Legacy Swimwear Brands Step Up Sustainability Efforts to Compete With DTCs

These goals can be a competitive advantage

Fast fashion hasn't always been known for being sustainable, but that's changing amongst legacy brands as they compete with DTCs. Victoria's Secret

As legacy brands continue to fight against the upstart DTC brands, the swimwear industry is looking to sustainability as its hot new fashion trend.

Swimwear is becoming an increasingly lucrative vertical in the fashion industry, averaging about $4.6 billion in sales in 2018, according to NPD Group’s Consumer Tracking Service. And it’s a growing market, too: Research from Mordor Intelligence shows global swimwear sales are projected to achieve an annual growth rate of as much as 6.6% through 2023.

Big brands are taking note of those numbers: Even Victoria’s Secret is now re-entering the swimwear market, despite formally announcing a move away from it just three years ago. But jumping back into the swimwear waters doesn’t automatically guarantee sales these days, as this market has new sharks, such as DTC retailers like Mymarini, Bombshell Bay Swimwear and Galamaar.

In order for legacy brands to stand out in this increasingly competitive market, some—like Athleta, Volcom and Fred Segal—are hopping on board with increased sustainability efforts as a competitive differentiator.

Athleta, a brand that’s been around for more than 20 years, has set new sustainability goals for its swimwear line to be reached by 2020, goals like supporting women around the world who make the company’s clothes and reducing the company’s impact on the planet across the board.

And Athleta’s not alone. Volcom, which started in 1991, has set similar goals to boost its eco-friendly efforts. The company is focusing on increasing the use of recycled materials in products and is introducing a swimwear recycling program so items can be donated or kept for closed-loop manufacturing. Their workforce also has a 90% completion rate of sustainability certification via New Future, an organization that offers post-secondary educational credentials.

“Sustainability has always been at the core ethos of Volcom,” said Lyndsey Roach, global head of women’s business at Volcom.Our Eco-True swim collection, which is made with a fabric called Econyl, created from discarded fishing nets, is now over 71% of our total swim business and will absolutely continue to be our biggest growth opportunity.”

Even Fred Segal, with roots dating back to 196,1 is hopping on board with the push for increased sustainability, recently partnering with Vitamin A for a new sustainable swimwear line. John Frierson, president of Fred Segal, says this is brand continuity and not a trend.

“Sustainability has always been a part of our ethos,” he said. “Our store in Santa Monica had an ‘Eco’ shop way back in the ’80s.”

Brand continuity or not, as these legacy brands step up their efforts in this fiercely competitive market, DTC swimwear brands that were founded more recently with sustainability at their core have more hurdles to face—and more competition, too.

“Sustainability became a real buzzword a few years ago. It’s a feel-good story brands can tell, but the problem is that often brands using this sustainability angle don’t apply these practices across the board, and their other product lines aren’t sustainable,” said Emily Doig, founder of sustainable swimwear line Bombshell Bay Swimwear. “For a DTC company like mine that’s always made eco-friendliness a priority, this sustainability angle can sometimes feel like a mere sales tactic rather than a core value.”

For smaller brands like Mymarini and Galamaar, sustainability and eco-friendly fabrics have also been the focus from day one. And the push for sustainability does translate into sales for these smaller brands, too.

Blakely Wickstrom, founder of swimwear brand Galamaar, explained that having sustainability as a core brand value helps her win customers as they seek out brands promoting eco-friendly measures when making more mindful purchases.

“Customers make purchases based on the aesthetic and their connection to the brand’s story, which is more important than ever. For some, that connection is sustainability,” she said.

So is increased sustainability the next competitive frontier in the swimwear market? It just might be. And despite the hurdles this may present for brands both large and small, it’s good news in the face of a global fashion market that’s known for its waste-producing impact.