Why we need sustainable swimwear

Plastic bags are no longer the only problem threatening the ocean. Bathers are now, too. Photo: Emily Garbett

A busy mum slathers sunscreen on her son, clad in baggy shorts and a long-sleeved ‘rashie’. She herself is in a bright blue one-piece – her legs, arms and back exposed, failing to see the irony in her actions. A leathery body in a pair of sagging Speedos nods at two surfers strolling past in their faded, well-loved boardshorts.

Swimwear is worn by so many, often on a daily basis, during an Australian summer and tan lines are etched onto skin well into April. But swimwear plays a more important role beyond fashion and swimming practicalities than many think.

Many clothes are made up of microfibres, tiny plastic fibres released into the water every time they are washed. Swimwear – bathers, bikinis or boardies – release these too. What happens then, when bathers, bursting with microfibres are worn straight into the ocean?

The average piece of swimwear contains a mix of man-made microfibres, with synthetic fibres giving it the stretch it needs to hug the body. When bathers hit the sea these microfibres get released adding to the staggering 51 trillion pieces of microplastics already polluting the ocean.

Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic, defined as being less than five millimetres long and are invisible to the naked eye. They can come from larger pieces of plastic breaking down into smaller fragments or from products already made from miniscule pieces of plastic.

Looking back on summer, a lot more has been left at the beach than a forgotten towel and an empty bottle of sunscreen.

Curtin University Molecular and Life Sciences lecturer Dr Nicola Browne says the impact of microplastics is a bigger issue than first thought.

“We’re only just starting to understand the enormity of the problem and the more researchers are looking into the issue, the more they’re starting to realise this is far beyond anything we considered,” Dr Browne says. “You’re getting effects of all sorts, from birds and turtles swallowing large bits of plastic fragments, to plastics being broken down by UV sunlight into smaller and smaller particles which end up not only in the marine waters but also in the water we drink and the food we eat.”

The swimwear market in Australia is expected to reach 2.1 million pieces by next year and, according to Greenpeace, the use of synthetic materials has doubled since 2000. Sustainable swimwear has never had a more important role to play, but very few consumers consider what bathers are doing to the environment.

Shekki swimwear shop owner, Leanne Thayer, admits in 13 years she has never had anyone – from customers to suppliers to manufacturers – ask about sustainable swimwear.

“If we aren’t aware of it now, then we’re in big trouble,” she says. “As far as protecting the environment and the climate, everyone should be doing their bit anyway so it’s just another area we can look at.”

According to Vogue, sustainability in the fashion world is a blanket term, covering ethical fabrics and low-waste production methods, fair wages and labour conditions, and recycling materials and textiles. Several Australian swimwear brands are hoping to reduce the environmental impact of swimwear and pride themselves on being sustainable.

Australian brand Mime Swim transform destructive fishing nets into materials to make their swimwear. Gypsea Swimwear, inspired by the ocean culture in Margaret River, use recycled and sustainable lycra. Shapes in the Sand use fabrics derived from regenerated materials, along with recyclable packaging. Even brand giant Adidas partnered with Parley for the Oceans last year to create swimwear made from fishing nets and debris collected in coastal areas.

Despite sustainable swimwear being available, many customers simply don’t consider it when shopping.

Surfer and swim instructor Shannon Nagy, like many other consumers, never does.

“What I look for when I’m buying bathers is affordability, durability and then style – probably in that order,” he says. He gestures down to the floral boardshorts he’s wearing, still damp from his morning surf. I wouldn’t have even looked at the tag when I bought these to see what they’re made of.”

Recently a brighter spotlight has been shone on sustainable fashion, with major brands taking steps towards a more sustainable future of fashion. Gucci went fur free and celebrities such as Emma Watson are pushing for a greener red carpet by wearing sustainable garments. However, the fashion industry is still the second-most polluting industry in the world. In Australia, 500,000 tonnes of textiles end up in landfill each year, 75 per cent of Australians threw clothes away last year and, according to fashion designer Stella McCartney, clothes get worn an average of only three times before they are thrown away.

Shekki, based in Attadale and Broome, stocks more than 15 different swimwear brands, none of which are sustainable.

“We stock the bigger brands because we have the support, we can get the stock, and we can get the sales,” Ms Thayer says. “Times have been tough in retail in the last couple of years, so we’ve just stuck with our main labels.”

Something else might be stopping customers too. The price. The majority of sustainable swimwear brands don’t sell anything under $100. Many are pushing $200. But Ms Thayer explains that in her experience, price is rarely an issue.

“Everybody wants to look great in their swimwear, so as long as it fits well and looks good, very rarely does it come down to cost,” she says. “Sustainable swimwear may be more expensive but if people think they’re doing something better for the environment and feel good about the purchase, they might be prepared to pay more.”

Sustainable swimwear is out there and to significantly reduce the rate at which microfibres are shed and their impact on the environment, the higher price tag might be a small price to pay.

Dr Browne says: “It’s just about being aware of how much plastic is in our society and if everyone did a little bit, then we’d have a huge impact.”

The surfers wade out of the water, satisfied smiles on their faces, and the mum bundles her son up in a towel. Leaving the beach, she turns to check they haven’t left anything behind. But their bathers have. Whether it is a flattering one-piece, well-worn boardies or a bold bikini, there is more to a favourite piece of swimwear than just how good it looks.