What Are Sustainable Swimsuits Made Of?

What Are Sustainable Swimsuits Made Of?

Nowadays, you see them popping up like crazy, 'sustainable swimwear' brands.

These brands are often putting effort into ethical production but also sustainable materials.

The most well-known and used material in sustainable swimwear today is Econyl.

However, there are new innovations and sustainable alternatives available, which you definitely should know about.

With trends and styles on constant rotation, the fashion industry is churning out more pieces than we can keep up with.

There are two main problems with swimwear - the amount of it and what it's made of.

Sustainable swimwear is one of the most searched for fashion terms in the world right now, and it's no surprise – swimwear is a must-have for summer, but your average bikini is also one of the worst offenders when it comes to chemical pollution.

Most swimwear you'll find on the high street is crafted from synthetic fibres made from petrochemicals. This means the carbon footprint of a swimsuit or pair of swim shorts is sizable.

The current state of fast fashion and trend-based clothing production has created a problem, and swimwear is no exception.

For years, fabrics such as polyester and nylon have been the norm in swimwear. While these fabrics continue to perform well, more people are considering sustainable fabric options as consumer behaviours evolve.

More recently, a variety of awesome sustainable swimwear fabrics have hit the market.

Wrap UK estimates that 350,000 tonnes of used (but wearable) clothing head straight to a landfill in the UK every year, not to mention the loads of unworn clothing that sits around in people's wardrobes.

Conventional swimwear contains textiles, but the main material making up our cheeky little bikinis is actually plastic.

Typical swimwear companies generally rely on materials like nylon, polyester and Lycra for their ability to wick moisture, easily stretch and allow for relatively cheap production.

But we all know the problem with plastic - it has nowhere to go but break down.

It's estimated that 65 tonnes of plastic materials are generated every year, and only 10% of that ends up being recycled.

If it can't decompose, where does the rest of it go? Sadly, it heads straight for landfills, oceans, and even into our food chain.

So, what's the deal with regular swimwear?

Most regular swimwear is made from petroleum oil-based synthetic materials like nylon, spandex and polyester.

This is problematic for several reasons. The first is that these materials aren't biodegradable, which means they end up in landfills or polluting the planet for hundreds of years.

The second reason is that these materials are shed and break down into microplastics which get washed into the ocean and infiltrate the food chain.

Oil is also a rapidly depleting natural resource, and it has a huge carbon footprint throughout extraction and fibre production.

What is sustainable swimwear?

Ethical swimwear brands all embrace the idea that the key to creating it is making sure that it not only looks amazing but is responsibly crafted and actually lasts.

They do this by sourcing different, natural materials or repurposing plastics that already exist in the world (from the approximate 8 billion tonnes on the planet, there's certainly no short supply).

Plastic comprises much of the estimated 1.4 billion tonnes of waste that enters our oceans each year, and one-tenth of that is said to be abandoned fishing nets.

Many of these ethical swimwear brands are sourcing ocean plastics as their main (if not only!) ingredient.

The plastics are sorted, cleaned, and broken down into flakes that can then be melted down into thread called ECONYL, and it's actually more soft and stable than its predecessor, Lycra.

From there, normal production ensues.

But that's not all that makes these brands admirable.

They make a point to craft pieces that last - the longer you hang on to your new suit, the less of them end up in a landfill.

They are not only reducing and (doing their best at) reversing plastic waste, but they're using design to make timeless pieces that won't go out of style after just one season.

Sustainable swimwear, unlike regular swimwear, is made using low-impact materials by people paid fair wages in safe conditions.

It's often crafted from recycled fibres, employing circular or zero waste processes and many sustainable swimwear brands work hard to give back to charities and local communities.

Riz Boardshorts, for example, crafts boardshorts from recycled and recyclable materials, blending classic tailoring with fresh, modern design and earth-friendly inks.

The brand has also pioneered its own recycling programme, offering to recycle old Riz trunks to discount your new pair.

Aima Dora is a sustainable swimwear brand based on an island in the Indian Ocean. "To be a sustainable brand means caring about our world – nature and people." says the brand's Founder, Alma Stanonik.

"We create and produce swimwear with that in mind and limit the negative impact on the environment as much as possible.

By living on an island, we can see daily the responsibility we have to nature first hand.

Sustainable Swimwear Fabrics 101

Consumers have become increasingly aware of their personal ecological footprint and are making fashion choices that reflect this.

As a result, fast fashion is out, and Slow Sustainable Fashion is in.

This is especially true when it comes to eco-friendly swimwear, sustainable bathing suits, and bikinis!

Years ago, no one would have ever thought of the term "ethical swimwear"…are you kidding? Dreaming about the possibility of clothing being made from regenerated plastic or recycled nylon… Get out of here!

Thankfully technology and eco-conscious fashion designers and consumers have changed all that!  

Sustainable Swimwear Materials

Two upcycled swimwear fabrics come from ECONYL, which recycles nylon waste into new nylon, and REPREVE, which makes new polyester from recycled plastic bottles.

Although the materials will never biodegrade, they can be upcycled again and again.

Econyl: Upcycled Nylon

ECONYL® is a fabric made from waste such as old fishing nets, fabric scraps, carpet flooring and industrial plastic from landfills and oceans.

This synthetic plastic waste is regenerated into a nylon fabric that can be used repeatedly to make new products like swimsuits and workout gear. Aquafil, a leading nylon producer, makes ECONYL.

This fabric is made out of regenerated nylon, which is composed of items like discarded fishing nets, carpet flooring, industrial plastic and fabric scraps.

Let's start with, I think, the most well-known sustainable swimwear fabric, Econyl.

Waste is collected from landfills and oceans to turn this back into a piece of usable fabric for this fabric.

About 640,000 tonnes of fishing gear end up in our oceans every year, so why not make swimsuits out of it? It's a way of getting rid of plastic pollution and repurposing waste. Please note that it's not just made from fishing nets and recycled clothing.

ECONYL is a type of regenerated nylon made from waste from landfills and oceans. Going beyond the conventional recycling process, ECONYL uses regeneration, which ensures that the new fabric is exactly the same as virgin raw nylon — meaning ECONYL has like-new qualities and can be infinitely recycled and recreated into new products.

To put the impact of ECONYL into numbers, for every 10,000 tons of ECONYL material made, it spares 57,100 tons of carbon dioxide being emitted into the atmosphere and 70,000 barrels of crude oil from being used. 

This fabric is still 'plastic', so we need to be very careful about the way we treat it. Also, just because it is made of recycled materials, which is a big plus, doesn't mean it's 100% good.

This fabric can still release microfibers when washed, for instance. So make sure to wash your recycled polyester or Econyl swimsuit by hand.

You can read more about how sustainable Econyl is over on Good On You. 

Behind the Process of the Fibre

ECONYL is made using a closed-loop regeneration process.

The first step is to rescue the waste from oceans and landfills from across the globe, including throughout the U.S., Canada, Greece, Egypt, Thailand, and Norway. ECONYL specifically looks for items with nylon in them, including used carpets, clothing, and discarded fishing nets.

The nylon that was in those items is then separated, cleaned, shredded, compacted, and packed in a waste treatment centre in Slovenia. That nylon is then transported to ECONYL's regeneration facility.

The next step, called ECONYL Depolymerization, is an innovative proprietary system where nylon's six molecules are unzipped and returned to their monomer state.

These monomers are then bonded together again to other identical monomers to form the nylon six polymer in ECONYL's Polymerisation process. Monomers are the simplest units of polymers, and the process of linking these monomers to form polymers is called polymerisation. 

After this advanced transformation process, the ECONYL is sent to production facilities, where it's processed into yarn for commercial use.

In addition, the company produces carpet yarn for the home interiors industry and textile yarn for the fashion industry.

ECONYL is commonly used for carpeting and apparel, especially in swimwear and activewear.

What's incredible about the regeneration process is that once these ECONYL products have reached the end of their lifecycle, the fabric can enter back into the regeneration process and be transformed into like-new nylon once again.

Repreve: Upcycled Plastic Bottles

REPREVE® is a fabric made from recycled plastic bottles. Plastic bottles are upcycled into materials like sustainable swimsuits and trunks, the cloth seats in the electric Ford focus and Patagonia's fleece. Today more than 16 billion plastic bottles have been recycled into REPREVE fabrics.

One of the most innovative sustainable swimwear fabrics out there its Repreve. This unique material is made from recycled plastic bottles and turns them into usable fibres. It is used by some of the largest global brands that create fashion apparel, athletic wear, and swimwear.

Reliable and durable, Repreve is also known for its wicking, adaptive warming, cooling, and water repellency qualities. In addition, Repreve is proud of itself for emitting fewer greenhouse gases during production and conserving less energy and water.

Repreve is a polyester made out of recycled PET plastic bottles.

Swimwear made out of either Repreve and Econyl tends to last a lot longer than regular versions. They're also chlorine resistant and have a degree of resistance against UV light.

REPREVE is a performance fibre made from recycled plastic bottles.

To guarantee the recycled content in their fabrics, REPREVE uses a tracing technology that verifies recycled content claims.

The company that makes REPREVE, Unifi, is a global textile solutions company that has recycled over 16 billion plastic bottles to date, intending to recycle 20 billion bottles by 2020. 

The fibre of Repreve is made from recycled plastic bottles. They created a tracing technology that verifies recycled content claims to guarantee the recycled content in their fabrics.

The company that makes Reprove, Unifi, is a global textile solutions company that has recycled over 20 billion bottles up to date.  

Behind the Process of the Fibre

First, recycled post-consumer plastic bottles are collected, sorted, baled, cleaned, and chopped into flakes before being sent off to the REPREVE recycling centre — one of the most advanced recycling facilities in the United States.

At the facility, the bottle flakes are turned into REPREVE chips and put into massive silos — each silo holds the equivalent of 27 million recycled bottles. Next, the REPREVE chips are blended, melted, and extruded to make REPREVE fibre. This unique fibre has inherent performance properties, such as moisture-wicking, thermal regulation, order control, cushioning, and resilience.

Amni Soul Eco

Solvay, a Belgian company, created a biodegradable polyamide that allows bacteria to gain access to and digest the waste materials, accelerating the biodegradation process.

As a result, Amni Soul Eco is eliminated from the planet in about five years, whilst other fibres take decades to decompose.

Like other biodegradable products, once it is in the landfill, this fabric breaks down into organic matter (biomass) and biogas; both can then be exploited as new environmental resources and used to cogenerate electricity.  

While most eco-friendly synthetic fibres focus on reducing waste on the front-end by using recycled materials, Amni Soul Eco® Thread has taken an approach considering the end-of-life for its yarns, creating the world's first recyclable and biodegradable polyamide yarn.

While the yarn is as resistant and durable as other polyamide yarns when worn, it will biodegrade within 5 years into organic matter (biomass) and biogas in a landfill environment.

This fabric is also used by Lenzing, one of the most sustainable fabric manufacturers who created Tencel, to create innovative fabrics.

Behind the Fibre

Amni Soul Eco® Thread has been specifically designed to biodegrade relatively quickly in anaerobic (i.e. oxygen-less) landfills by allowing bacteria to digest the waste materials to accelerate biodegradation.

Hemp

When you think of swimwear made from cotton and hemp, you might think of hippie swimwear. However this is most definitely not the case anymore.

Hemp is one of the most sustainable natural fabrics.

Hemp grows without pesticides, enriches the soil and clears the air from co2. Next to that, hemp fabric is also anti-microbial, UV resistant and very durable.

This means the fabric doesn't contain the harsh chemicals some companies use to make synthetic fabrics anti-microbial, UV resistant, and chlorine resistant.

Yulex

Do you know neoprene? It looks pretty cool and comfy, especially whilst surfing, but it's not environmentally friendly.

A few years ago, Yulex came to the market.

This is an innovative plant-based and sustainable alternative to limestone or petroleum neoprene.

It's soft and supple neoprene-free material that is lightweight and super-stretchy.

The natural rubber is derived from sources that are Forest Stewardship Council® certified by the Rainforest Alliance.

While neoprene is made in factories, natural rubber is produced by heavy trees that absorb carbon throughout their lifespan—reducing CO2 emissions by up to 80%. However, a potential challenge for this fabric is deforestation – which is why responsible sourcing from the start is important.

How Can Buying Sustainable Swimwear Help People And The Planet?

Plenty of brands work directly with charities or create their foundations to protect people and the planet. So by shopping for sustainable swimwear, you not only contribute to circular design processes, but you also directly protect the people making your clothes.

Aima Dora is proud to have its factories audited to set standards for safe working environments. The brand also supports the Sekool Association in Madagascar – a non-profit providing schooling for children.

"We also work with organisations to recycle the materials we don't use during the production process. The waste is then transformed into pillows, rugs and fabric toys all intended for local communities to use." says the Founder.

Sustainable swimwear brand Sloppy Tunas creates design-led swimwear from ocean waste, but it also promotes and operates beach clean-ups across Spain and the Balearic Islands. In addition, the label works directly with Mediterranean fishers to collect the plastic waste used to make its products, giving local economies a boost and keeping oceans clean.

The Future of Sustainable Swimwear Fabric

All plastic-derived fabrics such as nylon and polyester shed dangerous microplastics into our oceans.

That isn't good! But don't lose hope – designers and consumers can make a difference! The future of sustainable fabrics is unknown, so it's important to keep our eyes open for new options.

Progress will come from advanced work being done in laboratories around the world, believe it or not.

Exciting developments are happening now to create bio-nylon from plant oils. When done and ready to be rolled out, this product will be the first 100% sustainable swimwear fabric on the market! It's still a few years away.

But when it's ready, it'll be a game-changer for the sustainable swimsuit fabrics industry.

FAQs About Ethical Swimsuit Materials 

What material is used in swimsuits?

Polyester fabric has dominated the competitive swimwear industry for several years. Whether blended with Lycra® or by itself, polyester is the leading fabric for competitive swimwear.

New technologies in polyester have improved the hand and feel of the material, allowing it to surpass other fabrics.

What is the most sustainable swimwear fabric?

Natural. There are two categories when it comes to sustainable swimwear: natural fibres and upcycled fibres.

Hemp is the main champion here and is one of the most environmentally friendly fabrics on the market.

How is sustainable swimwear made?

Sustainable swimwear, unlike regular swimwear, is made using low-impact materials by people paid fair wages in safe conditions.

It's often crafted from recycled fibres, employing circular or zero waste processes and many sustainable swimwear brands work hard to give back to charities and local communities.

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