The story about ocean plastic pollution usually centers on plastic bottles and other packaging. But clothing is another part of the problem: Every time someone washes something made from polyester or another synthetic fabric, tiny fibers flow down the drain and into waterways. In one study, an acrylic sweater shed 700,000 fibers each time it was washed.
For swimsuits, the problem can be more direct, and some microfibers might rub off into the ocean or a lake while you’re swimming. A bikini or trunks made from recycled plastic bottles might solve one part of the problem–keeping bottles out of landfills–but still contribute microfibers that persist for hundreds of years in the ocean and can end up in seafood. One recent study, which looked at data from 26 previous studies, estimated that people eat at least 50,000 tiny pieces of plastic a year, and possibly far more. It’s not yet known what the health impacts of ingesting plastic might be–or the dyes and other chemicals that are embedded in the material.
Outerknown, the Kelly Slater-founded surfwear brand that focuses on sustainability, is trying a different approach with its newest swim trunks, called the Woolaroo. Instead of polyester, spandex, or any of the materials that are typically used in swimwear, the trunks are made from merino wool. “Ocean health is on the decline, and one of the largest contributors right now is plastic pollution–and a lot of that is coming from apparel,” says Megan Stoneburner Azim, the company’s sustainability director. “So we need to look at how we can reverse this issue.” Outerknown already makes clothing recycled from old fishing nets; the clothing is also fully recyclable. But it realized that it needed to find more solutions.
Natural fibers also shed, but unlike plastic, they can fully break down. The company was inspired by the fact that the earliest vintage swimsuits had used wool, and wanted to work with the fiber to make a modern, high-performance version of the fabric. By stretching and spinning the yarn with new technology before it’s woven, it’s possible to make the fabric water-resistant, so the trunks dry quickly. The weave is machine-washable, and wool is also naturally long-lasting. While typical fabrics use chemical finishes, the natural ability of the wool to dry quickly and wick water, combined with the processing used on the fiber, means that no chemicals are needed. “It’s a beautiful story of thinking about sustainability that’s also performance-driven,” she says. When the trunks wear out, the fibers safely biodegrade.
Wool does still have an environmental footprint that comes from raising sheep. But when sheep are raised on ranches that use regenerative agriculture techniques–which make the soil healthier, so it can suck up more carbon dioxide from the air–the overall impact can shrink. Companies like the North Face work with ranches that use these techniques, and Outerknown is now interested in doing the same thing. It’s also interested in rolling out additional products in wool, though it wants to see how swimmers and surfers respond to the first product. “We need to make sure that this lands with the consumer,” says Azim. Outerknown also hopes to inspire other apparel companies. “I think that this brand is always looking to innovate . . . through the lens of influencing the industry to come along,” she says.