From use of plastics and chemicals, to microshedding, to how garment workers are treated, sustainability in swimwear can be tricky to navigate. Read our guide to understand more about what ethics and sustainability in swimwear really mean, and how you can make the better choice this summer.
By Kim Deuss, Founder of sustainable swimwear brand Daughters of Summer
In everything we buy, sustainability encompasses all the business processes used to produce a product – and should also include the impact of the full life span of a garment, from the first initial idea and development to the end of a product’s life after use.
When it comes to women’s swimwear, the majority of swimwear fabrics are either polyester or nylon, but in addition the fabric needs a percentage of elastane for stretch so that it fits well. Polyester, nylon and elastane are all synthetic fibres and are essentially plastics. We need to consider the impact these fibres have on our environment, both through the production of the fibre and also after purchase, when the garment is worn and washed.
One of the biggest problems we face with synthetic fibres is micro-fibre shedding. This is when small fibres are shed while wearing or washing our garments, similar to lint. Synthetic garments shed plastic micro-fibres into the environment. For this reason, it's important that we test organic alternatives to synthetic fibres, and educate our customers to properly care for their garments to minimize the environmental impact.
Understanding where companies manufacture garments is equally important in order to ensure garment manufacturers get paid a fair living wage and have healthy, clean and positive working environments. Many countries, including the USA, have labour laws that protect workers. So it's important that you find out what country your swimwear is produced in and understand what rights workers there might have – or what conditions the brand is upholding independently. A good brand will be transparent about this.
Also look for trade certifications in order to ensure that manufacturing processes are ethical. Some of these trade certifications to look for include: WRAP certified, Fair Trade, Fair Wear Foundation members, certified B Corporations, and companies who participate in Fashion Revolution’s Who Made My Clothes initiative.
Why is mainstream swimwear often not ethical and sustainable?
Mainstream swimwear is made from what the industry calls virgin fibres, which means that these fibres are made from raw materials, essentially made from scratch. These virgin fibres are made from fossil fuels. Rather than using up existing waste, or being waste neutral, virgin fibres produce new waste – and because polyester and nylon are synthetic fibres that take a long time to break down just as all plastics do, this means we are adding more plastic pollution, and more specifically more micro-plastic pollution, which is much harder to measure the true impact of.
By using recycled fibres, we use existing plastic waste to create new fibres, rather than creating new waste from raw materials. Even this is not a complete solution, as testing and using organic alternatives is a more responsible alternative, which we at Daughters of Summer are currently working on for our sustainable swimwear.
Beware of greenwashing
Often I see greenwashing used as a marketing strategy, and the word "sustainable" used frequently without any evidence or explanation of how, e.g. what ethical and sustainable practices are actually being used. Sustainability is not a trend or a marketing strategy. It is a responsibility we need to incorporate into all of our business practices and every day lives, in order to help protect our environment and all that inhabit it. Transparency is key to identifying when a company is greenwashing. Consumers need to know what the fabrics used are made of, and where the items have been manufactured.
How can you tell if a swimwear brand is ethical and sustainable?
Transparency is the key here in identifying how ethical or sustainable a brand is. Here are some key questions to ask.
What is the fabric made of? If a brand doesn't specify that they use recycled materials or bio-based fibres, then those fabrics are likely to be made from virgin fibres.
Where do they source their materials? And are they doing anything to minimize fossil fuel emissions in the sourcing and manufacturing process?
Where are the garments produced? It's important that brands provide information about where they manufacture, and whether those factories have any fair-trade certifications.
Does the brand make an effort to apply ethical and sustainable practices to other aspects of their business? This includes what their trim is made of, and what packaging they use.
When I created Daughters of Summer, I wanted to make the most ethical and sustainable decisions I could in every aspect of the business. For example, when designing our sustainable swimwear, I consider how to minimize fabric waste in the pattern-making process. When designing a print, I consider how to design it so that placement is not important to minimize fabric wastage in the fabric-cutting process.
A lot of research is done to find the best alternatives for fabric and trim materials that have the least environmental impact. Our solid colour sustainable swimsuits are made of 78% ECONYL® regenerated nylon and 22% elastane.
ECONYL® yarn is made up from rescued materials, like fishing nets, fabric scraps, carpet flooring and industrial plastic from landfills and oceans all over the world. This is a better alternative to virgin polyester as it uses existing materials and repurposes it into new fibres. Through the regeneration and purification process, the nylon material is recycled back to its original purity which is exactly the same as virgin nylon.
ECONYL® regenerated nylon has the potential to be recycled infinitely, without ever losing its quality. From the ECONYL® yarn that was used for our Spring / Summer 2019 collection, we managed to recover and use 40 lbs. of fishing nets from the ocean.
Our printed fabric is made from recycled post-consumer plastics such as plastic bottles. The prints are all made using a zero-waste printing technique which leaves no chemical or dye waste in the process.
All the packaging and tags are made out of 100% recycled paper, all garment labels out of recycled polyester and all hygienic liners are 100% compostable. All the garments are made in New York City in a family-owned factory in the garment district of Manhattan.
Like many other ethical and sustainable swimwear brands, we realize that being perfect is not possible just yet, and our ongoing commitment to ethical and sustainable practices requires continual improvement, research and development. Currently, we are testing plant-based polyester swimwear fabrics for our next collection, which is a more environmentally friendly alternative to the recycled synthetic fibres we currently use.
How to care for your sustainable swimwear
This also contributes to how sustainable your swimwear is. In order to properly care for your swimwear, we recommend that you wash less often and use cold water, as hot water can damage and release more fibres. Use a liquid detergent rather than a powder, which loosens microfibres. We also recommend you use a laundering bag like GUPPYFRIEND® to trap the microfibres inside it, and then empty out the fibres in the trash after washing. Hanging your garments to naturally dry is the best drying method, and you should also not dry directly in the sun to prevent any colour fading.
About the Author
Kim Deuss is the founder and creative director of sustainable swimwear Daughters of Summer. Kim grew up in Bermuda – a small island in the North Atlantic, surrounded by cerulean seas and an abundant coral reef. She spent her childhood on the water before taking up free diving, scuba diving and surfing, passions which continue to drive her today.
Having spent several years working as a fashion designer in New York, Kim recently returned to Bermuda and launched Daughters of Summer, a resortwear line inspired by her love of the ocean, which puts its wellbeing at the very core, with a focus on environmental and social responsibility.
You can explore our full range of sustainable eco-conscious swimwear here.
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