How Sustainability Is Taking Over the Dancewear Industry

The past several years have seen an explosion of small dancewear brands selling sustainable products. Here’s what “sustainable dancewear” means—and why it could be the future of the industry.

Five leotards—dark green, light pink, pink/purple, peach, navy and black—lined up next to each other, overlapping. They have a simple U-neck design and thick shoulder straps.
S M K leotards are produced locally in Seoul, and use eco-friendly materials. Photo courtesy S M K

Sustainable and ethical fashion was once a niche market, led by activists and a few small businesses. It’s safe to say that’s no longer the case: Women’s Wear Daily reports that consumers spent over seven billion hours searching for “sustainable,” “ethical,” “fair-trade” and “eco-friendly” clothing online in 2020.

In the mainstream fashion world, that’s meant sustainability programs and commitments from big brands like H&M, UNIQLO and Levi’s, as well as the rise of small brands focused on sustainability and ethical production.

While the dance world has been slower to see industry-wide change, there’s a growing number of small dancewear brands committed to sustainability (at least two launching in 2020 alone) who are meeting a need and an interest from dancers.

“I think it’s an overall awakening of people to what happens to animals along the chain, and also what happens to the environment,” says Cynthia King, owner of Cynthia King Vegan Ballet Slippers, suggesting the reason for rising interest within the dance community.

Samantha Carney, managing director of Dansez (which makes a portion of its dancewear from regenerated nylon), attributes the spike in interest to restrictions caused by the global pandemic. “We’ve all been dancing at home,” she says. “People have more time to do their research” on the negative environmental impacts and inhumane labor practices of “fast fashion.”

But what are these dancewear brands doing differently—and how does producing sustainable dancewear fit into a sustainable business model?

What Does “Sustainability” Mean?

“Sustainability” means something different to everyone, which can confuse customers and limit how brands who use the term are held accountable. (Greenwashing—companies making vague or unsubstantiated claims about their environmentally friendly practices—has been an issue within the fashion industry at large.)

Unfortunately, it’s proven nearly impossible to settle on a universal definition, as there are several ways to reduce the impact of complex supply chains in fashion. “A lot of people think about ‘sustainable’ in terms of just the environment,” says Helen Banks, owner of recently launched Imperfect Pointes, which produces leotards and dance tights from recycled nylon. “But I think we also need to consider the social implications. It’s about having minimum impacts on the planet, and also treating people who work in our supply chains in a fair way. And having transparency in what we do.”

For Banks’ newly launched company, as well as for Dansez, sustainable practices include the use of ECONYL for some or all of their products. The innovative material is made by recycling nylon waste from products such as fishing nets, fabric scraps and industrial plastic. This replaces virgin polyester and nylon, which are both petroleum-based and contribute a considerable amount of greenhouse gases to the environment. Both UK-based retailers also invest in sustainable packaging in the hopes of cutting down on waste from shipping.

A pile of small orange and purple reusable bags lay on a table.
S M K products are packaged in reusable bags made from fabric scraps. Photo courtesy S M K

Compostable or biodegradable mailers are increasingly popular among conscious fashion and dancewear brands; however, Sandra Meynier Kang takes it one step further: Each S M K product is packaged in a reusable bag made from fabric scraps that would otherwise be thrown away after production. The French designer—now based in Seoul, South Korea—also produces locally, uses certified organic cotton and has a take-back program that enables Kang to recycle worn pieces instead of having customers throw them away.

Even before Kang moved into sustainable manufacturing, S M K pieces were completely vegan. (Animal products can often be found in dancewear items like leather-soled ballet slippers, wool warm-ups and even feathered costumes.) NYC-based King’s ballet slipper business was born out of frustration with the lack of animal-free dance shoes specifically. She says it was as easy as switching out the usual leather sole of canvas ballet slippers to a synthetic composite one, to make the classic shoe cruelty-free. King’s shoes are manufactured in China “in a factory with whom we maintain regular communication to ensure that our values are upheld and the quality of our product is maintained,” she says. And, at $26.95 or $28.95 a pair, the brand’s prices remain competitive. King and Kang both maintain that the use of animal products creates waste, making veganism an important element of sustainability.

For many of these dancewear brands, sustainability also means local manufacturing. Concerns over unfair or inhumane labor practices along supply chains have risen steadily in recent years, calling for boycotts of fast-fashion brands and continuous public pressure for retailers to provide customers with more information on their operations. These small businesses sidestep this issue by producing their lines locally with factories they know and trust, or even by owning those facilities themselves. Dansez, for example, has owned and operated its manufacturing houses in Kent, UK, since the company’s founding over 46 years ago. Its vertically integrated production ensures the brand holds complete control of the process, so the company can maintain ethical labor practices and a lower environmental impact while increasing adaptability.

Passion First, Profit Second

For all the positive impacts these innovative production practices have, going the sustainable route can come with higher costs and require more time. “It’s that idea of going against that fast-fashion, hyper-consumerism culture—not because of anything business-related, but because it’s not compassionate,” says Tan Li Min, owner of Singapore-based Cloud & Victory, which uses sustainable organic cotton and local manufacturing to create dancewear and accessories.

Most sustainable-dancewear owners make compromises in order to create what they believe in. Min, for instance, admitted she wasn’t able to pay herself a decent wage until recently, even though her business has been operating for about nine years. Kang, another seasoned business owner, has stood by her price points (her leotards typically cost $95, with the most expensive going for $125) in order to pay her employees and contractors. In addition, she’s found herself spending 50 percent of her time on simply upcycling fabric scraps for packaging. “The 50 percent I lose doing that is time I could spend on marketing, communication or other aspects of my brand,” she says.

The upside to the niche-market status of dancewear is that customers tend to be repeat ones, staying loyal to brands for a long time. King, for example, has seen her shoes purchased by dancers all throughout their careers, and then by their children.

And if the mainstream fashion industry’s sustainability journey is any indication, profitability is possible over time. But it’s no longer just about profits, anyway, says Imperfect Pointes founder Helen Banks. “Businesses have to look at the triple bottom line: profit, people and planet.”

Audrey Stanton is a freelance writer with a focus on sustainable fashion. In addition, she covers mental health, fashion history and conscious living for various publications.