We first got the opportunity to check out Fourth Element’s Ocean Positive Swimwear line at DEMA 2014. Initially slated for release on Earth Day 2015 (April 25), the environmentally-conscious swimwear collection will finally drop today (Saturday 24th October).
The designs are classic and practical and offered all the way up to US size 18, but what really sets the Ocean Positive line apart is its fabric — a blend of lycra and nylon reclaimed from ghost nets. Abandoned by fishermen and left to drift where they may, ghost nets get their name because they continue to trap and kill marine life even though there’s no one there to harvest the catch. Ridding the ocean of their pointless destruction is a noble endeavor indeed. Linking products with activism is big business these days however, and savvy consumers are wise to question the fantastical claims of companies using popular causes to shill their wares.
We were thrilled to be given the chance to interview Jim Standing, one of the co-founders of Fourth Element, so he could tell us all about the Ocean Positive Swimwear collection in his own words. Read on to find out for yourself how Fourth Element is making a product that not only thoughtfully meets the needs of its target audience, but really does live up to its claims of environmental custodianship and sustainability.
DeeperBlue.com: How did Fourth Element get involved with using reclaimed nylon for this line? Whose idea was it?
Jim Standing: We had been considering a swimwear line for some time – after all, all divers wear swimwear under their wetsuit, unless they are very brave, and a lot of the swimwear that was out there was not designed with use under a wetsuit in mind. At a technical diving conference, we found out about teams of guys bringing “Ghost” fishing gear to the surface for it to be recycled and we basically were inspired to find out if we could use this material.
DB: How did you move it from the idea phase into reality? What kinds of challenges did you face in getting these garments made?
JS: A bit of research led us to Aquafil – the company that was recycling the nylon portion of these nets. They were producing a yarn called Econyl which was ideal for making Lycra based fabrics. A quick conversation with one of the fabric mills we work with established that this was the perfect yarn for us. So now it was a case of testing fabrics and designing products.
DB: How does the fabric differ from traditional fabric in terms of performance, durability and comfort? How does it compare in price?
JS: The fabric is a bit more expensive than traditionally produced Lycra fabric, but the quality is virtually indistinguishable. We use a fabric made with 12% Xtralife – the most chlorine resistant and UV resistant form of Lycra; as a result the performance of the resultant fabric (the rest of which is recycled nylon) is up there with any other high quality fabric.
DB: Where do you source the materials? By what processes do they acquire the raw ghost nets, and then transform them into yarn?
JS: The raw materials come from all over the world. Diving based projects like the Ghost Fishing Project bring up nets from wrecks and reefs in the North Sea off the coast of Belgium and the Netherlands, the Atlantic Ocean in Scotland, The Mediterranean Sea in Croatia, the Pacific Ocean in the USA. In other areas like the Philippines, small fishing communities are collecting nets and selling them through a very clever scheme called Net Works. In the UK – much closer to our home in Cornwall, there are collection bins in the major fishing port Newlyn, where nets that have reached the end of their useful life can be disposed of by fishermen rather than them putting it into landfilll and paying for the privilege. In Norway at a governmental project level, the deep waters of the fjords have effectively been dredged to snag and bring up the net before sending it to be recycled. More and more projects are springing up all the time.
The net is then cleaned and then depolymerised – basically melted at very high temperature and pressure, and then re-extruded into yarn which is almost identical to nylon made from virgin material. The energy savings alone are phenomenal. You could power a small town on the energy saved.
DB: How about the designs themselves–are there particular features that make this active swimwear more practical? What aesthetic considerations went into the final products?
JS: We kept the designs simple, minimising the number of clasps and ties that so often come undone or are uncomfortable under a wetsuit. Three of our bikini designs have no clasps or ties. We also wanted to create a classic, good looking line that would stand the test of time.
JS: We have several smaller collaborations in connection with this line – including, we hope, with Project AWARE (just working on this at the moment). We will be making donations to support the work of one of the volunteer teams in the USA to enable them to get out and collect more nets.
DB: Where do you see the line going in the future? Are there plans for other products that use environmentally-friendly materials or manufacturing techniques?
JS: Our rashguard line using this fabric will arrive before the end of the year, and we are currently experimenting with incorporating the recycled nylon into other products, both new ones, and re-developing some of our existing products. We already produce most of our lifestyle range using a high percentage of sustainable fibres like wool, some recycled polyester and organic cotton.
DB: Is Fourth Element associated with the Ghost Fishing Project? Is there a way for interested divers to get involved?
JS: Both Fourth Element and The Ghost Fishing Project are members of the Global Ghost Gear Initiative: a collective effort to rid the oceans of these nets. We are all working to raise awareness of the existence and dangers of the nets and Fourth Element (along with others – another partner makes the nets into skateboards) is focused on driving consumer demand for a recycled nylon product, whilst the Ghost Fishing Project is dedicated to getting these nets out of the water to a point where they can be recycled. Divers who want to get involved should definitely start with the Ghost Fishing Project to find out if there are local groups already collecting nets or to find out how to start a group.
So there you have it: Fourth Element’s Ocean Positive Swimwear line carries the ideas of mindful production through the entire manufacturing process, employing sustainable solutions at every turn. If you’re looking for a new suit, you can’t go wrong with their simple lines, bold colors, and diver-friendly stream-lined silhouettes. If you’re not quite ready to get out there and start collecting nets yourself, at least let Fourth Element ensnare you in one of their Ocean Positive suits. After all, every ghost net that’s wrapped around your body means one fewer left adrift to menace the deep.
You can find out more about Ocean Positive Swimwear and buy the initial designs at OceanPositive.net.