The frustration of finding the perfect bathing suit isn’t lost on Canadian-Brazilian designer Betsy Campos. For years, she agonized over finding the perfect fit while also wanting to shop purchases — all too often she had to choose one or the other.

“I thought to myself, ‘there has to be a solution,’” she says. And so in 2018, she founded the eco-conscious, size-inclusive swimwear brand, Ūnika. It was born with a clear understanding of just how large an impact fashion has on the environment.

The fast-fashion garment industry is one of the world’s biggest polluters, but as designers and wholesalers adapt to the demands of the environmentally woke consumer, there’s a new focus on the horizon: sustainable swimwear.

Swimwear is one of the fashion industry’s most lucrative sectors, and given physical distancing rules during the pandemic, many brands have seen a spike in sales. American Eagle Outfitters’ Aerie, for instance, doubled its swimsuit sales in the last two years. 

The problem is, swimwear can also be quite damaging to the environment. Most swimwear is crafted from synthetic, non-biodegradable fibres, such as nylon, polyester and spandex, which have moisture-wicking, stretching and low-friction properties. And these fabrics shed microplastics — every time a piece of swimwear is washed, tiny plastic particles are released into the water and eventually make their way to the oceans and back into the food chain. It’s estimated that 65-million tons of these materials are produced globally from clothing, packaging and personal care products each year. Cheaply made swimwear doesn’t stand the test of time, and often ends up in landfills rather than being recycled.

Things are starting to change, however. As consumers are becoming more aware of their purchasing power and the impact their clothing choices have on the world, brands — and not just independent ones — are rising to the occasion. Big-name companies, such as Simons, Everlane, ASOS, and Frank And Oak have all introduced swimwear lines made from recycled materials, setting the stage for a shift in industry trends.

Toronto-based brands, such as Bathing Belle, Fortnight Lingerie, Awai and Ūnika are stepping up, too. 

For Campos, sustainability encapsulates all of her values when it comes to business: protecting the environment while providing an inclusive experience for her shoppers.

“Our commitment to staying true to our ethical values has helped us gain a reputation in the industry early on, even when sustainability wasn’t a trend,” Campos says. “My experience in the industry means I was well aware of the damages that our generation was making on the earth.” 

Campos’s designs are handmade and made-to-order right in their Yorkville storefront, where sample swimsuit products hang next to the tables on which they were produced. Creating custom swimwear means she’s able to use every inch of fabric — even the scraps. As well, this business model neatly side steps the issue of over-production of styles that don’t sell. In this regard, sustainability doesn’t just mean saving the environment — it means purchasing a product that fits.

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After years researching different types of textiles, from recycled polyamide and polyester to purchasing deadstock fabrics, Campos settled on Econyl, a 100% regenerated nylon yarn derived from pre- and post-industrial waste. The company collects waste and discarded fish nets from the ocean and landfills to then clean and create premium, durable, recycled fabric that’s infinitely recyclable.

Econyl has all of the benefits of synthetic fabrics — it’s UV-proof as well as chlorine and salt-resistant — minus the environmental destruction. “I pay more of a premium to work with Econyl but it definitely pays off,” she says. “You can feel the quality, and I love that my suits don't break down over time. I wanted my consumers to be able to invest in a suit that would last and remain a staple piece in their closets.”

Paying more for a quality product that will last more than one summer is a great way to manage fashion waste. (Ūnika’s separates and one-piece options range from $68 to $248, depending on the intricacy of design and amount of fabric required.) Offering to take back old suits for recycling is another way some brands, such as Londre and Ocin, are approaching sustainability.

Photo by Ūnika.

Unlike other sectors of the fashion world, swimwear is notably easier to produce sustainably, thanks to the easy access to eco-safe fibres, like Econyl and Repreve, made from recycled materials.

“With full control over our production line, and hand-making everything in-house, we’re able to use every piece of leftover scrap fabric,” Campos says. “We know that committing to making a change in this swimwear and fashion industry helps with paving a path for a clean ocean and future.” 

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