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  • Writer's pictureHarriet Field

Community Clothing Launches Plastic Free Sportswear

Community Clothing launches Community Clothing Organic Athletic, a pioneering and innovative range of athletic clothing, made exclusively using plant-based textile technology, representing radically different thinking in the world of sportswear.

The majority of modern sportswear is made from non-biodegradable oil-based synthetic plastic materials, principally polyester, nylon, polyurethane and elastane. Community Clothing’s new line of high performance and durable athletic clothing is 100% plastic free, organic, natural and biodegradable.

Patrick Grant, founder of Community Clothing comments: “Community Clothing Organic Athletic represents the most radical change in sportswear in two generations. Moving away from oil-based sports clothes to 100% natural and biodegradable means now you can exercise and play sport and not harm the planet in the process.”

The new collection for men and women is made up of thirteen pieces of clothing suitable for a variety of sports and training activities. The range includes vests, t-shirts, sweatshirts and three styles of shorts, available in sizes XS to 4XS for men and sizes 6-20 for women. The launch collection is available in black, white, orange and yellow and is priced from £29 to £70.

The manufacture of athletic clothing uses tens of millions of barrels of oil each year and has a huge carbon and pollution footprint. Waste synthetic sports clothes are a massive contributor to the growing global problem of non-biodegradable clothing waste, and to the vast quantity of ocean microplastics, over a third of which is plastic fibres from our clothing.

Community Clothing founder Patrick Grant played international rugby in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s and the kit he wore then was made of cotton and leather. Synthetics very slowly made their way into competitive sportswear from the late 1950’s to the 1980’s but then accelerated. Today, the vast majority of sportswear is synthetic and the big sportswear brands are amongst the biggest users of plastic on the planet. Athletes achieved exceptional results with pre-synthetic clothing. The men’s 100m record before synthetics stood at 9.95 seconds. Only very few people have ever run faster. Synthetic sports clothing gives only a very slight performance edge, for example the men’s 1500m record has improved by less than 3% since the development of synthetic clothing and much of this can be attributed to modern training methods.

Community Clothing has since its inception used only natural fibre based main fabrics in its clothing. The move to remove all plastic from this new line of sportswear is the result of a five year programme of innovation with the brand’s UK textile manufacturing partners, including development of lightweight fast-drying breathable cotton fabrics and an innovative woven natural rubber and cotton elastic. Community Clothing Organic Athletic will be available at Community Clothing  from 13th January 2024.

About Community Clothing:

Community Clothing is a British clothing brand and social enterprise founded in 2016 by award winning clothing designer and judge on BBC One’s The Great British Sewing Bee Patrick Grant. Community Clothing does good things for people and communities in the UK, creating jobs where they’re needed most.

The mission is simple; to sell great quality clothes at prices people can afford; to make these clothes in the best British factories from the finest natural materials; and by doing this to create work and support skilled jobs in regions of the UK that need them most. In short, Community Clothing sells great quality clothes, at affordable prices and consequently creates loads of fantastic jobs in places that really need them. To date Community Clothing has created 279,000 hours of work and supported 1,880 jobs. Community Clothing has a network of 42 partner factories all over the UK, located predominantly in the Northwest, Yorkshire, the East Midlands and South Wales.

Community Clothing has developed a unique business model that keeps costs super low, enabling the brand to produce clothes in the very best UK factories from the best materials, and still sell them at affordable prices. The unique business model utilises off-peak production, creates seasonless, brilliant basics, supports ultra local supply chains and promotes radical simplicity.

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The Anatomy of Running Shorts

Standard Running Shorts

Standard running shorts are made of several principal materials: a lightweight woven shell, a knitted lining with elasticated leg openings, an elasticated waistband, a woven drawcord, and a woven composition & care label. The most common materials used in running shorts are polyester and elastane (known by several trade names including Lycra). Both are oil-based synthetic materials.

The table below shows the typical materials in a standard running short versus a Community Clothing Organic Athletic (CCOA) plastic free running short.

Community Clothing Organic Athletic Plastic Free Running Shorts


What is most of the world's sports clothing made from?

Plastic, made from Oil.

What are Community Clothing Organic Athletic clothes made from?

Organic Cotton from the Gossypium Hirsutum, and natural rubber from the Hevea Brasiliensis.

What fabrics are used in the Community Clothing Organic Athletic range?

The fabric technologies developed are unique to Community Clothing. The brand had to start from scratch with the fabrics and trims because no one has made any sportswear from natural materials for about 25 years, and for running clothes more like 40 years.

The main fabrics are all woven or knitted from 100% certified organic cotton, right here in the UK. The woven fabrics in two mills in Lancashire, the knitted fabrics from three different mills in Leicestershire, all with long histories of making sporting fabrics, albeit in some cases they hadn’t made any for decades. The elastic used in the shorts is woven in Austria, a blend of organic cotton and natural rubber.  Community Clothing went back to the very best of pre-synthetic sportswear fabric constructions for inspiration, and applied the latest production techniques to their manufacture.

Community Clothing could not find non-oil-based internal woven labels, so instead printed the care instructions onto the main fabric using a non-toxic water based ink and used the same ink for the logo on the outside.

Every product in the CCOA range is sewn using cotton thread, which is slower as it means using a slightly thicker thread to get the same strength, but man used to make clothes for thousands of years before the 1970’s and lots of those pieces are still going strong.

Synthetics vs Natural. What’s better?

Synthetic sportswear may have a technical edge over plant based in some respects but it is slight. It will dry a little faster, and in the case of elastane fabrics it has more material stretch. But many of the 20th century’s landmark sporting feats were achieved well before the advent of synthetic clothing. Roger Bannister’s first sub 4 minute mile, Jim Hines 100m in 9.95 seconds, Pele’s 1,279 goals, Jessie Owens four Olympics gold medals at Munich in ’36 and Fanny Blankers-Koen four at London in ’48, many of Billie Jean King’s 39 grand slam titles and Bob Beamon’s 29 feet ‘leap of the century’. All done in natural cotton kit. For most of us it should do the job pretty well.

Community Clothing doesn't have a liner in the running shorts. Why not?

Firstly, the elastic in the leg openings in the lining is almost always the first thing to fail. Shorts that otherwise would last years longer get thrown in the bin which is incredibly frustrating. Not having a lining means your shorts will last longer.

Secondly, with a built in lining you’d wash your shorts every time you wear them. But if you wear separate underwear you can wear the shorts multiple times between washes, meaning less washing, less energy consumption, less water, less detergent, which is better for the planet, and saves you money. Less frequent washing also means your shorts will last longer.

What affects the performance of your sports clothes? Natural vs Synthetic.

Three things affect the performance of sports clothing.

1.      The fit of the garment; the cut and construction, the placement of seams; the shape and size of the panels; the same fit performance can be achieved in both synthetic and natural fibres.

2.      The moisture transport of the fabric; there are two components to this, one mechanical, one material:

i.       the mechanical structure of the fabric, how it is woven or knitted, affects the way moisture is transported through fabric; moisture wicking structures are readily achievable in both synthetic and natural fibre fabrics.

ii.      the material structure of the fibres in the fabrics, how they repel or absorb moisture, affects the moisture transport also. Synthetic fibres such as polyester are hydrophobic, meaning they do not absorb water; they dry more quickly but can feel sticky on the skin. Natural fibres such as cotton are hydrophilic, meaning they absorb a certain % of water; they can take a little longer to dry, but feel more comfortable next to the skin.

3.      The stretch of the fabric; there are two components to the stretch in fabrics: one mechanical, one material:

i.       mechanical stretch can be achieved through the construction of the fabric, this is the same for synthetic and natural fibres. Stretch fabrics are possible in both, for example knitted cotton jersey used in t-shirts has good mechanical stretch. This stretch will not deteriorate significantly over time.

ii.      Material stretch is due to the nature of chemical bonding within elastic materials and this cannot be achieved in natural fibres. However this property, especially the stretch recovery, will deteriorate significantly over time, sometime after not very many wear and wash cycles. It is this stretch that is predominantly utilised in modern running tights.

When did we start using synthetic fabrics in sport?

The development of synthetic fibres began in the late 19th century but it was not until the 1930’s that commercially viable synthetic fibres began to be produced. Over the next 30 years their industrial production was developed and the volumes produced increased.

One of the first noted uses of synthetic sportswear was the Bolton Wanderers football team in the 1953 FA Cup Final. No accurate record of what they wore remains, it was simply described as a ‘shiny material’. However it was not until the late 1980’s that synthetic shirts became ubiquitous in football. Swimmers first wore nylon swimwear in 1956. In the 1970s swimmers and gymnasts began wearing suits made from a mixture of nylon and elastane (or Lycra).

What’s the difference between recycled and recyclable?

A lot. And this is crucial. We need to move to a circular system for our clothing and everything else we consume, a system where the materials we use go round and round forever, where they are recyclable. Polyester is not currently recyclable, not in any economic or practical sense.

What many brands who claim to be sustainable are selling you is clothing made from recycled polyester, polyester made mostly from water bottles. It’s an easy option that sounds good. But it isn’t. It’s true, recycled polyester has a lower carbon footprint than virgin polyester, but it still has a higher carbon footprint than all of the natural textile fibres, including cotton. Additionally, the supply of recycled polyester requires the continuation of the use of single use plastic water bottles rather than a move to reusable drinking water bottles. And once a plastic bottle, or other feedstock plastic material, has been recycled and turned into polyester clothing it cannot be recycled into anything else. It’s a dead end.

The biodegradability of neither polyester nor elastane is well understood. Sensible estimates suggest a time of between a few hundred years and never. Polyester clothing exhumed from an over 50-year-old UK landfill site showed absolutely no discernible evidence of biodegradation; it hadn’t changed one bit despite being half a century underground.

Microplastics are also a big issue. We are all concerned about plastic in the ocean and it is estimated that 33% of all ocean microplastic is fibres from our synthetic clothes, shed when we wear and wash them.

There are many great uses from plastic, from the tiny valves that keep our hearts pumping, to lighter weight parts for cars helping them use less fuel, and reusable packaging that helps stop our precious food from rotting. But plastic clothing is choking the planet.

Why can’t you recycle polyester clothes?

In theory you can, but there are several big problems that mean right now it doesn’t happen.

In order to recycle you need a single material, and many clothes are made with blends of materials, and many have zips, buttons etc which are other materials, and all are sewn with thread which is typically a different grade of polyester. So to recycle you need to mechanically remove, i.e. cut off by hand, all the zips, buttons and sewn seams. All of this is very costly. It currently costs significantly more to recycle polyester than it does to make new, whether that’s making virgin polyester from oil, or making it from water bottles. There are currently no economically viable routes to recycle polyester.

Also, and significantly, when you recycle polyester textiles the resultant material is brown, which means it can only be dyed darker brown on black. This is a very big problem for quite obvious reasons. We have spent thousands of years developing dyes which never fade and never come out. The whole system of dyeing needs to be completely rethought.

I see textile ‘recycling’ bins in High St clothing shops? Is that not recycling?

No. Not as you would normally understand it. It is not like recycling glass or aluminium cans where new usable material is created.

‘Recycling’ in synthetic clothing means selling them to someone else. When you put your clothing into those ‘recycling’ bins, it goes to be sorted somewhere locally, the best stuff stays here and gets resold, but a large percentage of it gets put on container ships and sent to sub-Saharan Africa or South America. There it gets sifted through again and a proportion will be resold. But a lot is simply incinerated or dumped. There is a clothes dump in Chile that’s now so big it can be seen from space. In fact these poorer countries have had so much of our discarded clothing in the past few years that in 2023 many of they stopped accepting it. Literally no one wants our cheap used plastic clothes.

Does this mean the end for plastic clothes?

No. Scientists in many countries are working to make recyclability an economically viable option. They are researching new dyeing techniques which make dyes more easily removable. And they are researching alternative synthetic materials to polyester which are more easily recycled, and are compatible with these new dyeing technologies. However, these new technologies, if successful, will require a re-think of the entire design and production process, as well of course as building the global apparatus for textile recycling. Whilst a massive reduction in the volume of clothing we buy is by far the best solution, it is unlikely that the human race can be weaned off its addiction to fast fashion any time soon so affordable recyclable synthetic alternatives are very much needed and needed now.


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