Too good to be true? Ocean plastics in fashion

Written by Hannah Cole

Clean up the ocean, save some wildlife; what could be the harm?

The sustainable fashion conversation wouldn’t be complete without the mention of ocean plastics — a hot topic in the eco bubble. With alarming stats surrounding the volume of trash in the ocean (reports claim that waste will outweigh fish in the sea by 2050), innovative thinkers have been working on a solution. Thanks to these developments, we now have new products at our fingertips which make recycled plastics an apparel option. 

Is it too good to be true? The sceptic in me constantly ponders. Let’s delve in.

First, the process. Plastic bottles, fishing nets and the like, are collected and then cleaned and process for regeneration. A breath of new life is injected into the waste of yesterday and from the dust arises a new yarn. The nature of these fibres make the product ideal for swimsuits and activewear (the most widely known of these being ECONYL — a regenerated nylon product made from tossed fishing nets, plastics and other waste). Luxury labels are even taking it for a spin now in selected lines and pieces; Burberry, Prada and Gucci are but a few of the brands on board. Clean up the ocean, save some wildlife; what could be the harm?

Recently, ethical fashion heavyweight, EcoCult, published a quasi-exposé on this very subject. The piece noted that the term “ocean waste” is flippantly used, as often only a small percentage of inputs are derived from the sea with the remainder sourced from other post-consumer locations. The terminology, the article found, is somewhat loose and misleading. For me though, the concern is less in the procurement of plastics and where they originate, but in the overall sustainability of using plastics in fashion. 

As with bamboo, regenerated plastics aren’t without their issues. Plastic is always plastic — even if it is recycled and reused. There’s no denying that cleaning up the beach and creating more circularity is a great feat, but nasty microfibres that come with any form of synthetic (recycled or not), are a force to be reckoned with. Microfibres are — as the name assumes — microscopic pieces that our synthetic clothing sheds through general wash and wear, which ultimately enter the water stream. A bikini of regenerated waste is logistically far better than a water bottle bobbing along the shore, but itty bitty fibres are released, dispersed and unavoidable nonetheless. 

There isn’t a perfect solution available just yet, but continual research promises an era of further innovation in this space. In the meantime, consider the below to wear smarter and better.

Up your greeny points by adjusting the way you wash. Place any synthetic garment in a GuppyFriend wash bag or alongside a Cora Ball in the machine. Both products capture microfibres as they are released, avoiding entry into the waterways. Wash your pieces on a short, cold cycle and, when possible, hand wash for the ultimate gravitas. 

Look for brands that are actively fighting to do the right thing. A quick mention of ECONYL is sometimes used as a sure-fire sustainability proof-point, so dig a little deeper and seek the labels that are incorporating sustainability measures across the board. How are pieces packaged? What dyes do they use? Do they work with certified manufacturers?

As a starting point, local swim label Peony uses both ECONYL and Repreve (which is made from 100 per cent recycled materials). With a consciousness that extends to the lining of each piece (something regularly ignored), the brand also adheres to ethical manufacturing standards and other eco-friendly processes.

Famed sustainable activewear label Girlfriend Collective prompts wearers to wash any ECONYL garment appropriately and even produce and sell their own wash bag. Along with providing in-depth information and transparency online, the ReGirlfriend initiative shows a promising future. Although only available to US customers at the moment, the programme accepts worn branded pieces — in any condition — for return, recycle, and reuse. Close the loop is the motto we live by. 

Finally, the elephant in the room: we’re forgetting about one of the three Rs here. REDUCE. It’s one thing to clean up an existing mess, but another to prevent it from happening in the first place. Plastic Free July is here, so let that inspire you to start making some change. 

In times like these, Reddit can often provide a weird sense of comfort, hilarity, and potential wisdom. As one commenter put it, ocean plastics in fashion isn’t perfect, but it is better than nothing.

econyl fabric

Burberry.

econyl fabric

Girlfriend.

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