With warmer weather finally returning, people are breaking out the beach towels and sunscreen. The spring and summer fashion seasons are in full swing, and sales of swimwear this time of year are naturally on the uptick.
AlthoughÂ the fashion industry is notorious for wasteful practices, swimwear is rarely called out as a culprit. To bringÂ attention to the potential impact of producingâ€”and usingâ€”swimwear, the fashion label Reformation is calling out . . . themselves.
An Instagram postÂ announcing Reformation’s newÂ swimwear line reads, â€śThis swimsuit is not sustainable enough. But itâ€™s the best we can do right now.â€ť
Swimwear often trends towardÂ minimalism in an aesthetic sense, but the design of these garments is anything but. They have to endure harsh conditions that everyday clothingÂ does notâ€”saltwater, chlorine or bromine, direct sun exposure, and the mechanical abrasion of waves and sand. All of these cause the fabrics to degrade rapidly through either chemical or physical processes.
Few people (outside of the fast fashion industry) buy clothes to wear only a few times, so clothing manufacturers are incentivized to make swimwear tough enough to stand up to the elements. The only materials that will last through repeated uses are synthetic fabrics likeÂ nylon, spandex, lycra, and polyester.
In addition to their strength, elasticity and low production costs, syntheticÂ fibers have another thing in commonâ€”they are comprised of plastic or polyurethane, and therefore break down into microplastics as they degrade.
Reformation’s swimwearÂ line, for example, utilizes a recycled fiber made from things like fishing nets and industrial plastic. But it’sÂ essentiallyÂ nylon, meaning it can shed microplastics in the washing machine, which go on to enter local waterways.Â “When you wash anything made from synthetics, even recycled materials, tiny bits of plastic called microfibers are shed into the environment,” the brand explained in a media release, as quoted by the online magazine Fashionista.Â
Microplastics canâ€™t be easily dismissed as â€śnatureâ€™s problem.”Â The insidious fragments have already flooded the ocean in uncountable amounts, showing up everywhere from beaches to the bottom of the Marinas Trench, the deepest point inÂ the ocean. Autopsies of sea creatures often reveal alarming amounts of manmade plastic in their digestive tractsâ€”which, of course, can often lead to their cause of death. Some microplastics are so small they can wind up in the blood and muscles of animals.
Which, in turn, means that those plastics have infiltrated into our human food system. Even processing fish wonâ€™t strip out the plastics that have made their way into the meat. Microplastics from food have been confirmed in people, prompting frantic research into the health effects. We understand very little about the impact of microplastics in the human body, but judging by their effects on wildlife, the prognosis isnâ€™t good.
In addition, thoughÂ microplastics areÂ present in municipal water systems across the United States,Â many water treatment plants are only equipped to filter out particles of a certain size. In other words:Â Even if youâ€™re not eating it, youâ€™reÂ probablyÂ drinking it.
So, how do bikinis and other swimwear fit into this grim picture? The world produces 80 billion new articles of clothing each year, and about 60 percent of them are synthetic. That represents an enormous annual influx of microplastics into the ocean, asÂ wastewater from washingÂ machines makesÂ its way into local waterways and eventually to the ocean. We canâ€™t address ocean pollution without considering the significant burden the textile industry imposes.
An obvious solution is to minimize the use of synthetic fibers. As far as swimwear is concerned, however, natural fibers wonâ€™t cut it. Cotton and wool are neither appropriate for in-water use nor durable enough to stand up to the many stressors of the environment. Similar obstacles exist for active-wear and sport clothing.
Some brands recognize these challenges and opt for a compromise. Making clothes out of natural fibers, or even reusing synthetic fibers like recycled nylon, and reinforcing them with virgin synthetics can increase the longevity of a piece while reducing its impact. After all, making pseudo-disposable clothes out of solely natural fibers is just kicking the pollution can down the road. Thereâ€™s a tradeoff between making clothes out of synthetic fibers and keeping clothes out of landfills.
The news isnâ€™t all bad. Sustainability is becoming trendy, believe it or not, and the fashion industry is certainly not above capitalizing on trends. Customers are increasingly gravitating towardÂ brands that display their eco-friendly initiatives. Many brands are offering to repair their clothing for free and reaping the brand affinity that can follow. Some fashion companies have even committed to full-circularity, a huge step in the right direction.
In the end, if apparel giants like Nike are making the switch to a circular clothing system, then even smaller brands will find the necessary infrastructure already in place, smoothing the transition to a more sustainable fashion industry. And when labels like Reformation step into the fray and point out room for improvement, it certainly raises the bar.Â
Image credit: Pixabay