How sports partnerships are making the fashion waste problem worse

In a single season, Major League Soccer – North America’s biggest soccer competition – goes through 13,000 pairs of cleats and 5,000 balls. These products, along with thousands of other shirts, shorts and socks worn by players throughout a 34-game schedule, will largely end up in the trash after eight months of use.

At least that’s according to Gabriella Mas, the founder of a new clothing line called (Re)boot, made from recycled sports gear. For his first collection, Mas convinced Inter Miami CF, the Major League Soccer team partly owned by David Beckham, to be his supplier.

After just a few trips to the Inter Miami CF facilities, Mas – whose father, Jorge Mas, is the team manager – collected hundreds of used jerseys and deflated soccer balls, 400 pairs of football and other equipment. The discarded shirts were then used to create a collection of upcycled shirts and shorts for club-affiliated youth teams in March. Mas plans to use the other materials to create an outfit for Inter Miami CF’s first-ever mascot of the 2024 season.

But the jerseys and gear Mas collected barely made a dent in the piles of team clothing and gear gathering dust in a warehouse.

The professional sports industry is a substantial contributor to the fashion waste crisis, with millions of items being used as little as twice per game. Major sportswear brands like Nike, Adidas and Puma, which manufacture performance apparel for sports teams around the world, produce hundreds of thousands of units per season to meet industry needs. It is customary, for example, for some professional football teams to provide three new shirts per player per match. In the Premier League, that would mean that for the 11 starting players, 1,254 shirts are needed for the 38-game season alone.

On top of that, there’s a plethora of other gear, including training kits – clothes like tracksuits, tops and shorts that players wear for training and warming up – and travel gear. . Amplified throughout the professional sports industry, this amounts to mountains of outdated clothing and equipment, much of which ends up in landfills, according to Mas.

No official data exists on how much clothing is produced for teams and athletes each season, or how much ends up in landfill.

“It’s not just a problem with football, it’s a problem in the whole DNA of the sports industry,” Mas said.

The materials traditionally used to make performance sportswear are also part of the problem. Most football shirts, for example, are made from 100% recycled polyester for its ultra-lightweight and sweat-wicking qualities. The problem is that almost all of the recycled polyester available on the market today comes from plastic bottles, not old clothes, which means that plastic is much harder to keep in circulation – for example, for a use in future products – than if it had remained a bottle that could be recycled again and again.

Beyond producing performance gear for professional teams, Nike, Adidas and Puma annually produce millions of units of replica merchandise and fan jerseys, and leftover seasonal merchandise that cannot transferred to low-cost retailers must be liquidated or destroyed.

But a sport’s trash can become a designer’s treasure. A small but growing number of resourceful brands are now scouting out used sports gear to produce upcycled collections. It helps that a sporty aesthetic – often lumped into TikTok’s favorite “#blokecore” trend, characterized by outfits including vintage football shirts, jeans and patio sneakers like the Sambas or the Gazelles – is in style. among fashion consumers. Kim Kardashian became an unlikely supporter of blokecore when she attended a basketball game in February wearing the jersey of historic Italian soccer club AS Roma, paired with bike shorts and sleek black trainers.

London-based Brazilian designer Renata Brenha saw her eponymous brand's sales and audience surge when she first showcased pieces made from recycled football shirts.

London-based Brazilian designer Renata Brenha saw her sales surge when she first showcased football-inspired pieces, such as a £385 ($494) pleated jersey skirt made from a patchwork of old jerseys in his collection this year. What started as an experiment has become a brand staple, and Brenha’s upcycled sportswear has won her business with wholesalers including Matchesfashion.

Limited Solutions

While Mas is in talks with several other Major League Soccer teams about similar partnerships and has ambitions to one day work with sports teams in Europe, (Re)boot is one of the few small businesses that dedicated to the issue of sustainability in sport. . Recycling projects are also notoriously difficult to scale due to cost and inconsistency in sourcing materials, as well as the labor-intensive process of creating individual garments.

“Upcycling is obviously hard to scale because it’s a big, big draw for the designer,” Mas said. “Everything is manual, entirely handmade and each garment is unique.”

The only actions likely to change the needle in the short term must come from the sportswear companies that produce the clothes in such large quantities, she added. While all recognized the need for a new approach to sportswear manufacturing, efforts so far have been sporadic.

Nike, Adidas and Puma all offer fan shirts made from recycled polyester for sale, but little has been done to address the sheer volume of new styles that are produced each season. Major sportswear brands protect the current agreements they have with their larger partner clubs to manufacture and sell replica jerseys, and would not want to jeopardize these agreements by altering the quality of the clothing they supply. This week, Adidas secured one of the most lucrative deals in sports history when it renewed its deal with English soccer giant Manchester United, which is expected to earn the brand a minimum of $1.1 billion over the course of the year. of the next decade.

Puma announced a project last year called “RE:JERSEY” which uses pre-worn football kits to create yarn for new jerseys. Players from Puma-sponsored teams, Manchester City, AC Milan and Olympique de Marseille, wore the shirts made from recycled materials before games last season to raise awareness of the project, and facilities were made available to fans to donate their own older jerseys for future collections. But little has been publicly communicated about the project – which the brand calls an “experiment” – or its long-term viability. Puma could not be reached for comment.

Notice to teams

Some sports organizations are themselves proactive. Brentford Football Club, a Premier League side based in London, said in 2021 that it had agreed with its manufacturer Umbro to only create a new “in-house” shirt for its players every two seasons, theoretically reducing the number of different replica styles for fans.

Meanwhile, English football club Forest Green, known as the world’s first vegan and carbon-neutral professional sports team, have partnered with British sportswear manufacturer Player Layer since 2019 to produce shirts and shorts made from materials derived from bamboo rather than polyester.

Tangible changes and wide-scale adoption of alternative materials in professional sportswear will take time, as elite teams are unlikely to give up any competitive advantage to try new materials, experts say.

“That’s why we’ve seen advances in sustainability on the fashion side, but on the performance side, brands are concerned about making sure any changes don’t compromise quality, design or durability when of high-intensity action,” said Felicia Pennant, Founder. from the football and fashion-focused magazine Season Zine.

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