Words by Tia Tamblyn | Images by John Hersey
Tackling the issue of ocean plastic, one stitch at a time.
As spring gives way to summer, Cornwall’s beaches become the playground of choice for so many of us, bringing much joy, excitement and salty adventures... and vast quantities of plastic. Plastic not only from escapee beach and picnic paraphernalia, but did you know that the majority of swimwear is made from nylon, which is a synthetic fabric derived from plastic?
The increasing interest in the impact of our lifestyles on the environment has seen a shift in eating trends towards the seasonal, sustainable and more locally grown. We are coming to understand that not all plants (or animals) are produced equally. Yet when it comes to what we wear, there still seem to be vast gaps in our understanding (including my own) of the processes of making our clothes – from creating the fabrics and dyeing materials, through to the human impacts of how they are stitched together and then marketed and sold to us. Synthetic fibres have become the most commonly used to create our clothes, making up more than half of the fabrics we wear. Yes, they offer durability and elasticity, they are quick to dry and cheap to produce; yet polyester fibres alone take almost 70 million barrels of oil annually to make, and around 200 years to decompose.
Nylon is the synthetic fabric of choice for swimwear, which requires not only stretchability to hug our bodies, but significant stability against exposure to sun, salt and chlorine. The arrival of nylon in the mid 20th century revolutionised many industries including fashion, and there’s no doubt that the technical advantages of the fabric leave flannel and woollen bloomers coming up short. But at what cost to the planet?
Here in Cornwall sustainable swimwear brand Sand & Palm was founded by Vicki Jones four years ago with the purpose of creating eco-friendly swimwear. As a surfer and clothes designer who wanted to maintain the capabilities of synthetic fabrics without the environmental impact, Vicki began designing and making women’s swimwear made from recycled ocean plastics, in timeless designs that are made to be worn for life.
Vicki uses a fabric called Econyl, made from regenerated nylon sourced primarily from ghost fishing nets (that have been lost or discarded at sea or on land) along with other post-consumer plastic waste. With ghost fishing nets making up more than half of ocean plastic, and the projection that we are on course for ocean plastic waste to outnumber marine life by 2050, this is an environmental issue with devastating global consequences. By taking the waste nylon and repurposing it into swimwear, it is removed from the oceans and given new life, which also limits the amount of fossil fuels used to create new fabrics.
The regenerative fabric that Vicki uses is the cornerstone of her brand, but Sand & Palm’s sustainable credentials go well beyond these materials. When setting up the company, Vicki wanted to take a 360 approach, carefully considering every stage of the process in terms of social and environmental impacts.
Adding colour to fabric through dyes can cause major issues with water consumption and pollution of surrounding waterways – affecting soil, plant and human health – so Vicki ensures that her fabrics are dyed using non-toxic inks, and are screen- or hand-printed, both of which use significantly less water and create less waste than conventional methods.
Each element of Vicki’s product is, where possible, upcycled or bio-degradable, from labels made from organic cotton; tags and packaging from recycled paper; swimwear bags made using organic calico. Vicki also designs and makes a range of beachwear for which she uses organic hemp, a natural, biodegradable fabric that uses much less water to grow than cotton and doesn’t require pesticides, which have been recognised as a major cause of environmental pollution and human ill-health. Vicki comments: “Hemp is an amazing material, it’s going to be really important for the future, it’s one of the most sustainable fabrics.”
By designing and making her clothes in-house, Vicki is able to adjust her designs so that they fit perfectly as each garment is made to order, increasing the likelihood of them being well-loved and well-used. She purposely creates small batches of clothing, to minimise waste. Vicki has designed an iconic capsule collection that is functional, timeless and durable. The process of evolving the designs or bringing out new styles is purposefully slow; there’s no chasing seasonal collections which by their nature render previous styles redundant. Instead, Vicki explains: “I don’t work to the seasons; if anything, I produce new products maybe once a year, but I still sell the older styles because they’re classic designs that stand the test of time. I want the clothes I make to last a long time in people’s wardrobes.”
Durability is another carefully considered element of Vicki’s swimwear. In addition to the longevity offered through her timeless designs, Vicki crafts her clothes so that they’re made to last. Swimwear is sewn using two layers of fabric making it robust and well fitting, helping it to stay in place (important with activewear) along with using stitching techniques that are designed to last. Customers are advised to wash their swimwear gently in fresh, cold water and without detergent, then dry garments out of direct sunlight – all of which helps them to last longer. And if they have finished with their clothes? Vicki encourages her swimwear to be passed on to someone who will enjoy giving it new life, or donate to a circularity project in which the fabric will be once again re-used and re-purposed.
Sand & Palm’s process is completely transparent – in stark contrast to the sweatshops of many large, multinational fashion brands where human rights abuses have been well documented. Vicki has seen a surge of interest in buying from small-scale, local brands where production and manufacturing processes are visible. “People enjoy having an item with a story and background to it, rather than just buying something that’s meaningless and therefore they’re more likely to throw away. When you’re wearing something that’s been made especially for you and it’s made by someone you can identify with, that makes a difference.”
Disconnection with the story of what we wear is perhaps a major contributor to the problems plaguing the fashion industry; our lack of understanding of the processes, people and natural resources required to make what we wear has led to us undervalue our clothes, which has implications for how we collectively treat the people and resources in the supply chains, and for the likelihood of us respecting and keeping hold of our clothes. In an industry that is the second biggest polluter in the world, and where half a million tonnes of microfibre are dumped in the ocean each year this is clearly an issue that urgently needs to be addressed.
Vicki acknowledges that buying from a small, independent label with an ethical and transparent manufacturing story could be perceived as a luxury. Certainly, the cost will be more than an equivalent cheap high street purchase; but the latter doesn’t honour the real costs of production – environmental or social – and as Vicki says: “It’s really important we take the time to do our own research around what we buy, take back a bit of control over our lives. We’ve become so used to doing everything quick, fast, easy, but that’s not sustainable.”
Sand & Palm is a quintessential slow fashion brand, consciously anchoring itself against the tide of fast fashion that has swept us all along. Vicki explains that when she first started planning Sand & Palm, industry insiders – with her best interests at heart – advised “that I shouldn’t promote being an eco-friendly brand, I was told it would put people off, and the implication was that being sustainable would compromise the style and quality of my clothing. There’s been a huge shift in perception, that stylish and environmentally friendly can go hand in hand. In fact people are now asking questions of brands that aren’t using sustainable practices.”
My conversation with Vicki reinforces the role that independent labels can play in the clothing economy, encouraging us to slow down, value our purchases, keep them for longer, seek out garments that are created using sustainable resources, with costs that reflect the real inputs, and ultimately – buy less. It’s also hugely encouraging that, inspired by brands like Sand & Palm, we the consumers are starting to demand greater transparency and ethical practices from bigger brands that have such a significant impact on people and the planet.
And so this summer, as we set aside the winter woollens and reach for the beachwear, let’s firstly consider: do we need to buy more? And if we do, can our choices be inspired by Sand & Palm’s slow, sustainable style?
Listen to an audio version of Tia’s conversation with Sand & Palm via Episode 4 of the Breakfast & Beyond podcast, out on Thursday 27th May: www.tiatamblyn.com/podcast.