Eco-friendly alternatives to conventional bathing suits abound

We’re dedicating our July features to the world’s most beautiful and unique beaches and islands. There’s never been a better way to beat the heat than to head to the sensational coastlines and calm waters that nab a starring role in our dreams. Dive into our features to learn more about the biggest beach party you might not have heard of, how swimwear impacts climate change, the remote Tahitian village preparing for the world stage, and the best beaches in the United States.

If you’re like most beach bums, you invest a lot of time and money in finding the perfect swimsuit. Whether you prefer bikinis or one-pieces, boy shorts or skirt bottoms, ruffles, or rashguards, you likely search high and low for a suit that’s the right style, color, fit, and price point. And when you finally find it, you can’t help but strut like a supermodel when you unveil it at the beach.

There’s just one problem: Most bathing suits are made of synthetic fabrics that contribute to marine pollution. So when you buy a bathing suit to wear on your next beach vacation, you might be dealing a fatal blow to all the subsequent beach vacations you want to have in the future. That is unless you switch to environmentally friendly swimwear, which looks as flattering on the environment as it does on your body.

The Problem With Swimwear
Although they cover less than 0.1 percent of the Earth’s surface, coral reefs are the most biodiverse marine ecosystems in the world, according to the Coral Reef Alliance (CORAL), an environmental nonprofit whose mission is to preserve and protect coral reefs. They serve as critical habitats for marine life, with 4,000 species of fish, 840 species of corals, and more than 1 million species of other animals living among them.1

Coral reefs are also vital resources for humans, providing food, income, and coastal protection to more than 500 million people around the world. They’re important sources of medicine, too, as the chemicals in reef plants and animals have been used to treat cardiovascular diseases, ulcers, and cancers, including lymphoma and leukemia.2

Unfortunately, coral reefs are as vulnerable as they are valuable. According to CORAL, 90 percent of coral reefs will be threatened by 2030 due to climate change and human activity, such as overfishing, boating, irresponsible tourism, and coastal development.3

Bathing suits, too, are a threat. Swimwear is typically made from polyester, nylon, or spandex, synthetic materials that are lightweight and water-resistant. However, what can be good for swimming can be bad for the environment. For one, synthetic fabrics are made with plastic, and plastic is made with oil, notes the anti-waste Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a charity whose mission is promoting circular economies. “Producing plastic-based fibers for textiles uses an estimated 342 million barrels of oil every year,” it stated in a 2017 report.4

Of course, oil production generates greenhouse gas emissions, which are the leading cause of global climate change—symptoms of which include ocean acidification, sea-level rise, and inclement weather.5 However, synthetic fabrics would still be problematic in many cases, even without oil. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, “The manufacture of nylon, for example, releases nitrous oxide, a strong greenhouse gas that also depletes ozone.”4

Even if you were only to wear your swimsuit to the pool, synthetic fabrics wreak as much havoc at home as in factories. The reason? “Trillions of plastic microfibers” get released when you wash them,” These materials eventually wind up in the ocean. “Each year, around half a million tons of plastic microfibers—equivalent to more than 50 billion plastic bottles—resulting from the washing of textiles are estimated to be released into the ocean,” the Ellen MacArthur Foundation reported.4

Last year, scientists at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that long-term exposure to microplastics impaired the growth of corals.6 “What is still unknown are the exact mechanisms that are causing adverse effects. Ingested microplastics could block the corals’ digestive tracts, which would either leave them feeling satiated like they have a full stomach or prevent digestion of their natural diet,” said EPA coral biologist Cheryl Hankins.

Research also has shown harmful effects from microplastics that adhere to coral tissue, which could prevent corals from capturing prey or cause them to lose precious energy after removing the microplastics from their surface.

Sustainable Swimsuit Shopping

Suddenly, that adorable bathing suit you found online for your trip to Hawaii doesn’t look so cute anymore. But fear not: You can both look good and feel good by purchasing your next suit from a company that makes sustainable swimwear.

Ideally, that means plastic-free swimwear made entirely or partially with natural instead of synthetic fabrics. Because natural fibers aren’t ideal for swimming; however, that’s hard to find. A good alternative then is a swimsuit made from recycled instead of virgin plastic—as long as it’s produced by a company that minimizes the use of plastics across its entire operation, from its use of materials to packaging.

“Experts are unequivocal: Recycled plastic is better than virgin plastic, and any effort that reduces or removes plastics from the oceans is almost inevitably a positive move,” reporter Rachel Cernansky wrote in a recent article for Vogue.7 “The catch is that, too often, recycling is tacked onto companies’ existing operations—carried out alongside an increase in total plastic consumption, rather than as part of a wholesale shift away from it.”

While there are many reef-safe swimwear brands, standouts include Natasha Tonić and SLO Active. Natasha Tonić swimsuits are made with a blend of hemp, organic cotton, and lycra and are shipped in plastic-free packaging. Meanwhile, Swimsuits from SLO Active are made from Yulex, a plant-based rubber sourced from sustainably managed plantations of hevea trees. SLO Active’s sustainable practices extend beyond swimsuit material, though: It extends the life of its swimsuits by offering free repairs of damaged pieces and allowing customers to return products for recycling when they’re no longer using them. The sustainable ocean wear company also makes hangtags and business cards from recycled T-shirts and uses recycled and compostable packaging.

Other purveyors of sustainable swimwear include Patagonia, whose materials include recycled nylon and recycled polyester; SeaMorgens, which makes bathing suits from recycled plastic bottles and abandoned ocean fishing nets; and Masarà, whose fabric of choice is ECONYL, recycled nylon that’s made from discarded carpets, fishing nets, and fabric scraps. There’s also Strange Bikinis— which makes swimwear from biodegradable organic cotton that completely decomposes within three years when it’s discarded, it claims—and Vitamin A, whose proprietary materials include a plant-based fiber known as BioSculpt and a blend of recycled nylon and Lycra that it calls EcoLux.

People who prefer boardshorts can swim sustainably, too, thanks to brands like Riz, which makes environmentally friendly boardshorts from recycled plastic bottles; packages its products in recycled paper envelopes; and offers a circular “Rizcycling” program that allows customers with old shorts to get theirs repaired, resold, or recycled.

Of course, you’ve still got one more option: If you’re eco-conscious but not self-conscious, you could ditch your suit altogether. Check out British retailer Pour Moi, which published an international guide to nude and topless sunbathing last year. Just don’t forget the reef-safe sunscreen.