“I know our bikinis can’t save the ocean. But maybe the people wearing them can”

“I know our bikinis can’t save the ocean. But maybe the people wearing them can”

Words: Robert Langkjær-Bain

Photos: Katrine Møbius

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She has built a business making bikinis from lost fishing nets. Now, she’s taking her message about ocean conservation to the world.

Katrine Lee Larsen can’t remember a time she wasn’t fascinated by the ocean.

Much of her childhood was spent on Denmark’s windswept west coast, and now she finds herself at the sea “almost every day”, diving, surfing or just staring at the waves. For her, the ocean’s mystery is irresistible. How could you not want to dive in?

Seriously, though, how could you not? Larsen can’t get her head around it. “Everyone I meet who doesn’t have a diving certificate, I’m like, listen up: the ocean covers 80% of the planet. Why are you not curious? Why wouldn’t you want to see 80% of the planet? I am too curious not to see what’s going on.”

Perhaps the world’s lack of curiosity is the reason why ocean conservation is the most underfunded of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Out of sight, out of mind.

As founder and CEO of swim and sportswear brand, Copenhagen Cartel, Larsen is on a mission to inspire people to help protect the ocean, by bringing its mysteries to the surface. Sometimes literally – like at a recent harbour cleanup in the Danish city of Aarhus. “We brought, like, 16 bikes out of the harbour, and put them on the ground so everyone can see,” says Larsen. “It’s a good conversation starter.”

The overwhelming scale of the plastic problem

The idea for Copenhagen Cartel came about after Larsen spent a year living and working in Bali, and “surfing in my lunch break”. But then came the monsoon season, when wind, rain and strong sea currents conspire to bring mountains of plastic garbage onto Bali’s beaches. “It’s the saddest sight ever,” she says. “Sometimes you could stand on the beach and look as far as the eye could see, and there’s almost a carpet of plastic. We went on all these beach cleanups and we could walk for eight hours and high five each other and think, wow, we really made a difference today. And then the day after, you could literally not see that we removed one single piece of plastic. That scared the shit out of me.”

Her response was to try to volunteer with an NGO called Healthy Seas, which works to clear up ’ghost’ fishing nets from the world’s oceans (an estimated 640,000 tons of fishing equipment ends up in the sea every year, trapping fish and other creatures). Unfortunately Larsen didn’t have the advanced diving qualifications needed to do the hazardous work of recovering nets herself, but she learned a little more about what happens next: the volunteer divers supply the nets to a company that recycles the nylon, which can then be used to make new products.

What if she could build a business using this circular material, creating cool products for water sports fans, and supporting ocean cleanup work? A business that didn’t just limit its impact on the ocean, but contributed to regenerating it? And all while inspiring others to get involved in protecting the ocean?

A couple of years later, back in Denmark, Larsen got the words ‘be brave’ tattooed on her neck, and officially launched her business, Copenhagen Cartel. “It was so scary to put myself out there,” she says. “I had no experience in recycling, I had no experience in fashion, no experience in producing anything. I was starting from point zero. So I had to read so much stuff, I talked with so many different people, asked a lot of questions. And then every time I got my paycheck, I put, like, 80% of it into a savings account. I was supposed to buy my first apartment and I spent all that money buying bikinis instead.”

“I was supposed to buy my first apartment and I spent all that money buying bikinis instead”

Photo: Carmen Martínez Torrón / Getty Images

It paid off: Copenhagen Cartel’s first collection sold out in three months. Covid slowed things down for a while, but then Larsen got to pitch the business on the TV show Løvens Hule (known outside Denmark as Dragons’ Den and Shark Tank), where she secured a €94,000 investment. A condition of that deal was that Larsen would quit her day job and commit full time to what was still just a side project. Since then the business has grown fast.

It now has 10 full-time employees and two stores: one in central Copenhagen and a newly opened one at the airport. It also sells online, and has its eyes on Germany and the US for its next physical locations.

The bikinis and swimsuits, priced around €155, are made from recycled fishing nets rescued from the seas, and the range now also includes sportswear made partly with seaweed fibres. The company also sells the innovative fabrics it develops to other brands. It donates part of its profits to charities that clear plastic from the ocean and protect habitats for baby sea turtles.

Consumers can’t do it all, but they can do something

Even now, Larsen doesn’t feel like an entrepreneur. Surprisingly for someone running a fashion business, she lists “fashion” and “numbers” among her weaknesses, and freely admits she never really wanted to be a CEO. Which is why, two years after she quit the day job and went full time, Larsen is preparing to hand the reins to Anne Karina Asbjørn, currently the chief operating officer, so she can focus on what she does best: hitting the road to talk to businesses, customers, NGOs and politicians, representing the brand and “building this global movement”.

Despite the company’s success, Larsen is clear that “a bikini doesn’t save the ocean”. More needs to change.

“People have a lot of things on their plate. But if you don’t engage with these issues, your everyday life will change a lot anyway”

“First of all, brands and politicians should stop putting the responsibility on the consumer,” she says. “Because it’s not the consumers who will be able to make that change, it’s the top of the pyramid: it’s the politicians and then it’s the businesses and then it’s the consumers. Let’s just get that straight first. But there are a lot of things that you as a consumer can do. Your money is your vote. I see a lot of consumers who actually have a very nice set of values and want to see change in the world, but then they go out and and put all their money into brands who don’t give a fuck. And then you cannot change anything.”

Companies like Copenhagen Cartel show that the methods exist to make products in a responsible, circular way. But other obstacles remain. “We kind of taught consumers that things don’t cost very much,” says Larsen. Switching to these more sustainable practices, they cost a lot of money. “So if you want to keep a price point where a lot of companies are today, it’s very difficult. I think that is actually the biggest challenge.”

“I understand that most people have a lot of things on their plate getting their everyday life together. But the reality is if you don’t engage in these issues, your everyday life will change a lot anyway. Because you will not be able to continue the way we do things today.”

Things you can do

Check out Copenhagen Cartel’s range


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