Sustainability Is the New Norm in Swimwear, Whether You Noticed or Not


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Picture this: You’re on vacation, wearing your favorite swimsuit. The color and fit are flawless. You have a slight, sun-kissed glow from the blazing sun. You go to jump into the ocean or pool, and…there’s no water because the earth’s resources have dried up. Tragic.

Fashion and sustainability aren’t necessarily compatible concepts. If you shop or consume anything, you naturally contribute to waste, even if you try to minimize your impact or shop responsibly. “The fashion industry produces over 97 million tons of waste annually, including textiles, chemicals, and packaging materials,” said Beth Esponnette, co-founder and creative director of unspun, a zero-waste garment technology company, in our exploration of sustainable denim earlier this year. Denim, a notoriously wasteful and harmful industry for the environment, has seen a recent shift in efforts to reduce its impact on the earth. So, too, has the swimwear industry.

meridian swimwear

Courtesy, Meridian Swimwear

Swimwear and sustainable efforts seem to go hand-in-hand because both are earth-centric. When you’re in the water, at the beach, or otherwise enjoying the sun in a swimsuit, it’s easy to feel one with nature. It comes as no surprise, then, that brands relying on the easy-going, vacation-vibes, earth-loving lifestyle would want to align with those values on a practical level and protect the environments that keep them in business. “While regular clothing is designed for urban settings, swimwear is associated with natural environments that inspire awareness and interest in their preservation,” said Baobab founder Isabelle Espinosa. “This closeness to nature, especially the ocean, makes the narrative of sustainability resonate more profoundly with consumers,” added Sienna Gomez, CEO of Sienna Swim.

As with denim, swimwear is a casual industry. There’s no pretension or heavy reliance on trends or the fashion calendar, and brands often release collections in drops on their own schedules rather than adhering to seasonal timing as ready-to-wear does. There are fabrication factors to keep in mind, like sun, salt, and chlorine exposure, and the cut and feel of a suit has to be just right, but customers generally know what to expect when shopping for a bikini or a maillot. Of course, everyone loves a trendy new swimsuit each summer, but there’s more fluidity when it comes to those trends—which means more attention can be focused elsewhere, like sustainability. “Customers are becoming more conscious of the environmental and social impact of their purchases, leading brands to adopt sustainable practices not only as a moral imperative but also as a competitive advantage,” said Dalia and Leana Ezzedine, the founders and creative directors of Ezz Studios. In other words, if you’re a swim brand that doesn’t have a sustainability component, why bother?

processed with vsco with j5 preset

Courtesy, Meridian Swimwear

How did all of this come to be? Let’s start with the process of manufacturing traditional swimwear. Most swimwear fabrics include raw materials like nylon, polyester, and elastane to make the suits comfortable, stretchy, and durable. The production, dyeing, and disposal of these synthetic fibers can be pollutive to the environment, but elasticity and water resistance are non-negotiables in swimwear, which means finding alternative materials can present unique challenges. But what’s an industry without a few necessary challenges?

In come recycled materials. As with other sectors of fashion looking to reduce their environmental impacts, recycling is a way to offset some of the effects of overconsumption. It’s not the whole answer, but it’s one palatable and accessible enough to keep up with consumer demands. Swimwear takes up less surface area than typical ready-to-wear, too, which makes sustainable design efforts—dare we say—a little easier. Some brands utilize recycled synthetic textiles from nylon and polyester to create their swimwear, which helps avoid the processes used to make virgin materials (and the associated carbon emissions) and can result in fabrics even more durable than traditional swimwear.

Customers are becoming more conscious of the environmental and social impact of their purchases.

What’s even more interesting, though, is the rise of fabrics made with plastic waste. Brands like Sienna and Ezz Studios use textiles made from plastic bottles and discarded or abandoned fishing nets, also known as ghost nets. If you aren’t already familiar, you may believe this is a novel concept. But this idea is more widespread than you think. Thanks to companies like Econyl® and Repreve®, you might already own a swimsuit made with recycled fibers. To name a few, Lands’ End, Vitamin A, Bydee, Roxy, and even Speedo use Repreve, while Marimekko, Vanessa Sposi, Seaquelle, and Meridian use Econyl fabrics. Some brands even use both.

Sustainability talk can feel like a lot of science and trademarks, so let’s get into the weeds. Discarded waste like the aforementioned fishing nets and plastic bottles are collected from the ocean or landfills and then sent for cleaning and sorting at large facilities. At Repreve, “waste materials are chopped, ground, filtered, and melted into high-quality resin,” explained Meredith Boyd, chief product officer at Unifi Manufacturing, Inc., Repreve’s producer. “This resin is melted into a liquid and then extruded into tiny, continuous filaments as Repreve fiber. From there, we go through additional textile processes such as texturing the fiber to transform it into Repreve yarn.” To date, the company has turned 40 billion post-consumer plastic bottles into usable resin.


Courtesy, Repreve

You might think wearing recycled plastic (or rPET) textiles would be uncomfortable, especially with a garment in such close contact with the body. However, advanced technologies have made it so you hardly notice. “A critical milestone for [our company] was proving that there was no compromise in performance for [our] recycled yarns,” shared Boyd. “This empowered the usage of Repreve into critical applications, like swimwear, that have to stand up to challenging environments and heavy use.”

For Marimekko, who entered the swim category in 2022, using material like Econyl was a logical choice. “The material plays an important role in functionality,” said Emmakaisa Kirves, Marimekko’s design director of ready-to-wear and bags & accessories. For swimwear, it’s essential that the fabric used, recycled or otherwise, can withstand sun exposure, water, heat, sweat, and movement while still being comfortable and functional. “Advancements in textile technology have enabled sustainable swim brands to produce high-quality products that not only meet but often exceed the durability and performance of traditional swimwear,” according to the Ezzedines, whose brand uses recycled polyester fabrics.

Since swimwear isn’t exactly something you’d want to shop secondhand or vintage like you would ready-to-wear, the lifespan of recycled fabrics and materials becomes essential. Sustainable and biodegradable are not interchangeable keywords in this conversation, and while recycled textiles aren’t quite biodegradable, since they still originate from synthetic materials, they can be recycled further and further without losing quality. “Doubling the lifespan of clothes can reduce the industry’s emissions by as much as 44 percent (according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation),” said Kirves. Again, swimwear has to go through a lot, so the longevity of traditional products tends to be shorter in the grand scheme of things. Fabric aside, even the hardware of a swimsuit, like clasps and any metalwork, has to be considered. “Opting for hardware that is resistant to chlorine and saltwater helps prolong the lifespan of swimwear, reducing the frequency of replacing a wornout suit,” said Terese Ostendorf LaGuardia and Jordan LaGuardia, the founders of Meridian Swimwear. “We also keep things personal and waste-free by making smaller collections tailored to what our customers want rather than mass-producing standard designs. This means less excess inventory and a smaller environmental footprint.”

meridian swimwear

Courtesy, Meridian Swimwear

Brands like Meridian and Baobab consider design the starting point for sustainability, and with simpler construction in swimwear, it can be easier to integrate sustainable choices into each step. “Design decisions drive approximately 90 percent of our brand’s impact,” said Espinosa. “Changes in this area can catalyze transformations across the entire company.” Gomez added, “It’s a sector where innovation is welcomed, and small changes can make big impacts.”

Take Baobab’s “Scraps Bank,” for example. To prevent adding to landfill waste with discarded textiles, The Baobab Foundation partnered with over 300 other foundations, academia, and companies to turn it into other products. “Since 2020, no textile waste has been sent to landfills,” said Espinosa. “Instead, all materials are directed to [the organization’s] Scraps Bank, where our network of allies has given a second life to over six tons of these materials.” The brand also uses its profits to support coral reef conservation and tree-planting initiatives. “Over time, we’ve evolved these policies to be more robust and focused on reducing harm rather than just compensating for it,” said Espinosa.

Textile-to-textile recycling is a major frontier for fashion’s sustainable future.

Sienna Swim is also in on recycling its own fabrics (often made with Repreve), asking manufacturers to hold onto excess fabric from old collections to be incorporated into new ones. “We have a new style coming out this summer that uses the excess pieces from a collection we produced almost a year ago,” said Gomez. “We’re all about keeping our fabrics usable and out of landfills.”

“Textile-to-textile recycling is a major frontier for fashion’s sustainable future,” said Boyd of Repreve. “To advance textile recycling initiatives, consumer-centric systems have to be set up to collect, sort, and prepare garments for recycling.” What that looks like, especially for swimwear, is knowing where to send or take garments you’re ready to discard and have the logistical support to do it in a sustainable way. Simply put, if it’s not easy, consumers won’t do it.

meridian swimwear

Courtesy, Meridian Swimwear

At a sustainability panel during Miami Swim Week, Courtney Culbreath, the associate director of corporate social responsibility & diversity and inclusion at Guess, referenced SuperCircle, a third-party company that helps brands contribute to their own circularity. The consumer can send back a garment, like swimwear, to recycle and get a credit back to the partnered store (like J.Crew, Reformation, or soon-to-be Guess), and then SuperCircle makes it into something else. Culbreath also pushed the importance of consumer awareness when it comes to reaching sustainability goals. “When you do something good, you want to talk about it and tell your customers,” she said. It can be difficult for brands to know where to start when it comes to sharing accurate information, especially with a topic as scientific and “hot” as sustainability. No one wants to be accused of greenwashing, but there are also so many details that aren’t necessarily exciting to consumers. That said, Culbreath encourages more communication rather than shying away from it altogether. “Product knowledge to the consumer is important,” she said. “Tell the customer how it benefits them.”

“Branding and communication is key,” added Cal Kennedy, another speaker at the panel and the sales manager at Seaman Paper Company. “If there’s an expensive garment in sustainable packaging, there must be messaging that communicates why it is the way it is and why it’s important.” With orders on top of orders and potential return shipping, plastic waste can easily pile up in the form of packaging. Seaman Paper Company has replaced 125 million plastic bags by creating packaging out of paper rather than plastic with a product called Vela. It might not always be as durable or long-lasting, but it gets the job done. “Worst-case scenario, the packaging gets used once and dissolves into wood fiber,” said Kennedy. “Best case, it can be used maybe five times and get turned into different kinds of paper and reused.”

Consumers are increasingly willing to pay a premium for sustainable products, allowing brands to maintain or even improve profit margins while aligning with their environmental values.

All of this sounds well and good, but if you’re like me, you’re wondering what the money looks like in these scenarios. Many brands, especially smaller ones, are wary of radical sustainability changes simply because the cost of going sustainable or overhauling entire business models to meet sustainability standards can feel too expensive. “There may be some initial costs associated with implementing sustainable practices, such as investing in eco-friendly materials or production processes,” said the Ezzedines. “But consumers are increasingly willing to pay a premium for sustainable products, allowing brands to maintain or even improve profit margins while aligning with their environmental values.” In the long run, sustainable methods are cost-efficient overall, from resource usage to waste reduction.


Courtesy, Baobab

Another speaker at Miami Swim Week’s Sustainability Summit, Gottex CEO Ron Grundland, said that sustainably-made raw materials are actually no different in cost than regular materials. “Maybe it was before,” he said. “Today, the cost isn’t a factor, even if [the brand] says it is.” Pricing is a big factor when it comes to swimwear–most of us have likely (painfully) paid $100 for a bikini top and another $100 for the matching bottom, so knowing that sustainable swimwear can and should be affordable is appealing. It’s all about the brand’s overall agenda, according to Grundland: “No matter the price, no matter what the customer says, if you want to have a sustainable company, do it.”

Today, the cost isn’t a factor, even if the brand says it is.

All in all, swimwear might be a small part of the fashion industry, but it’s one of the leading sectors when it comes to normalizing sustainable efforts. “Quicker is better when changing to sustainable,” Grundland said at the panel. Given that Gottex transitioned to completely sustainable within a year and didn’t look back, the CEO is an authority on the matter. Especially for a sector that sees more product turnover, the continuation of circular economy practices will be essential moving forward. Maximizing the lifespan of products—not only by brands designing with recycled, durable materials but also by consumers repairing and recycling their own garments—will be game-changing, and if it can start with swimwear, these efforts can go anywhere. “Perfection kills progress,” said Kennedy. “You have to get started somewhere, and the journey will happen on its own. Then the snowball effect happens, and people catch on.”

sienna swim

Courtesy, Sienna Swim

Come to think of it, I mended a swimsuit that had an underwire poking out last week. I wasn’t thinking about sustainability–mostly, I just love the swimsuit and wasn’t ready to throw it out. It took about five minutes in total, but little efforts like that, which we can all do, can make a big difference.

For more information about sustainability terms and practices, check out our Complete Glossary of Sustainability Terms.

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