I don't know what it is about swimwear that makes "sustainable and ethical" so vital to include in a marketing spiel. The lasting impact of Finding Nemo perhaps? Or Flipper? Or maybe that David Attenborough series, Blue Planet?
Whatever the reason, Asian factories knew this was coming and positioned themselves ready, ahead of the trend.
If you're not an actual slow-fashion producer (for example Outlier, High Tea at Mrs Woo, Elizabeth Suzann, etc. etc. etc.), you can be forgiven for not having the foggiest when I talk about ethics in such cynical terms. Isn't it enough for a brand to just say they pay workers above some award and use fabric made from plastic pulled out of the ocean? The girls are the beach seem happy enough.
By the very fact that you're reading this blog post, I know you're not one of the lemmings. You're not going to take my word for it either. What you are going to do, is a little bit of investigation of your own, and that way gain some insider knowledge into the sustainable and ethical niche of the swimwear business.
How to Start a Fake-Ethical Swim Brand
This should only take you five minutes.
Google: "white label swimwear" and "private label swimwear". In the top search results you will see a few factories in Bali (some with Australian contact addresses), and of course many options through Alibaba.
This is how you would go shopping for swimsuits if you wanted your own labels inside them. Now click around some of these sites for a while. Note the MOQs (minimum order quantities) of 500. See how the unit costs plummet if you order way more.
Click a little longer and you will find ready made styles, printed fashion patterns and colour selections. Clasps, tags, biodegradable packaging—they've got it all covered!
By the time you have selected a range from the patterns and colours on offer, or, for a small extra fee, had something made from a sketch you scrawled on a napkin, you will be receiving hints for your product descriptions.
Interpreting claims made in product descriptions
Here's another exercise. Google "Sustainable and ethical swimwear, Australia". You will see all the same obfuscatory phrases, again and again.
One I find particularly amusing goes something like this: "Made from pre and post consumer recycled plastics, such as ghosts nets that litter the ocean". What they mean is Vita by Carvico, the fabric we have chosen for our Colours of Newcastle collection. It is durable, flat and a pleasure to sew, but does it actually contain any ghost nets?
In Italy, where it is made, Vita is marketed on the strength of its performance enhancement in competitive swimming. It is a particularly strong fabric so acts a little like a compression bandage if you choose a size smaller.
In markets where people want to believe their consumption is saving the world, the shape control and performance enhancement benefits are never mentioned. Here, it is those traces of ghost nets, in homeopathic proportions, that are lauded as Vita's main virtue.
To be clear, it is not made from ghost nets. It is made from pre consumer plastics (products that never got sold) and post consumer plastic (recycled waste) that could include ghost nets. Put that way, it may also contain traces of nuts! (Here is one of a few organisations that you might donate to, if ghost nets are your concern. If global warming is your concern, here is an article by an MIT researcher who argues that plastics recycling is making it worse).
The next thing you will notice about many swim brands that are vocal about their good deeds, will be their claims about worker conditions, how workers get to take fabric scraps home to make dolls for their children and are paid above the Indonesian award.
Really? I mean, how would a small independent brand owner possibly know? It's hard enough grasping worker exploitation here in Australia, let alone interpreting payslips written in Indonesian. And show me these dolls!
Great. I've convinced you not to go and buy hundreds or thousands of swimsuits from Asia to try and sell with your own label inside. My next challenge is to stop you supporting the people who do.
"I have to buy from her. She is my neighbour and friend!"
Did your mother ever take you to a Tupperware party? You will know then how a giant plastics manufacturer reached its customers via their friends. The mass producers of white label swimwear are using a similar tactic, distributing via our children's friends' mothers, the wives of our lifeguards, our cousins' best friends, or the partners of our favourite baristas. They are our friends, or at least our friends' friends, or at the very least they're our conduits to social connection.
But as well as being popular, they are good people! Aren't they? They must be! They have stalls at "local-made" markets. Their vans have bumper stickers for saving the Daintree and stopping Adani and all sorts of other good causes.
Their vans are also filled to the ceiling with hundreds, or even thousands of swimsuits. Some will be sold while their colours and styles still excite you. The rest will be going to landfill.
Please don't buy from these "locally owned", but foreign made brands. You would be better off buying from a big international brand that has sent its production offshore. At least a big brand is resourced to exercise some oversight of foreign working conditions. With lots of shops, it will also come closer to clearing its stock before having to dump the remainder. Combined, the small indy brands, sourcing from white labelling outfits, could be responsible for a far greater proportion of dumping and they have the least oversight of any brands when it comes to fair working conditions.
White label swim brands can't oversee quality
Putting aside our concern for machinists and turtles, the lack of oversight by these small indy brands is a huge disadvantage to you. Consider the first thing to fail in most swimsuits: the rubber.
Unless the brand's owner is actually there in the factory, seeing it applied to the seams, the easiest way a factory can save costs is by swapping thick rubber for thin stuff. Rubber is sold by the kilo, not by the meter. Halving the thickness means halving the cost. That's why the bottoms of your old swimsuits have billowed after just a few wears: the greater relative surface area of the rubber has accelerated its natural decline. A swimsuit made under oversight by the band owner, with 0.63mm rubber (the Australian industry norm) should outlast a typical marriage, if rinsed after use and not left to bask in thick sunscreen.
All we want is some truth!
In a world of global trade—something that keeps us from going to war—it is impossible to have oversight of entire supply chains. If the truth were known, a tiny bit of suffering and environmental destruction is embodied in every item that has ever come into our homes. But then not all of those items had swing tags to have us believe we were liberating women and turtles by buying them.
It is the sheer disingenuousness of the claims being made by small swim brands that I find so offensive, how these claims are made by shopify merchants who, quite simply, don't have a clue. I'm writing as someone who actually makes swimwear, who knows exactly how enslaving it would feel to be paid by the item, or paid by the hour but with a strict quota. All the owners of imported swim brands could tell you, is how to wrap a swimsuit in tissue paper and mail it in a compostable bag.
What can you do?
Insofar as the environment is concerned, the best thing you can do as a swimmer, is not drive to the beach, and definitely don't go in a plane. The cost to the environment of your travel dwarfs whatever damage a swimsuit might cause.
But let us assume you are already cycling, or walking, or talking public transport and are enjoying your own city's waters. What can be said about the ethics and sustainability of your actual swimsuit? Is it saving Nemo, I mean?
The first thing we must ask, is if it is just the one swimsuit we need to consider. If it was made as part of a huge batch, bought by an independent swim brand that went bust before selling two thirds of their order, your one swimsuit, in reality, represents three. You may get three years from the one that you purchased, but its sister and brother have already been burned.
While there are no guarantees, the best assurance you will find from a brand that they have structured their operations to limit the prospect of dumping, are words like "made to order", "made just in time", or "made in small batches". These should mean they have their own exclusive means of production, be that the Australian sewing factory they own (for example Abby Rose ), or their stable network of Australian home sewers (Camp Cove for example).
With PRIDE I have taken the slow-fashion path, that strives to do even more. From a slow fashion mindset, the very idea of a seasonal print creates an urgency to push stock, while, for the consumer, it sets a date in the future when their swimsuit will lose some appeal. If you want a swimsuit to go with you as you age, it would be better, surely, to choose a colour or style that doesn't speak to the year when you happen to have bought it. It should speak to something perennial, like the colours of nature, or tradition, of some idea with perpetual meaning.
One of my main reasons for making to order, is that it will allow me, at any time in the future, to offer a design I am developing now, for the same fashion-neutral price attached to any colour or style across my whole range.
Finding a happy middle ground.
Does that make me the Messiah? Of course not! With my rubber, fabric, clasps, thread, packaging, swing tags and the various elements and processes in each, I have a supply chain as fathomless and global as any other. The best I can do, is what a comparable company, RM Williams has done, and that is to promise to remove anything from my supply chain should I ever learn of a problem.
If you wanted to be completely sustainable and ethical, you would live a subsistence lifestyle and swim in the nude. The next step on the spectrum is to buy swimwear made-to-order and look after it, as you and your swimsuit both age.
The reasonably ethical and sustainable middle ground, to my mind, is a swimsuit from any brand having their products made in Australia. You don't necessarily need to know it was made in small batches. The labour costs are so high in this country that no brand would be so frivolous in their use of a factory's as to have so much stock made that they would later be likely to dump it.
Moving on down into murkier territory, are corporate producers that are large enough, and powerful enough, to be able to protect their reputations by sending inspectors offshore. Let me tell you from personal experience though, that overseeing Asian production is hard. In the 90s I was an architect for the Singapore government, and saw firsthand how deeply bribery is ingrained within business.
One rung from bottom sit the makers with nothing to lose, because they don't put their own names on their products. I'm referring to the white labelling outfits who hide behind brands owned by people we know. When we get right down to their level, to the very base of this pyramid scheme, we're seeing poor souls who have been duped into buying hundred or thousands of garments. At that stage they don't care if the sales script they have been given is a bunch of unverifiable lies. They're going to read from that script, sell what they can, then dump the remainder in landfill.
Buy Australian made swimwear. It is mostly all made to a standard that lasts and brands think twice before over-producing. Look for "small batch" production for more peace of mind. To be certain, choose Australian brands that manufacture "to order" and/or "just in time."