The fashion industry has been criticized for how it produces clothing quickly and cheaply. And the category of swimwear is no different -- tags in bathing suits typically say “made in China,” or Thailand, or Vietnam -- countries known for using sweatshop labor.
But as the ethical and sustainable fashion movements gain steam, many startups are producing swimwear in nontraditional ways-- sweatshop free and using what they say are more ecologically sound materials. Even a legacy brand as massive as Speedo is beginning to sell sustainable swimwear made from recycled materials.
Speedo just debuted its PowerFLEX Eco swimwear collection. It is completely made with ECONYL Nylon 6, a fabric made from "end-of-life waste material," such as old carpets and abandoned fishing nets. Speedo claims the swimsuits are sturdier, lasting ten times longer than traditional swimwear.
Speedo’s leftover manufacturing scraps are upcycled by the nylon manufacturer Aquafil into ECONYL nylon, diverting it from the landfill. These scraps are normally not reused as their composition is too complex, but ECONYL process blends those scraps with other fibers to create this fabric.
“We are challenging apparel manufacturers to be more sustainable and restructure their supply chain to divert waste from landfill,” said Giulio Bonazzi, Chairman and CEO of Aquafil.
The range retails for the same as the preexisting PowerFLEX line: $40 - $49 for men's models and $68 - $79 for women's. If swimwear industry giant Speedo changes the way they make swimsuits, will it become the fashion? So far, other big names like Adidas and the luxury lingerie label La Perla use ECONYL fabric too, as well as Outerknown, a clothing and swimwear line that debuted last month from surfing champion Kelly Slater.
The changing face of swimwear is more populated by small, indie-sized brands, like Bikini Empire, a line of surfer-designed separates for women made in Canada. Or Tara Grinna, which is made by hand at a family owned factory in Conway, SC. There are similar swimwear lines made in the US, Canada, and Indonesia, as well as numerous other lines manufactured in the UK. Generally, the lines retail for $100 - $150 per suit.
“The reason Bikini Empire chose to shore-up and produce our bikinis in Canada was certainly not" to save money, said Monica Rush. She and her twin sister, Kelsey Rush, are producing Bikini Empire, sweatshop-free in Vancouver -- and recently funded another round of swimwear with a Kickstarter campaign which raised $25,765 CAD, or about $19,300. Rush estimates they pay 6 to 12 times more to make each piece than a typical fast-fashion swimsuit costs to manufacture.
"After two successful collections under our belt in 2014 and 2015, we needed to expand our production to meet demand for our 2016 line," Rush said. "However, because we are a small business, and producing locally isn't cheap, we did not have the capital to pay for the production increase up front. For this we turned to Kickstarter ."
They're on their second collection ranging like their peers' products at $110 - $120. “Fortunately consumers are starting to look for and demand ethically made goods, and we believe that it's our responsibility to raise the bar,” she continued. “As a small company this can be hard, and competing with the prices of fast fashion can be hard.”
Since their suits can last five seasons, they encourage repeat customers by using enticing color combinations and solid, practical design. “Since we are both avid surfers, we realized that there was a lot of room for improvement in terms of how a suit is designed to work with the water," she says.