Local activewear gets eco-friendly

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Filipino activewear brand Groove is focused on keeping production as earth-friendly as possible by using polyester threads, recycled from the PET bottles. Photo courtesy of GROOVE

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — At my neighborhood mall, a fast fashion store’s mannequin has been changed into a pair of black bike shorts stamped with a vaguely swooshy emblem. It looks perfect on her and like it’s going to be too long for me. I walk on.

Meanwhile new local brand Groove had a flurry of social media posts launching its brand and first collection. I am drawn to the primary colors, but I stay for the message: their fabric is made from waste materials.

Once the domain of athletic gear, compression — the ability to compress the muscles to supply more blood flow to the part being worked on — has become a key driver for even casual exercisers who want to look streamlined in the group yoga or dance class on Zoom. So it is with Groove’s High-Waist Compressive Tights (₱2,695). Replying to the comments on a photo wearing the matching set, a customer praised how it held everything in.

On a call with CNN Philippines Life, Lazada Philippines Chief Marketing Officer Neil Trinidad confirmed how the activewear trend is picking up despite the overall dip in people buying clothes in general. “In the early days of lockdown, fashion slowed down,” he said. “But we are seeing that within fashion… workout-related or athletic gear is growing.”

When I think of how he culled that from the volume of transactions that Lazada has (two million carts were checked out in the first hour alone of their singles day sale), it made me think about how much workout gear is actually being bought, and more importantly, the value that upstarts like Groove, or Sunny Six Active, create by researching ways to make cute merch out of litter or pollutants.

RELATED: 12 Filipino brands that prove the future of fashion is sustainable

Contrast that with the huge quantities of non-reclaimed materials needed to serve a large retailer’s many branches, not to mention the markdowns they end up doing to liquidate products.

This begs the question: is the fast fashion model itself unsustainable?

Uniqlo, which doesn’t present itself as fast fashion yet has the large volumes, retail footprint and holding company name (Fast Retailing) to suggest so, has developed clothing out of plastic bottles.

In their sustainability report this year, the brand said, “Clothing made from recycled PET bottles has been commercially available for some time. However, such clothing did not meet our standards for quality, functionality and production cost.”

To solve this problem, Uniqlo teamed up with Toray Industries, Inc., a textile development company, to create a new kind of thread. They knew that conventional recycling technologies made it difficult to produce fine fibers, because of the contaminants in PET bottles, and the yellowing that happens when they age. And so, they called on Toray's tech, specifically a contaminant filtering technology that made it possible to manufacture fibers that behaved like virgin materials.

The snag was that when production began, the initial threads they made were breaking because of the impurities in the original material. What followed was a big lift that only companies with deep R&D pockets (like say; a broad-market brand that can spend millions on billboards) can afford.

“Through close collaboration with our partners — sewing factories, fabric mills, and Toray — we went back to the thread production stage and solved each issue one by one. This process enabled us to create an environmentally friendly product made from recycled polyester, without sacrificing quality and functionality, and without raising prices,” the Uniqlo report said.

Eventually the company landed on polyester threads, recycled from the PET bottles — incidentally the same type of recycled material that Groove uses.

When asked to say more about their team, Groove joked that they were “a small group of stereotypical millennials who think that traditional jobs are for paying the bills and side hustles are meant to be pursued for our hashtag self-worth.” But actually they’re a pretty formidable group with a mixed background in business and creatives. Their creative marketing lead in particular has worked in beauty and publishing and felt the fatigue of new products launching almost every week.

Walking the talk, keeping production as earth-friendly as possible was important to the founders, who set their hearts on using recycled polyester early on. “We also looked into local suppliers but it was difficult to find a manufacturer that could deal with the material we wanted,” they said.

Throughout the process of sourcing, their knowledge continued to grow, and they sought out fabrics that were free from chemicals, and were dyed using as minimal water as possible. Just how did they end up using the same type of solution as a big name like Uniqlo? “It was a mix of luck and good sourcing,” the group said. And while it took them some time to pull off, speed was less important to them than doing things right. Their rigor is something we haven’t seen yet from the bigger local purveyors. Philippine fast fashion: ball is in your court.