By Keri Haugse
This time last year, I was sitting on my lanai on Maui, and feeling pretty good about my station in life. I was a swimwear designer with an eco-friendly line sold in some of the finest resorts in the world. After making my swimwear in Los Angeles for three years, I decided I wanted to do more. So I brought production to my home community of Maui, Hawaii.
To do so, I had to create a sustainable factory from scratch. This proved to be no easy task. Importing industrial sewing machines, building out a sewing studio, and hiring and training local seamstresses was a tall order. But once we were up and running, the effort seemed worthwhile. Without factory minimums, we were able to do smaller production runs, reduce our fabric waste, and lessen our environmental footprint by hand-delivering stock to our resort retailers, instead of sending it by plane.
We were also reinvigorating the local community by teaching local women advanced production skills and paying them fair wages. A month after our Maui Bikini Factory was up and running, I was even contacted by a prominent local magazine that was dedicating an entire issue to local swimwear designers. This is it, I thought. This is exactly the boost we need after the huge hit we took by bringing our production to Maui.
I was stoked to say the least.
That is…until the issue actually came out.
At first glance, I was a little taken back at the sight of an Indonesian-made bikini on the front cover. But I was still hopeful that we would be featured inside. After all, I thought, we were the only company making swimwear on Maui.
However, my confusion quickly turned to disappointment when I saw that the twelve-page spread was entirely dedicated to brands that made their swim in poorly regulated third world countries with prolific child labor issues. Brands who were glorifying the fact that their bikinis were ‘designed in Maui’ and glossing over the fact that their garments were actually produced in places like Indonesia and China.
My disappointment settled in as I realized that, despite my label Elle Mer Swim being the only swimwear brand to be produced locally, we were only given two lines in the issue. Two lines. The rest of the issue was an ode to designers who chose to make their swimwear across the globe –because it’s cheaper. Designers who had no connection to the people constructing their garments, no idea if they were being paid a living wage, and no idea if their workers were safe. All so they could make a larger margin to spend on marketing the fact that the designer lives on Maui.
Not to mention that all the featured brands, glamorized as “Hot Local Designers”, used virgin polyester and nylon for their garments– in a time when recycled fabrics were readily available (albeit more expensive).
Yet despite the disheartening truth, these were the swimwear brands the magazine decided to shine a spotlight on and tell its readers to buy.
And boy, were people buying them. In the weeks and months that followed, I could not tell you how many times I overheard people at the pool or beach bragging about their “local Maui swim” (though made in Indonesia). These people actually thought they were supporting local. When in fact they were supporting designers who were making large margins exploiting cheap labor in a developing country; far, far away from our little island paradise.
This is the exact moment that I became simultaneously disillusioned with the swimwear industry and the local media. Creating a sustainable company and doing things the right way was hard enough. I didn’t need for local media and publishers to make it harder by misrepresenting unethically made brands as “hot” and “local”.
In my opinion, the media and its fashion editors, are the ultimate influencers when it comes to what women buy. The right story in the right magazine can make or break a struggling designer’s career – and trust me, if a designer is doing it ‘the right way’ – margins are slim and they are probably struggling.
Thus, the press has an immense power and responsibility to inform consumers about the companies they choose to support. Yet it seems these days, that many writers and editors have forgone journalistic integrity in favor of free products and the red-carpet treatment.
After my unfortunate experience with the press, I started to think about what I was doing in the swimwear industry. Was I really making a positive environmental impact by using recycled polyester? Was I really creating unique designs or just adding to the noise? Do people even care if their swimwear is locally made, or do they just want to wear what the popular girls are wearing?
Because I couldn’t find a satisfactory answer to some of these big questions, I made the decision to leave the industry all together. I sold my company.
I felt like people needed a wakeup call, and as a designer, I didn’t think I could influence huge change. I needed more bandwidth in order to bring awareness to consumers about the massive disconnect between the perceived glamour of being a designer and the reality of fast-fashion production. So, I decided to start West of Wild – a media company dedicated to shining a light on sustainable companies across the fashion and beauty industries. And I haven’t looked back since.
I have however, done a lot of research on the current crop of sustainable swimwear brands. While the swimwear industry is still rife with green washing, there are a few brands out there that are truly deserving of an eco-friendly stamp. The one that stands out in my mind is Natasha Tonic. She crafts her bohemian style swim using sustainable hemp fibers and low impact sustainable dyes. So I guess I wasn’t making the most sustainable swimwear after all. And by using the media to shine a light on designers like Natasha, I’m confident we can all head in a more informed direction when deciding which new bikini to buy.
Keri Haugse is the founder of media business West of Wild. She holds a law degree from the University of Hawaii and a Masters in Media & Entertainment from Pepperdine Law. Keri is passionate about using the power of the media to educate consumers about the environmental impacts of the fashion and beauty industries. You can follow her on Instagram and Pinterest.
The piece has been edited for clarity. All images supplied.
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