The Dress Code: Shopping for Functional, Ethical Leggings is Exhausting

A fan of mannequin legs waiting for leggings

Dear Dismantlers, All I want are some good leggings for my workouts! I used to just buy whatever the best deal was, but that’s not working for me anymore. Whenever I start shopping I get overwhelmed trying to balance cost, quality, and ethics. Is it possible to just get a decent pair of leggings that won’t roll down every time I bend over OR kill the oceans and contribute to someone else’s exploitation?  

This is a little outside our usual Dress Code wheelhouse, but we couldn’t resist because it’s like our reader has sprung directly from Sara and Elise’s text threads. We’ve mentioned before that we love exercising together, so naturally we spend a more than usual amount of time talking about exercise clothes. Add a year and a half of social distancing, and leggings become a central part of life. 

Yet, this simple, ubiquitous garment is somehow more fraught than other pieces of clothing. Like our reader, we spent years just getting whatever was cheap and available — usually from someplace like Target. And like our reader these cheapies just aren’t cutting it anymore. For one thing they wear out way too fast, so the cost per wear doesn’t add up. For another, we’ve found that as we’ve gotten older, our bodies need a little more support than they used to (Sara is currently lol’ing, remembering the Target hip hugger boot cut leggings she wore to cardio kickboxing in the ’00s.) And for still another, we know a lot more about the labor and environmental costs of throwaway fashion and microfibers

our leggings look like Mc Hammer pants
Actual Footage of our old Target leggings after 3 washes.

So what are we health conscious yet fashion conscientious folks to do? 

First, we use the same approach as when buying any mass produced clothing item: Know that the web of production, consumption and waste is incredibly complex and most of us cannot check every box. As Ophir El-Boher says in her webinar “The Art and Politics of Fashion Upcycling” (available free on Dismantle Education!) “Being ethical is never complete. There’s always something more we can be doing. You have to choose your battles….There’s no one solution that will solve every problem [in the fashion industry]. We need a diversity of tactics.”

What specifically can we do about leggings? For something we wear so often, it’s worthwhile to do some research. Is the company transparent about their production practices? Are they inclusive of many body types? Are they making claims that could qualify as greenwashing or other types of virtue signalling without being clear about how they’re following through? Are they durable? It’s ok if you can’t answer all of the questions, but try to answer a few. And if all else fails, that last question can do a lot of work. The most sustainable clothing is what’s already in your closet. 

But lucky for you, dear reader, we’ve already done an absurd amount of personal research (i.e. trial and error) in this department and can make a few recommendations. Note, nothing here is sponsored and we’re too busy to figure out how to do affiliate marketing. So these are just our honest observations, broken into three categories: Plus size fancy pants, budget and resale.

Plus Size Fancy Pants (Sara)

Being over 40 and over standard sizes happened around the same time for me, and I got extremely frustrated with having to hold up my waistband while I ran or hitch it into place after every lunge or downward dog. So I set out to find the holy grail of leggings and, despite my tiny pocketbook, was willing to spend more if it meant finding something that functioned, looked good, and was at least trying to do better in terms of ethics.

I’ve tried leggings from Athleta (a pilled up, rolled down mess. Not worth discussing.) Girlfriend Collective ($78), Superfit Hero ($95), and Universal Standard ($80).

Girlfriend Collective is one of those brands that haunts me on the internet. I finally gave in, more because of their super inclusive models than their environmental claims. FWIW there’s nothing wrong per se with wearing leggings made from recycled plastic, but it’s not the great fix it’s often purported to be. Rather, this is a form of downcycling that just kicks the water bottle down the road a bit. 

The leggings themselves were a cute color and well constructed, but still a disappointment. They did not pass what I call “the Sydney Cummings test.” They also didn’t withstand just, like, sweeping the floor — one deep bend with the dustpan and down they went. So, they were returned. 

Superfit Hero was much better. In this case I was drawn to the company’s transparent labor and production practices (they’re made in California and “are committed to paying living wages to the people who sew your garments, people who are also our neighbors and members of our local community.”) I also liked that their sizes start at 12. This is just my personal observation, but clothing specifically designed for larger bodies tends to work better than clothing that’s graded from a straight sized pattern. 

The Superfit Hero leggings are incredibly comfortable, with just the right amount of compression. And so far they’re hearty enough (I’ve only had them for a few months, but they were pandemic months, so, you know, triple it).  They’re not one hundred percent impervious to the roll and slither. But so far they’re great for chores, errands, hikes, hilly bike rides, and moderately intense workouts. 

Then there is Universal Standard. These win for function and durability. I bought a pair of simple black leggings when they first came out in 2018. I don’t know what sorcery they use, but the waistband Does Not Move. And after 3 and half years of frequent wear they still look as good as new. 

Universal Standard is disappointing on the ethics front, though. When they were new and small, they were reasonably transparent about working with a factory in Peru. Recent purchases are all made in China, and the website no longer has information about where or how the clothes are made. Unfortunately, when you wear plus size, you really have to choose your battles. 

Leggings on a Budget (Elise)

Like Sara, I don’t put myself through the torture of shopping too often. In fact, most of my clothes are hand-me-downs from my mom or sister, and more recently, my teenage nieces. But a few months ago, after working all year as a homeschool teacher in an informal uniform I like to call “modest athleisure,” my sister’s Athleta pants from last season were wearing thin and starting to sag. 

So I went on the hunt for affordable, comfortable athletic pants. My main criteria was that I really, really needed my pants to have pockets (keeping my phone on my body is a near-essential to keep my day functioning smoothly). Also, I was hoping to find some pants that didn’t start sagging at the crotch after three months of wear (see above my Athleta experience). And finally, I wanted to spend somewhere between $25 and $50, which I know in my head is absurdly low and a ridiculous expectation considering what it takes to make clothing, but anything more starts to strain my budget. 

I knew I was asking a lot, but I started my web search — and kept making my way back to Old Navy. Like many, I have a love-hate relationship with the store. Their clothing style and quality varies from season to season due to no easily discernible pattern (although I’m sure it’s shaped by larger issues like labor and supply lines). Further, they are, like, the symbol of fast fashion. But I decided to order two pairs anyway, because they had such good reviews and they were having one of their many sales the weekend I was shopping.

Pair 1:

I LOVE THESE LEGGINGS. I’ve been wearing them at least once a week for over four months, and they are still super comfy and fit so well. The fabric is breathable and feels incredibly high-quality, especially compared to similar brands and other Old Navy athletic gear. So far they haven’t lost their shape and the fabric continues to feel expensive and structured while still being comfy on hot summer days.

Pair 2:

I ALSO LOVE THESE LEGGINGS!! The fabric is light and breathable, but I feel totally covered (i.e., they’re not see-through). Plus they have a comfy, hug-like fit without my feeling like I need to rip them off to breathe off at the end of a long workday. These are also proving to be great for spending time outside in the Louisiana summer heat, which I definitely need because shorts are not an appropriate part of my modest athleisure attire. 

Overall, I’m very happy with my pants and would totally buy them again. I especially appreciate that so far, they’re performing like their more expensive counterparts. As the experts tell us, one of the best ways to address clothing waste is to just keep wearing what we have in our closets. I’m hoping for a long relationship with my two new pairs of pants, one that allows me to avoid online shopping for at least a few years. I’ll be sure to share an update if my pants do last that long.

For a great list of ethical, relatively affordable alternatives to Old Navy, see here

Adventures in Resale Lululemon (Meredith)

Our friend Meredith is our informant for this category. Like Sara and Elise, she realized one day that her old sweatpants just weren’t working like they used to. But she also didn’t want to spend a million dollars on leggings. So she found a pair of used Lululemons on Poshmark for $17.00. 

Her assessment is…mixed. These are definitely ladies who lunch yoga pants, not actual yoga yoga pants. She bought a size 4 and the first thing she noticed is that they are scaled for Dutch supermodels, bunching around her ankles no matter how high she pulled them up. She told us, “I’m average to tall in America, so this is just, like, trolling us.” She went on to say, “When you do yoga they instantly roll down in an intense way. And getting them on is like putting on tights made of chain mail.”

On the other hand they look amazing and when she wore the “lulumail” to a farmer’s market, an errand that involved lots of squatting to tie and untie her dog, she felt a little springier. “I think they’re good if your errand only involves walking and squats,” she concluded. 

Lululemon has done a lot of work to repair their image in recent years and distance itself from former CEO and fatphobe, Chip Wilson. So far this has taken the form of adding sizes 16-20 to their range (sorry, but woopty-doo) and adding a lot of glossy “initiatives” to their website. According to Good On You, however, in terms of sustainability and supply chain transparency, there is more talk than action. That site gives them a rating of “Not Good Enough”.

Our conclusion? Same. 


If you want Lululemon — buy them secondhand. If you’re on a tight budget and need something new, stick to Old Navy. If you can afford a pair of fancy pants and need a larger size, Superfit Hero checks the most boxes in terms of functionality, fit, style, supply chain transparency, and inclusivity. And no matter what you decide, only buy what you need, wash them as infrequently as you can stand, and push for policies that make it harder for any brand to pollute and exploit. The Garment Worker Center in Los Angeles has a great list of resources to help you get started!

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Sara Tatyana Bernstein
Sara is the co-founder of Dismantle Magazine. You can also find her writing on Catapult, The Outline, Racked, BuzzFeed Reader, and more. Most of her work is about everyday fashion and consumer culture, with forays into pop culture, higher ed, and labor.
I am a former university professor and a Ph.D. working as a writing coach and editor. I co-founded Dismantle Magazine, which publishes crossover content in fashion and cultural studies and emphasizes mentoring emerging writers.