Exploring a more sustainable lifestyle inevitably means struggling to find eco-friendly replacements for some less common items. We’ve all been there, and outside of the kitchen and bathroom, it can be even more tricky to ensure you’re investing in a product that’s genuinely safe for the environment. One aspect of sustainability we may not immediately consider is what to wear when going swimming. A common question I get asked is “do sustainable swimsuits even exist?” and my answer is usually yes – however, they are a little more difficult to find than you may think.
Let’s start by breaking down the meaning behind ‘sustainability’. Sustainability is a process in which the utilisation of resources, among other things, is in harmony with and enhances the potential to meet human needs and aspirations, both current and future. Sustainability operates on the precept that we need to satisfy present demands without compromising the ability of future generations to also meet their needs. The only way in which sustainability can be realised is through healthy ecosystems and environments – which can only endure, develop, or recover if we reduce the current impact of human activity and consumption.
So, for swimwear to be truly sustainable, it must be high quality, be made from natural materials, and it must be produced ethically.
Most swimsuits are made from nylon, spandex and polyester, which are all synthetic materials. When synthetic fabrics are washed or exposed to water, they release thousands and thousands of plastic microfibres each and every time. These microfibres are so tiny that they cannot be filtered or cleaned out of the water and they will never decompose – instead, they will continue to accumulate in rivers, lakes, oceans and beaches. Studies have found that synthetic microfibres represented the largest proportion of microplastics found polluting the ocean¹. These microplastics can have a dangerous impact on natural ecosystems, and the chemicals they’re composed of can significantly increase concentrations of endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the environment². Synthetic microfibres also have the ability to attract and absorb other harmful and toxic chemicals, which makes microfibres an even more devasting pollutant.
Another troubling issue is that many companies are advertising products made from recycled synthetic materials as ‘sustainable’ options. To me, this is a huge red flag that the companies doing this are greenwashing the consumer – making their items seem more environmentally friendly than they really are. Clothing or swimsuits made from recycled synthetic materials or water bottles are not genuinely sustainable³. Aiming to reduce their use of synthetic raw materials is a laudable goal for companies, but what they may not have realized is that their use of recycled synthetics results in the introduction of even more microfibres into the environment. Recycled synthetic fibres are weaker than non-recycled synthetic fibres, and therefore recycled synthetics release even more plastic microfibres when washed. The product will also need new material in addition to the recycled fibres to strengthen the fabric, which requires the processing of more non-renewable products. There is absolutely nothing sustainable about synthetic materials, especially recycled synthetic materials. Plastic pollution urgently needs to be dealt with, but turning this waste into clothing and swimsuits is the most unsustainable option.
Therefore, when searching for a new swimsuit, look for a suit composed from natural materials (plant fibres). Most commonly, sustainable swimsuits are made from organic cotton and hemp. When their useful life is over or they are worn out, natural fibres are able to biodegrade safely without causing harm to the environment. Of course, swimsuits made from natural materials will need more care – but when reducing your environmental impact is the top priority, rinsing and laying your swimsuit flat to dry seems like a simple step in the long run.
We should start to consider both the benefits and pitfalls of ‘sustainable’ consumerism and ensure we purchase items that are truly sustainable, not just marketed to appear so. We can significantly reduce our environmental impact by making informed decisions about every product that we need to purchase, to ensure we’re making choices that are genuinely safe for the planet.