We're still buying it, because we've worn nylon swimwear our entire lives + we've been told that synthetic work-out wear breathes better than natural fibers. We like the performance + stretch that polyester provides. The thing is that climate change challenges our belief in the freedom of choice without consequence. Climate change will challenge our borders as climate refugees are forced to flee inhospitable conditions. Climate change will challenge us with the necessity of generosity + sacrifice for the sake of peace + the well-being of our fellow human beings. If we want to mitigate the speed + the level of climate change, we need to make some sacrifices now.
I honestly have not found the switches I've made from polyester to natural fibers to be a terrible sacrifice in performance. It just involves an adjustment in expectations and, in some cases, a little bit of time to find an alternative. My cotton bottoms may sag a bit when I get out of the lake...oh well...I've left no plastic behind. :)
Lycra + spandex are a major part of what make the current styles of swimwear + athletic wear possible. These synthetic elements are often added to even organic cotton pieces. Mixing fibers makes it harder to recycle cotton, + lycra/spandex will not biodegrade. We each have to wrestle with the impact of this knowledge. Is It possible to completely avoid lycra/spandex? Of course. We can simply choose to deal with the limits of purely natural fibers. We can choose to wear loose cotton shorts or pants to yoga class instead of leggings. I'm not going to completely leave lycra/spandex out of the discussion below. We might not choose to avoid lycra/spandex completely, but we can avoid as much as possible. Let's open ourselves up to the possibilities. Let's get creative. :)
What can we wear instead of polyester + nylon?
Sometimes advancements are wonderful + sometimes the old ways have good things to offer. Patagonia continues to embrace polyester fleece + capilene, but we've found merino wool to be soft, warm + water wicking. I'm excited to see that Ibex is returning this autumn. Duckworth + Ramblers Way make some wool pieces in the USA. Vegethreads designs + makes some lovely 100% merino wool pieces in Australia. WoolX, Smartwool + Icebreaker offer some 100% wool (be sure to check) pieces as well. All of these pieces hold up quite well, so look out for them on resale sites + in thrift stores. Obviously, one could just wear an extra cotton layer (like a sweatshirt) or an old cashmere sweater instead...why not? :) And keep them going by mending any holes that might appear over time.
For someone like me, fairly made, organic cotton pieces like those from Pansy (available with natural rubber elastic + without added lycra/spandex), Arq or State work well for dipping toes into streams, wading in lakes or rivers + enjoying the sun. A cotton bodysuit like Nude Label's, Thief + Bandit's or Everlane's could work for some as well. Many of us only wear swimwear occasionally + a fewer of us really use it seriously for swimming or surfing.
I thought that bamboo might be a good natural material for swimwear, but I was not able to find any at this point. There are some organic cotton/bamboo sports bras at Tasc that might be an option for some. This modal bodysuit from Commando (or this one from Ripple) is like bamboo in that it comes from natural origins, but requires more processing than other natural fibers. Apparently rayon fibers made up a large percentage of the fibers found in this study of microparticles found deep in the ocean. This provides us with further reason to avoid these fibers (rayon, lyocell, tencel). (Ugh.)
Please don't be fooled by ChitoSante fabric made with shellfish shells. Only a small portion of the fabric is made up of (or treated with) this biomass. ChitoSante is polyester.
Swimwear for serious swimming...at this point...may be an appropriate use of recycled polyester. These pieces of clothing are quite small + don't need to undergo rigorous agitation in the washing machine. If a wetsuit is in order, check out Patagonia's 85% natural rubber wetsuits. Continue to prod brands to seek innovation.
Tops: It's easy enough to wear an 100% cotton tee or tank already in our wardrobes instead of a polyester one.
Sports bras: There are lots of organic cotton + hemp sports bras available. No reason not to embrace them (some brands below). Also consider the level of impact workouts entail. I find that for hiking, biking, walking, rowing, yoga + weights...I don't really need a heavy duty sports bra.
Bottoms: Leggings aren't the only bottoms that can be worn for workouts. Consider looser bottoms that won't require such stretchy fabric. There are lots of organic cotton + hemp bottoms (including leggings). Conscious Clothing, Ripple Yoga, Hard Tail, Purusha, Reprise, Thief & Bandit, Satva, Tasc, Pansy + Pact are some great sources (check fabric content). I have done yoga in various Pact leggings which do hold up.
Patagonia is investing in testing + technology meant to develop plastic fibers that shed less...but is that really any sort of solution? We already have access to the fibers that humans have been wearing for thousands of years...natural fibers that return to the soil. Processing these raw materials into clothing we can wear is not without cost to the environment, of course. The best thing we can do is to wear our natural fiber clothing over + over + over again...to mend + repair it...and to wash it as little as possible.
There are gadgets + devices meant to attract or catch microplastic fibers before they can reach the drain, though the fibers must be discarded somehow...and some will inevitably fly off into the air or have to be tied up in a plastic bag to be preserved in a landfill for posterity.
Keeping waste out of the landfill is always top of mind, and I'm really not sure what the answer is in regards to the polyester + nylon items we may be replacing. When I first replaced some of our jackets, I sold them thinking that that may keep those who bought them from buying new pieces. Maybe donating these pieces to be used in carpet underlayment would be positive? (We may have to cut an arm off in order to avoid resale + donate to Goodwill in a bag labelled "rags".) This processing will produce microfibers too though. The bottom line is: the less plastic microfiber producing items in production + use...the better.
Our actions have an impact. Our voices may have a bigger impact. Educate + encourage with kindness. Encourage the people making these pieces to consider their impact + where they are spending their good intentions. Let's continue to ask for more innovation + creative thinking in this area. No more microfibers, please.
Lovely photos via links. Unlinked photo, mine. A few more ideas: simple workout wear :: 3 ways.