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Lo-res_INGCHYSS0936-SSummer is coming, which means swim season is here. When swimmers and sunbathers go to purchase this year’s gear, they face a new choice criterion: whether the synthetic materials that go into the suits are made with virgin or recyclable plastics. Their choices and the future developments of this market in turn have meaningful implications for swimwear companies and their supply chain operations.

Swimsuits are unique pieces of clothing, with different requirements than apply to most apparel. They need to wick away moisture from the outside, but they also have to stretch and fit closely to the body. They also need to be slick in texture, so that swimmers can move easily through water. For all these requirements, synthetic fabrics such as nylon and spandex are well suited, unlike natural single-ingredient fabrics like cotton.

But synthetic products by definition include plastics and other materials that do not biodegrade or decompose. Thus, they have negative impacts on the environment, and these considerations are especially relevant for swimwear because of its uses. That is, people already wear the products in the water. Then when they wash them, the clothing releases microparticles of plastic, which get washed down drains. Scientists have found increasing levels of microplastics in wild fish; in addition to the broader environmental concerns associated with this contamination, this evidence means that the plastics have entered the food chain, and people are ingesting the microparticles, with negative effects for their liver and kidney functions.

In response to these concerns, some companies are searching for alternatives and ways to reduce the amount of plastic being used. One option is to integrate more recycled plastic material into the synthetic fabric. In so doing, the producers avoid adding more virgin (i.e., previously unused) plastic into the supply chain. For example, Athleta notes that approximately 85 percent of its swimwear now contains recycled plastic, and it aims to get to 100 percent soon. Its efforts have been hindered by supply chain limitations though, in that the internationally diverse factories that produce its products do not all have access to supplies or the capabilities to work with recycled plastics.

Nor does the use of recycled plastic fully solve the problem; the suits still contain plastic, which gets released as microparticles through washing. Some companies encourage consumers to handwash their swimsuits, which releases fewer microparticles. A small, environmentally oriented swimwear company called Reformation sells a wash bag that collects the microparticles when consumers put their suits in the washing machine (though consumers still have to figure out how to dispose of the collected material).

Another sustainability-focused firm called Summersalt took the seemingly counterintuitive decision to add more of a Lycra blend that contains virgin plastic to their suits, because the added material lengthens the usable life of the suits. If consumers can keep wearing the suits for multiple seasons, they are not throwing the suits away, into landfills, where the contained plastics either leech into the soil or get incinerated, with negative implications for air quality.

Instead of tossing used and unwanted suits into the trash, recycling them offers another possible solution. However, this option creates still other challenges. At the moment, synthetic products are difficult to recycle; a method would need to be developed to separate out their various ingredients, so that each element could be recycled separately. In addition, taking swimwear back from consumers would demand reverse supply chain operational capabilities from companies, which can be expensive and particularly difficult for the small start-up firms trying to bring sustainability into the swimwear market.  If these challenges could be resolved, the outlook would be more positive. Plastics can be recycled an infinite number of times, so if each swimsuit were returned for recycling, arguably, the production chain would not need any more virgin plastic. But it still would not address those tiny microparticles that get released in the wash, suggesting that the ultimate solution to this environmental issue requires a multifaceted approach.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How many swimsuits do you own, and how often do you wash them?
  2. Can you think of any other potential solutions to this environmental concern, beyond those mentioned in this abstract?


Source: Elizabeth Segran, “Your Swimsuit Is Terrible for the Environment,” Fast Company, April 10, 2019