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2019’s Best Sustainable Swimwear

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I don’t shop for bathing suits often, but when I do, I want them to last.

In my pre-Peahen days, I thought a swimsuit was a cast-off item, along with a multitude of other items in my wardrobe. But that’s a soap opera confession of consumption and a story for another day, After all, you came here looking for beautiful, ethical swimwear, so let’s get to it!

When I started to change my consumption habits six years ago, my wet wear wardrobe went last. I normally bought one suit every season and I figured since such little material was used, buying ethically wouldn’t make a big impact. Plus the prices of eco suits were steep so I diverted my attention to jackets, dresses, pants, large accessories and the like. But my assumption here was off base. Let’s dive into the facts to understand why…

Plastics aren’t the whole story

The issues with swimwear are mostly about plastics and, at this point, there’s no way to UN-know about the pollution problem they pose. But the reality of addressing it is more complex than simply phasing out Starbucks straws or, if you’re the Rachel Carson-type, pledging a plastic-free lifestyle. New evidence shows it’s not just plastics that accumulate in the ocean, it’s natural fibers too, meaning we have to look at more holistic approaches to the problem.

Furthermore, plastics are ingrained in our society. They add stretch, vitality, and performance to athletic and swimwear and, thanks to their low cost, they’ve become globally accessible. So while we’re trying to rewrite our plastic sins of yesterday, it’s important to acknowledge the economic limitations of this reform. Not everyone has the luxury of buying “pure” clothing (from plants) and pushing this idea to the masses isn’t practical because it’s riddled with guilt rather than positivity.

Yes, avoiding plastics in clothing whenever possible is one step forward, but systemic change will come when we move past single-solution thinking and messages targeted at the upper echelons of society.

The bigger impetus for change falls on consumers to learn about specialized garment care, to buy fewer more intentional things and on brands and manufacturers to design smarter, longer lasting things (in eco lingo, more circular). If you want to learn more about the larger plastics issue, lift some lessons from this Vox article.

Swimwear’s unique impact

Swimwear is a special case in the world of plastics and, on closer inspection, one that poses more of an environmental threat than I originally thought. That’s because it comes in contact with water and sunlight much more than other garments.

When worn, microplastics directly enter the water and sun exposure exacerbates the problem by making swimsuits more susceptible to breaking down. It’s a pollution double whammy.

Knowing this, there’s definitely a case for engineering an eco suit. Now, you just have to decide which type is suited for you (wink, wink). There are two main categories and sundry of brands within each.

Earthy Eco-swimwear

The first family of eco-swimwear uses ‘natural’ fibers blended with just a smidge plastic like elastane or LYCRA®  for stretch. These aren’t my first pick because they usually don’t hold up as long and aren’t designed for much physical activity.

That said, if your plans for flaunting your suit are reserved for sunbathing or marg sipping and you care more about creating a ‘look’, these are a great option. Crochet and hemp suits dominate this category (look for American made hemp if you can).  

Recycled Eco-swimwear

The second, larger family of suits are those made from recycled plastics. You’ll see the Italian brand Econyl everywhere in this category. Established brands like Speedo and Mara Hoffman us it in their swim lines (and, fun side note, they recently created a recycled red carpet with it!)

Other indie brands have developed and branded their own proprietary recycled or alternative materials. Vitamin A gets accolades in this category. However, since there’s no accepted standard created around plastics, you want to be careful and read the details to ensure a brand is making legitimate claims. Other certifiers you can look for are:

  • Oeko-Tex: the global standard for safety and toxicity (good for you and the water creatures!)
  • GOTS: the global organic standard for fashion.
  • Positive Luxury’s butterfly: a certifier of sustainability for luxury brands.

The perks of buying better

Personally speaking, I got my first eco swimsuit in 2016 (recall my collaboration with Apricoss) and I just invested in a new suit by Summersalt.

After a quarter century of cycling through Target and XXI suits, I can honestly say that throwing serious dollars behind nicer suits has been worth it. Not just because I’m doing less harm, but because they genuinely last longer and fit better.

Both brands paid close attention to detail. They used thick material and tight stitching and have removable pads, seamless lining, and UV protection. My consensus in the case of eco-swimwear is that a moderately higher price point often reflects higher quality.

As long as you stay prudent about ringing out the chlorine and salt from your purchase…these babies will hold up season after season.

Here is a comprehensive list of the best sustainable swimsuit brands, plus a few trends to look out for this season.

Extra credit! Lookout for these trends to stay current: Swimwear that doubles as resort wear; bowties, tie-dye; snake print, retro Hawaiian prints, long sleeve bodysuit tops, high-cut leg bottoms; metallics; embroidery; neutrals and the color yellow!

Fashion Styles

Summersalt

Reason to Love: Fit, fit, fit. And function. These suits are made to suit all bodies and smartly engineered to travel well. This brand could also sit nicely in the performance category but I’ve put it here because their signature color is so swoon-worthy.

Category: Recycled

Price: $

Gender: Female

summersalt-sustainable-swimwear
I took Summersalt’s sidestroke style to Italy’s Amalfi Coast

Vitamin A

Reason to Love: For the largest range of styles. If West Coast cool is your thing, you’ll like this range. Everything is produced in Cali and a portion of sales (percent is not dis disclosed) go to ocean protection.

Category: Recycled

Price: $$-$$$

Gender: Female

Alyned Together

Reason to Love: Accessibly priced designs for every body in amusing colors and prints. They give 1% of sales to environmental nonprofits. Get on their evergreen sales right now for 50% off.

Category: Recycled

Price: $

Gender: Female, Male

alyned-together-sustainable-swimwear
Alyned Together’s Joy suit in spicy coral

Swoon

Reason to Love: Those kitschy Hawaiian prints I mentioned! And double bank for your buck if you snag a reversible suit. All suits are Made in the USA.

Category: Neither. Technically, these suits aren’t made from recycled or sustainable materials but I’ve listed them given their prioritization of fair labor in the States. Don’t buy if pollution and oceans are your #1 priority.

Price: $

Gender: Female

Galamaar

Reason to Love: Retro 50s style vibes. Plus, their attention to detail beyond the bikini. They’ve greenified everything from their pad inserts, hang tags, hardware, and packaging. The suits themselves are made of nylon from discarded fishing nets that account for nearly 10% of all ocean pollution. Everything is made in L.A.

Category: Recycled

Price: $$

Gender: Female

Batoko

Reason to Love: Whimsical digital prints (that are eco-friendly!) and a super fun brand voice. Sport one of their signature wildlife one-pieces and strike up a conversation about conservation while you’re at it!

Category: Recycled

Price: $

Gender: Female (they also have styles for kiddos)

batako-sustainable-swim
Batoko makes a Cockatoo suit, just for you

Luz

Reason to Love: Feminine, french girl styles that you could take from pool to nighttime French 75s. These do ship from France, so please consider your shipping impact before buying if you’re in the States.

Category: Earthy

Price: $$

Gender: Female

Madewell

Reason to Love: The classic prep you’ve come to love, now offered in eco. Madewell’s first foray into sustainable swimwear is a concise 32-piece collection that’s decently affordable. Be sure when you search to look for “Second Wave” because they’re grouped together with the brand’s conventional styles.

Category: Recycled

Price: $$

Gender: Female

Madewell-sustainable-swimwear
Madewell’s cute rashguard is made from 10 water bottles and comes in sizes XXS-3X

Reformation

Reason to Love: Styles from the most instagrammable brand on the list. Whenever I write an eco post, Ref is a given and they pull their weight when it comes to eco swim too. Highlights include animal prints, tie-dye and frilly little pieces for frolicking and kicking up some sand.

Category: Recycled

Price: $$

Gender: Female

Mara Hoffman

Reason to Love: Mara built her brand on bold, kaleidoscope printed suits but this season she dialed it back with a collection of painterly neutrals, proving she’s got design range. She was one of the first luxury brands to use eco fabrics and she’s still sticking to this commitment by using mostly recycled REPREVE® for her collection.

Category: Recycled

Price: $$$

Gender: Female

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Mara’s fresh Montauk stripes

Beth Richards

Reason to Love: She puts the chic in basic and makes swimwear that looks like daywear.

Category: Neither. But she makes the list because she’s mindful about small runs, is prioritizing ethical pay and is intentional about crafting suits for women’s changing bodies.

Price: $$$

Gender: Female

Hackwith

Reason to Love: Solid suits with clothing-like draping and ruching. These Made in the USA suits are made for the elegant essentialist.  

Category: Recycled

Price: $$

Gender: Female

hackwith-sustainable-swimwear.
Style Hackwith’s more than three ways, because a suit should change with your mood

Jessica Rey

Reason to Love: Classic, body-flattering styles and a line of original “swim dresses” that can take you into life beyond the water. Regenerated Italian fabric with ethical production in L.A.

Category: Recycled

Price: $$

Gender: Female

Lilliput & Felix

Reason to Love: Signature multi-tie designs that are customizable and come in nostalgic shapes and styles. This brand is endorsed by Positive Luxury’s butterfly, but be sure to click and expand the ‘fabrics’ category to check if the suit you like is made with recycled materials. Not all are. Please also note these ship from the U.K.

Category: Recycled

Price: $$$

Gender: Female

lilliput-felix-sustainable-swimwear.
Ruffles and new age gingham from Lilliput & Felix.

Ambika

Reason to Love: If Haight-Ashbury had a beach, everyone would be wearing an Ambika suit. This is 70’s-style crochet at its peak. The brand uses natural dyes and partners with local fiber growers, solar and wind-powered mini-mills and artisans in upstate NY to create its conscious suits.

Category: Earthy

Price: $$

Gender: Female

Natasha Tonic

Reason to Love: This one of only two hemp-based brands on the list! The photo-ready collection is biodegradable, anti-microbial, durable and UV-resistant. Plus, it’s designed, sewn and dyed in L.A. and gives 5% of every sale to “5 Gyres” to help fight plastic pollution.   

Category: Earthy

Price: $$

Gender: Female

natasha-tonic-sustainable-swimwear
Natasha Tonic’s take on modern hempwear

Hemp Huggers

Reason to Love: If you can look past the clunky 90s website design the suit designs are pretty solid. If you love tie-dye, this should be your go-to brand. They’ve also got the widest range of sizes and colors on the list so you’ll never look like another babe. Trusted eco-brand since ‘92, way before eco was cool.

Category: Earthy

Price: $$

Gender: Female

Performance Styles

Koru

Reason to Love: Another stellar brand that lives-and-breathes surf culture (this one is Kiwi). Their fabrics and 1% back to the earth rocks, but they really win with their creative offerings. They have a signature line with prints by surf artist, Jay Alders, one with Amy Johnson and a signature curvy line by Laura Wells.

Category: Recycled

Price: $$

Gender: Female

Davy J

Reason to Love: If you like a Jane Fonda workout video, go here. Their suits look more like 80s sportswear and they’re designed for activity and movement. They use fabric from 100% recycled nylon yarn from spent and ghost fishing nets. Do note that they ship from the UK as you shop consciously.

Category: Recycled

Price: $$

Gender: Female

davy-j-sustainable-swimwear
Form, fit and function, the Davy J way

Bikini Empire

Reason to Love: On-trend styles fit for a surfer lifestyle. This brand could also fit under fashion but given the founders’ background in technical design for surfing, I’ve listed them here.

Category: Recycled

Price: $$

Gender: Female

Patagonia

Reason to Love: In addition to using recycled nylon on poly, Patagonia goes the extra step and certifies their sewing is done up to Fair Trade standards. This is a BFD because they were the first US brand to do this with swimwear! But should we be shocked that this eco powerhouse is leading the industry forward again?  The styles are sporty, but they don’t scream, “I carry 3 cliff bars on me in case of emergency.”

Category: Recycled

Price: $$

Gender: Female, Male

Athleta

Reason to Love: Styles from a brand that dominates the downward dog scene. I love their sporty, high-neck bikini styles and rashguards with retro prints. And 85% of the line is now sustainable! Keep this one bookmarked as a go-to.

Category: Recycled

Price: $-$$

Gender: Female

athleta-sustainable-swimsuit
Sporty, eye-catching styles from Athleta

Faherty

Reason to Love: Tones of sandy beaches and subdued sunsets. This outdoor brand is like Patagonia’s little cousin with a softer side.

Category: Recycled

Price: $-$$

Gender: Female, Male

Outerknown

Reason to Love: Basic boardshorts for the boys from Kelly Slater’s brand that is diligent about sustainability and fair labor in their supply chain. They abide by the Fair Labor Association (FLA) & Bluesign’s stringent compliance standards.

Category: Recycled

Price: $$

Gender: Male

outerknown-sustainable-swimsuit
Outerknown styles just for the gents

Reference: The Conversation

Photos edits of Kasi by Magdalena Antuña

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