“The best moments of my life have been spent underwater. I fell in love with the sea when I was eight years old. I was diving with my father and I saw a gigantic jellyfish and thought it was a mythical creature,” says the Spanish designer Andrea Salinas. “The ocean is a magical but fragile place. We need to protect it. What if our children never know a healthy ocean?”
Salinas founded her sustainable swimwear brand Now_Then in Mallorca three years ago, after decades working as a swimwear designer for fast-fashion brands. Having witnessed first-hand the “frenetic pace of garment production and the horrifying impact it has on our planet”, she decided to create swim and surf wear with a difference. Her chic one-pieces, high-waisted bikini bottoms and cropped rash guards are all made from recycled ocean plastic.
Salinas is one of a growing number of designers making clothing from waste plastics. Adidas has collaborated with creative marine organisation Parley for the Oceans on sneakers; London-based Riley Uggla, of Riley Studio, creates simple sweatshirts and anoraks from recycled fishing nets. Resortwear designer Carolina K offers plaid-printed sportswear, and New York-based brand Svilu makes super-soft loungewear woven with fibres from recycled plastic bottles. Luxury brands are also getting on board: Breitling has recently unveiled a new watch — the Superocean Héritage II Chronograph 44 Outerknown — that retails for £5,600 and features a strap made from ocean waste.
Awareness about the detrimental effects plastic is having on our planet is growing. Last March, scientists discovered that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — a growing accumulation of plastic waste floating in the ocean — was 16 times bigger than previously estimated. Made up of approximately 1.8tn pieces of plastic, it weighs about 800 tonnes and covers an area more than twice the size of France. Micro-particles of plastic have been found in the stomachs of all kinds of fish and seabirds.
“We use plastic at a rate that is not controlled,” said Cyrill Gutsch, the founder of Parley for the Oceans, during his acceptance speech at the Fashion Awards in London in December. The company won the special recognition award for innovation for inventing a plastic made from repurposed marine waste. Stella McCartney is just one brand to have used it, in its backpacks and sneakers.
According to Gutsch, the fashion industry has a way to go in the great ocean clean-up. Other industries, like beauty, have already been making waves: microbeads were banned last year, and a whole host of sustainable beauty brands has recently sprung up. But fashion is still lagging behind: textile dyeing is the biggest polluter of clean water, and 20-25 per cent of globally produced chemical compounds are used in the textile finishing industry. Clothing made from synthetic materials such as nylon and polyester releases micro-particles of plastic when washed.
“In the three months since we launched in September, Riley Studio has managed to upcycle 2,000 plastic bottles and, by using recycled materials, we have been able to save 3,219 litres of oil,” says Riley Studio’s Uggla, who did nine months of research before launching her brand. “Regenerated nylon has exactly the same properties as virgin nylon. But the global-warming impact of producing it is 80 per cent less.”
How exactly do you turn plastic into parkas and pants? “Waste such as fishing nets, fabric scraps and industrial plastic are collected from oceans and landfills and sent to plants where they are cleaned and sorted,” says Uggla, whose oversized hoodie is made from three-and-a-half plastic bottles. After it’s been cleaned, the plastic is turned into tiny chips of plastic that are spun into a yarn.
Do customers really want clothing made from plastic, though? “More brands are creating pieces that don’t compromise when it comes to style, fit or comfort,” says Britt Cosgrove, co-founder of Svilu. “Customer perception is changing.” Salinas agrees. “Our swim pieces are super-flattering. We say they’re eco-luxe — merging sustainability, function and style,” she says.
Using plastic in clothing has actual benefits, too. Not only is recycled nylon lightweight, breathable and flexible (making it “perfect for things such as hot yoga and running”, says Quang Dinh, co-founder of New York-based activewear label Girlfriend Collective), it also gives knitwear increased durability. “By blending a soft natural fibre like wool with recycled plastic, you get the best of both worlds — a lightweight, warm sweater with increased recovery after washing,” says Svilu co-founder Marina Polo. “The plastic helps keep the shape.”
And while re-using plastic in clothing is not necessarily new — American outerwear brand Patagonia pioneered the model in 1992 when it made a fleece from recycled polyester — developments in technology mean that brands today don’t have to sacrifice on quality.
More and more suppliers are getting into the field. Girlfriend Collective sources its recycled materials from a plant in Taiwan, while Salinas and Uggla get theirs from Italian manufacturer Econyl. Footwear brand Timberland, meanwhile, buys plastic bottles from a recycling plant in Haiti and turns them into soles for its boots.
“For the first decade of recycled materials, there was a clear trade-off in performance,” says Matt Dwyer, senior director of materials, innovation and development at Patagonia. “We saw issues with tear strength, piling, and durability of colour — the fabric would bleach in the sun.”
Today, some 80 per cent of the brand’s offering is made from recycled plastics. “There’s been a tonne of research and development, so now just about any product, whether it’s a fleece, outerwear or equipment, can be made using recycled materials. Even our most technical outerwear products now contain recycled fibres, without showing any drop in performance.”
Swimwear is an ever-growing arena for recycled materials — with brands such as British contemporary label Paper London, Italian swimwear brand Suro and the H&M-owned Arket all now using eco-neoprene in their pieces. “The sea is in our DNA, it’s our way of life,” says Salinas. “If we need the ocean for our brand, we must be respectful towards it and not contribute to the crisis by using virgin materials.”
Dinh agrees. “We need to be good stewards of what we have on this earth for future generations to live in.” But with fast fashion still on the rise — 80bn pieces of clothing were produced globally in 2017 — there is still much work to be done.
“In 2012, the marine activist Paul Watson told me that the ocean would die in the year 2048,” said Gutsch, of the conversation that first led to the creation of Parley. “Today, Nasa tells us we only have 10 to 12 years left. The fashion industry has to create a new dream.” One that involves the existence of a living, breathing deep blue sea — the perfect vacation backdrop for that sophisticated, sustainable swimsuit, no doubt.