That’s where we come in. We scrutinized dozens of companies — assessing them for their manufacturing practices, environmental ethics, and philanthropic projects — to settle on 14 athletic wear companies who go above and beyond when it comes to social good and corporate ethics*. Check out the list below (arranged in no particular order) to learn where spending your dollar really counts.
Manufacturing: These lovers of all things outdoors conduct regular audits of their factories and are big supporters of HERproject, which provides their female workers with health needs assessments, connections to health services, and education about nutrition and wellbeing. HERproject has been shown to result in a 60 percent increase in prenatal medical visits, a 41 percent increase in the knowledge of sexually transmitted diseases, improved productivity, and less worker turnover. What employer wouldn’t want that?
Environment: Columbia contributes to some of the better-known environmental organizations, such as the Conservation Alliance, and some groups with goals that are a little less well-known, like Save the Seagrass. They also give irregular clothing to charity, reuse cardboard boxes, and employ a variety of green initiatives at their Portland headquarters, including a solar electric system that’s reducing their carbon emissions by 80 tons per year.
Philanthropy: The Skin Cancer Foundation and Mercy Corps get a lot of support from Columbia, but there’s also a big focus on simply helping children be more active. Getting Kids Outside, for instance, is one group they support by donating clothing and funds for outdoor education programs, and Children’s Healing Art Project brings art teachers to disadvantaged kids across the Portland area.
Manufacturing: They have all the right policies against forced labor, child labor, abuse, and insufficient wages — and they work nearly as hard on keeping their clothing safe. Their factories are frequently inspected to make sure their dying processes are toxin-free, and their wool is sourced from sustainable alpaca farms in Peru.
Environment: With a name like “Alternative,” you know they take the environment seriously. Thirty percent of their sales are from the Alternative Earth line, which is made from organic cotton, recycled materials, low-impact dyes, energy-efficient facilities, and absolutely no heavy metals or toxic substances. The company’s Eco-Heather and Eco-Fleece lines knit organic cotton with recycled polyester, and a portion of their sales benefits a variety of environmental organizations and charities.
Philanthropy: Alternative donates to plenty of different charities under their “Common Thread” program (Nobody tell them that Patagonia has the same name!). In October, for instance, they worked with volunteers, parents, and teachers to create and maintain a vegetable garden at a primary school in Venice, California. Crunchy!
Manufacturing: Athleta loses points for being bought out by GAP in 2008, a company which was partly responsible for a deadly factory collapse in Bangladesh this year. Since the accident, however, GAP seems sincere about mending their ways, founding the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety and focusing efforts on perfecting their fire and building safety plans.
Environment: In 2008, GAP pledged a 20 percent decrease in greenhouse gas emissions by 2015, and they’re on track to achieving their goal. They also partner with Conservation International and the Natural Resource Defense Council, and they’ve joined the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals group with the goal of… well… not discharging hazardous chemicals anymore. The clothing giant is also a founding member of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and the aforementioned BICEP group. Their social good peeps clearly have their hands full!
Philanthropy: Athleta works closely with Girls on the Run, a volunteer group that teaches young women to cultivate positive self-image through running and educational seminars. In-store, Athleta regularly offers a variety of free fitness classes, and through their Iron Girl event they support Team Survivor, a non-profit that provides free or cheap exercise, health education, and support programs to women who are battling cancer.
Manufacturing: These hiking fanatics leave nothing to chance. Patagonia ensures that their own social responsibility team, the Fair Labor Association, and third-party auditors regularly visit their factories to make sure all of their workers are treated fairly. They don’t employ any workers under 15 (the minimum age acceptable to the International Labor Organization), and none of their workers make less than minimum wage.
Environment: Patagonia sets the bar pretty dang high for corporate environmentalism. Patagonia sets the bar pretty dang high for corporate environmentalism. They stick to the bluesign standard, meaning they ask to be regularly audited to make sure they’re improving their resource consumption, water use, and worker health and safety. They also created the Common Threads Initiative to keep clothing out of landfills, co-founded the Conservation Alliance and Conservacion Patagonica, and belong to scores of other environmental groups. But just in case someone else can do better, they also donate millions each year to grassroots environmental groups, while they weave environmentalism into the clothing itself. That’s not a metaphor— they make fleece from recycled soda bottles!
Philanthropy: Rather than focus on human rights or animal welfare, Patagonia’s charitable pursuits all involve the environment — but of course, these issues all intertwine. The company supports a huge amount of causes, such as Bike-to-Work week and the Salmon Run, but what’s really interesting is their environmental internship program. The initiative allows Patagonia’s employees to leave work (with pay!) for up to two months so they can support an environmental group of their choice. Wow!
5. Black Diamond
Manufacturing: Although their clothing is all about winter sports, this company is warmhearted. (Awww.) Black Diamond conducts regular audits of their factories to ensure compliance with the International Labor Organization, the United Nation's Conventions on Children's Rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and their own Vendor Code of Conduct. They also created the first Fair Labor Toolkit used by the Outdoor Industry Association, which is now used by scores of outdoor clothing companies to make sure they respect human rights in their manufacturing practices. And we thought they just sold skis.
Environment: Black Diamond supports dozens of conservation-slash-recreation groups (who says they have to be separate?), including the American Alpine Club and the Access Fund — organizations that are all about protecting the great outdoors (which probably makes good business sense!). Their manufacturing plants in China are also surprisingly eco-friendly for a country with famously lax environmental regulations: Their Zhuhai factory recycles all of their paper and scrap metal and reuses and recycles thousands of tons of wastewater per year.
Philanthropy: Black Diamond doesn’t just throw money at charities. In addition to financing, they offer consulting services, employee volunteers, products, and publicity to dozens of nonprofit organizations, such as the Hera Women’s Cancer Foundation, whose annual charity climbing event is held at their Utah headquarters.
Manufacturing: These guys clearly don’t want to be associated with the less-than-stellar human rights record of their competitors (*cough* Nike!*cough* *cough*). Adidas has a specially appointed team whose job is to not only conduct audits of their factories, but to work with their owners and managers to improve their compliance with global labor standards. Adidas also partners with the Fair Labor Association (FLA) to run independent factory audits, and they encourage workers to report any abuses by letting them anonymously text their suggestions, a system that’s met with great success.
Environmental: Adidas has a detailed five-year strategy to decrease their environmental impact and invest in sustainability efforts — they’ve actually sat down with Greenpeace and promised to put an end to all of their hazardous chemical discharges by 2020. They’re thinking a lot about their carbon footprint as well: Adidas is shooting for a 30 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2015, and their energy efficiency programs have saved nearly 5,000 tons of carbon dioxide in Indonesia alone.
Philanthropy: Adidas has terrific corporate volunteer programs, and they support healthy communities through the Reebok Foundation (which is part of the Adidas Group) and the BOKS program, which brings school fitness programs to marginalized children. Adidas is a gigantic company, but they’ve used their size for good, spending millions on a broad range of initiatives in the developing world, with a particular emphasis on education, child welfare, and (of course) sports programs.
Manufacturing: Many of ChewyLou’s yoga-themed shirts are printed at Michael’s Garden, a vocational center for adults with physical and mental disabilities. The Garden’s programs help special needs adults gain valuable skills through programs like resume-writing, handcrafts, and career planning.
Environment: The rest of their shirts are made at ACME Prints, Arizona’s greenest t-shirt printing company. They use environmentally friendly, water-based inks and soy-based screen cleaners to keep toxic substances from escaping down the drain, and they regularly receive rewards for purchasing large amounts of SRP Earthwise Energy, which is generated by solar, wind, and geothermal sources. The future is now!
Philanthropy: A large portion of ChewyLou’s profits is donated to charities like the American Heart Association, Lupus Foundation of America, the Faces of Hope Fund, and Best Friends Animal Rescue. After her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, ChewyLou’s founder also created Chemo Companions, an organization that provides emotional support (read: friendship) to chemotherapy patients.
Manufacturing: At their factories in India, Timberland goes above and beyond the call of duty by installing childcare centers and, after reports of street muggings, in-house “savings booths” where workers can deposit and withdraw money. The purveyors of all things hiking also ensure “global compliance principles,” which mandate fair pay, respect for human rights, and a zero-tolerance policy toward sexual harassment and forced labor. And just in case the job isn’t being done right, employees are able to create committees to assess their own workplace.
Environment: Timberland was named the New England Clean Energy Council’s Corporate Citizen of 2012, and it’s easy to see why. Fifteen percent of their power comes from renewable sources, they’ve slashed their greenhouse gas emissions by more than a third since 2006, and they’ve planted 3.5 million trees since 2010, including thousands in post-earthquake Haiti. The outdoor wear giant is also a founding member of Businesses for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy, or BICEP (cool acronym, right?). If you’re still not convinced, check out their astonishing, environmentally-friendly Earthkeepers line. Ninety-five percent of the line’s shoes are free of toxic PVC, and their soles, canvas, and laces are made from recycled plastic taken from landfills. They also partner with the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and only source leather from eco-friendly, low-energy tanneries.
Philanthropy: Try and stop them: Timberland has set up microfinance institutions in Bangladesh, health clinics in China and Vietnam, education programs in the Dominican Republic and clean drinking water in India. They work really hard for women’s rights as well, supporting programs to teach impoverished women how to manage money and promoting health education to 200,000 women in China. In case any of their employees want to get involved, Timberland gives them 40 paid hours per year for charitable volunteer work.
Manufacturing: This athletic footwear company adheres to the Fair Labor Standards Act and vows (kinda vaguely) to “uphold the highest standards of labor practices, including human and workers’ rights.”
Environment: Their shoeboxes and packaging are made from 100 percent recycled materials. Merrell is also one of the largest purchasers of renewable energy in Michigan. There’s no cause too small, either: Even the head office composts all its leftover food, including plates and cutlery — don’t worry, they’re biodegradable, too!
Philanthropy: They’re big contributors to organizations that get people active: Project Athena provides race training and entry fees for women recovering from illnesses, and Outdoor Nation travels the country “reconnecting millennials with the outdoors.” (So I guess we’re not beyond help!). Merrell also donates old apparel to charity, sent 4,000 shoes to Haiti, and has contributed more than half a million dollars to United Way, a global volunteer organization.
Manufacturing: Most of their clothing is made in the US, and prAna is a member of the Fair Labor Association and bluesign so as to ensure that human rights, minimum wage, and worker health and safety laws are upheld. But prAna really sent the message home when they brought one of the first Fair Trade Certified apparel lines to the US, which guarantees better economic sustainability and more rights to their producers and suppliers.
Environment: Since non-organic cotton uses 25 percent of all the insecticides on Earth, prAna uses organic cotton to reduce their impact and better maintain soil fertility. They also use recycled polyester, hemp fibers, and sustainable textiles, all of which make prAna some of the greenest apparel on shelves.
Philanthropy: The list of charities they support is vast, and prAna is particularly dedicated to the fight against breast cancer. Ten percent of the profits from their special line of pink yoga mats support the Keep a Breast Foundation’s programs. Last year, their annual warehouse sale provided over 11,000 meals to marginalized Californians, and their HQ employees regularly engage in volunteer work. Check out the sweet community garden they’ve been growing!
Manufacturing: Just in case local laws aren’t enough, REI has its own factory Code of Conduct and has partnered with the Outdoor Industry Association and the Fair Factories Clearinghouse with the ambitious goal of ending the causes of fair labor violations. Happy employees are a priority to these guys; for 14 years running, their Washington headquarters have made Fortune’s list of the 100 best companies to work for.
Environment: REI is well on its way to becoming a climate-neutral, zero waste-to-landfill organization by 2020. Many of their buildings are partly solar powered and certified by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system, and they even audit their suppliers to make sure their feathers come from humanely treated animals.
Philanthropy: REI works with a range of charitable organizations, such as the Initiative for Global Development. The REI Foundation is largely dedicated to getting young people and their families to do more outdoor activity. They push charity so hard that they encourage their own customers to join them as their employees clean up mountains, biking trails, and rivers.
12. Under Armour
Manufacturing: This rising star of the active wear industry will not work with any manufacturers that engage in child labor, forced labor, discrimination, or poor health and safety standards. All of their Asian and Central American factory workers are guaranteed the minimum wage and compensation for overtime, and they enforce a zero-tolerance code of conduct that prohibits any form of corruption.
Environment: Their UA Green clothing line is one of the most eco-friendly we’ve seen. Every year, two million recycled plastic bottles are used to make their clothes, shoes, and hats, and Under Armor strives for a neutral environmental impact by buying one kilowatt hour of wind power for every kWh of electricity they use. They’ve also made hefty donations to Big Belly, an organization that installs solar-powered trash compactors all over Under Armour’s home town of Baltimore.
Philanthropy: Under Armor likes to dedicate clothing lines to specific causes. Their Power in Pink range sends its profits to several breast cancer organizations, and their Freedom line will have donated over a million dollars to injured veterans by 2014. Under Armor also works with Habitat for Humanity to build housing for underprivileged families, Big Brothers Big Sisters to mentor high schoolers, and many other charities.
Manufacturing: All of Yogiiza's production takes place in Peru, where their clothing is made from native, non-GMO cotton. Despite being a more expensive option than most Asian countries, Peru was chosen as a base of operations because of the country's higher human rights standards. Yogiiza's founder personally inspects their facilities several times per year to make sure they're complying with fair labor practices.
Environment: The company's pride and joy is their Peruvian organic cotton, which goes much easier on the environment than the conventional stuff. They only use eco-friendly, organic dyes that have been certified by Global Organic Textile Standards, plus, all of their packaging is made from recycled materials.
Philanthropy: Yogiiza is the biggest financial backer of 305 Yoga Gangsters, a yoga outreach group that teaches the practice to impoverished children, single mothers, prisoners, and other at-risk groups. In 2014, the company's founders are planning to get actively involved in microfinance operations in Peru through Oro Blanco, a non-profit that works with organic cotton farmers. Yogiiza also donate to the ocean conservation orgs Sea Shepherd and The Surfrider Foundation. Plus, every Wednesday night their Miami headquarters hosts a free yoga session followed by a pot luck. Yum!
Manufacturing: From the cotton farming to the shirt printing, absolutely every stage of production takes place in California. That means the labor is held to the highest standards of human rights and, since there’s no cross country or international shipping involved, 4-rth's carbon footprint is almost as minimal as it can get.
Environment: The company’s name is meant to be pronounced “For Earth.” So as you can imagine, they’re pretty serious about the environment. All of the packaging is recycled and recyclable, and while a lot of industrial dying processes can leave toxic runoff in local water systems, 4-rth only uses organic, eco-friendly dyes. On top of that, every part of their clothing is locally sourced, sustainable, and certified organic by Global Organic Textile Standards — in an interview with Greatist, CEO Doug Donahue even likened his store to a local farmer’s market!
Philanthropy: The entire company has two employees (Doug and his personal assistant), so they don’t have a lot of time to spend volunteering! But Doug sees the environment as the most important cause he could support, and makes sure every aspect of his company contributes to it. This includes annual donations of $12,000 to environmental groups like Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council — an impressive sum, considering the teeny size of the business.
CAbi: The fine yoga pants sold by CAbi support numerous causes: They’re sold almost exclusively by women, who make their sales by hosting the CAbi equivalent of Tupperware parties, and a portion of their profits go to the CAbi foundation, which supports impoverished women through microfinance loans.
Chase Infinite: One dollar from every shirt sold by this badass sportswear company is donated to charity. Notable causes have included the American Heart Association and the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Kira Grace: One hundred percent of the sales from their Warrior Collection is sent to Off the Mat, Into the World, a nonprofit that uses yoga as a platform for charitable activities, leadership training, and international social activism. Interestingly, they're also a 100 percent women-owned business.
Love & Primal: Both of Love & Primal’s founders have had family members affected by cancer or heart problems, so a portion of every dollar made is donated to the American Cancer Society or the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Association.
Lucas Hugh: This London-based ladies sportswear company is surprisingly green: For every meter of fabric that goes into a Lucas Hugh garment, one meter of rainforest is protected through the World Land Trust.
Lululemon: These guys work hard to reduce their ecological footprint and they support a wide variety of charities that have created libraries in Cambodia, mental health centers in the US, and yoga schools in Kenya. However, the many gaffes of their founder, Chip Wilson, and their very public recall of their accidentally-transparent yoga pants has kept them off the main list.
Title Nine: This women’s sportswear company only makes catalogues from sustainably-managed forests that are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, and they support plenty of charitable organizations such as Lift for Life, which helps young women with learning disabilities get involved in sports and schoolwork.
*The companies on this list were selected for going above and beyond standard practices in their manufacturing, environmental, and philanthropic obligations. Honorable mentions went to companies that had made a demonstrable, public effort in one or more of these arenas, but not to the same, holistic extent as those that made the primary list.
What are your favorite socially conscious active wear companies? Share in the comments below or get in touch with the author on Twitter @ncjms.