the filters in treatment facilities and end up being washed out into the waterways (Microfibers, Story of Stuff Project). This marks the beginning of a multitude of problems, and more information is being published about the problems of microfibers in recent years. When microfibers are washed into waterways, a variety of problems arise. The first of these is the contribution to plastic pollution in our oceans. They also have a habit of soaking up other water pollutants like motor oil and industrial chemicals, creating an ecological hazard (Microfibers, Story of Stuff Project). It is estimated that there is currently 1.4 million trillion of such microfibers in the oceans, which is a huge problem, especially if you take into consideration that microfibers are not the only source of plastic pollution in the oceans (Microfibers, Story of Stuff Project). This number is only growing, as microfibers are washed out every time a garment of synthetic material is washed, and that includes the growing number of yoga pants being sold daily. The microfibers don’t just stay as pollutants in the water. Recent studies have found that fish are eating these toxin-soaked microfibers (Microfibers, Story of Stuff). These plastic polluted fish are often times the same fish that are netted up and served for dinner, which means that we are more than likely eating the plastic in these fish without even realizing it (Microfibers, Story of Stuff Project). Recent studies have also shown that the majority of the world’s drinking water contains plastic fibers, with an 83% average across the globe (Carrington). In the United States, the percentage is higher, averaging out to about 94% of water sources polluted with plastic fibers (Carrington). This is a startling statistic, as a study has also found that a single fleece jacket can shed up to 250,000 fibers per wash (Carrington). Each individual wash cycle is contributing to this problem, and it seems likely that we can see these statistics increase to incorporate more and more water sources worldwide. What does this mean for people’s health? Studies have also found that these microplastics and the toxins that they absorb can release quickly into the guts of the wild animals that consume them (Carrington). When we eat these animals, or drink polluted water, the effect might be quite similar in humans (Carrington). So far, there are varying views on the effect of this plastic pollution on our health, but at this point in time, the need for answers is high. Will we be seeing similar affects that bisphenol-A has on people, as it’s a chemical contained in many plastics? BPA is a known hormone disruptor, and has been linked to endocrine-related problems (Konieczna). On top of this, it has also been linked to varying cancers, such as breast and prostate cancers, as well as polycystic ovary syndrome (Konieczna). Washing into water ways isn’t the only source of microfiber pollution, either. It’s been found that microfibers and microplastics have been found in the air, and are assumed to be from the normal wearing and tearing of clothing during everyday life (Carrington). On top of that, drying machines with open vents are also a likely source of microfiber emissions (Carrington). And yet, despite these recent revelations being brought up in the news, there has yet to be a large enough public outcry about one of the sources of these problems, which is microfiber clothing. Yoga pants are not immune from this blame, either, as they are made from synthetic materials that do shed fibers. With the public becoming increasingly aware, is this simply another one of those choices that are made, despite the risk? Is comfort really more important than the environmental impacts and health-related risks of microfibers?
Conclusion: The question likely being asked now is, what do we do? With the prevalence and convenience of synthetic fabrics, it’s unlikely that they’re going to leave the mainstream market anytime soon. So how do we combat the problem of microplastics in our water and environment, as well as the resources used and people exploited? How do we balance the issues related to the production of synthetic fabrics with our need for clothing? One recent solution to this problem that we’re facing is the Guppyfriend bag, which is available for sale at online stores like Patagonia. Created specifically with microfiber pollution in mind, this bag holds your clothing in the washer and catches the microfibers that they shed, preventing them from being washed out into the waters ways. The fibers are collected from the inside of the bag, and the bag is ready to be used again. While this can be a big help in preventing microfibers from entering the waterways, it doesn’t completely solve the problem. The fibers are still there, and must still be disposed of. Even though they are not going into water ways immediately, it’s possible that, given the next obvious disposal method of sending to landfill, these fibers may end up washed into waterways after all. And even if they are not, they add to landfill volume and the numerous ecological impacts of modern trash heaps. Obviously, there is no easy solution, and even the product made to help has its flaws and downsides. One of the easiest things to do, now, after gaining this information, is to make personal decisions to reduce the amount of synthetic fabrics used and be more conscious of our purchases and our collective purchasing power. While we can take steps to prevent microfibers from washing out into the oceans and coming into the air, a change in the market and consumer demands is needed to eliminate the problem at the source, as well as to reduce the social problems related to yoga pants in the form of “cheap” labor. A call to companies to change the materials they used will likely be the best bet for change, and companies that take on such challenges will need to be supported en masse in order to shift our production away from synthetic materials and more towards natural fibers once again.