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Montana Brown talks Sustainable Swimwear


17th January 2022

Originally founded in 2019 by Montana Brown, Swim Society was relaunched in 2020 as a sustainable and inclusive swimwear brand. For the first episode of our second season of The Fashion Dialogue, Montana spoke to our host, Carl Thompson, about the highs and lows of running a truly sustainable fashion brand.

Carl Thompson: What gave you the idea to start Swim Society?

Montana: I was on a beach in the Maldives with a few friends, and we were all complaining about our swimwear. I had a lightbulb moment when I realised there isn’t a brand that’s not fast fashion, sustainable and also accessible and affordable.

There’s a massive gap at the moment between fast fashion and sustainability. Sustainable doesn’t seem attainable for the average person because it’s so expensive. You’re alienating a lot of your consumers just by hoiking up the price point.

It’s really expensive to be sustainable, that’s why a lot of big brands won’t do it. The shift is a bit ridiculous, and the margins are so much smaller. But you do reap the rewards in the long term because I think that’s where fashion is going. As a brand, we weren’t sustainable to start off with but we’ve made the shift to make our products sustainable.

We’re using all kinds of consumer plastics in our swimsuits. We’re not making the margin ridiculously huge so it’s still accessible for people. We’re in that nice sweet spot between fast fashion and sustainable where it’s still something people can afford. We’re on ASOS, you can get discounts every now and people can wear our lovely swimwear!

CT: Did you have any challenges when starting the brand?

M: I thought “Yeah, I can find a factory, I can just google it” and really… you can’t. Everyone just likes to keep themselves to themselves and nobody shares their contacts, it's quite secretive. I found that very difficult.

At first, we only had a few factories to choose from because we just weren’t aware of who was out there. I always wanted to make the products closer to Europe because obviously its more sustainable, but that wasn’t possible for our first drop.

It’s also hard to find manufacturers that work with sustainable fabrics - our new suppliers are based in Portugal. They’ve been amazing and the quality is out of this world. We can’t really get better than that!

We’re also trying to educate our customers about why their products are costing more.

Our swimwear costs more because everyone along the supply chain is being paid properly and you’re getting the best quality material.
Montana Brown

CT: What are your three core values for Swim Society?

M: Our core values are:

  • Sustainability
  • Empathy
  • Inclusivity - in our models and in our product sizing

CT: Are you worried about the future of fashion?

M: I think every fast fashion brand should be worried about the future. The concept of shopping is all online now, and brands have to be accountable for their supply chain. The online community is forcing brands to be more accountable.

In terms of sustainability, it's something everyone is trying to make more changes towards. It isn’t sustainable the way that fast fashion brands are creating clothes; there’s so much waste and it’s damaging to the environment. I think a lot of people are now really being conscious about where they’re buying from: What ethos do they have? Do they have any initiatives that are supporting the environment? If they don’t, consumers are making active choices not to buy from these brands. I’d like to think that the government will put in some legislation to fast fashion brands in the near distant future.

It's about educating consumers. If your clothes are costing you £6, everyone in that supply chain is not being paid properly. They're being paid under minimum wage, and what does that say?
Montana Brown

It’s also about educating consumers. People don’t think “This is £6, I wonder why this is £6?”. They’re thinking “This is £6, it’s an absolute bargain, I’m going to buy it”. We have to delve a bit deeper. I’ve learnt so much from just owning my own brand about what sustainability actually means. If your clothes are costing you £6, everyone in that supply chain is not being paid properly. They’re being paid under minimum wage, and what does that say? I think lots of brands are shifting to being more sustainable. To be honest, I think fast fashion brands have a lot of work to do.

CT: Is being a sustainable brand just a trend?

I think everything starts off as a trend. Right now, you’ve got so many influencers who are trailblazing their way through the sustainability world and exposing a lot of brands for things like greenwashing.

Greenwashing is where brands that are geared towards fast fashion are trying to be more “sustainable”. With a large company, it's really difficult for them to change their whole infrastructure to become more sustainable.

There’s actually a law in place where if your clothes are made in China or Vietnam, and then flown to Portugal to get a label sewn in, you can say ‘Made in Portugal’. Which is an example of how brands are greenwashing themselves to appear more sustainable when they’re not.

But people are digging, and they’re very interested in where their clothes are actually made now. Especially when things come to light about modern slavery and when garment workers aren’t being paid the correct amount for making clothes.

So I’d like to think it’s not a trend, and I hope laws will be enforced in the next 10 years. I hope there will be a legal clampdown on sustainability with big fashion brands because it's so damaging for the environment.

Montana Brown Swim Society Interview

CT: You can’t have a brand putting labels on in the UK and saying ‘Made in the UK’. It isn’t right at all! Brands like Swim Society know the whole supply chain, and that is so important.

M: It’s really difficult because we find that lots of people are comparing us to other sustainable brands. We then look into these brands CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) and what they’re actually doing to give back to the environment. Usually, it’s actually very minimal. We’re just a small team of 4 and we have so many initiatives to give back to the environment!

  • Our swimwear is made from recycled consumer plastics.
  • We plant a tree for every order to offset the carbon emissions.
  • When we do campaigns abroad, we offset the carbon emissions of our flights.

Those are little things! We’re not even a year old and it’s more expensive, but it is the right thing to do. That’s where founders need to be a bit more empathetic and heart-led rather than financially-led. Obviously, everything needs to make financial sense for a business, but I think there’s a line where you’re making a profit, but you’re not actually damaging the environment to make clothes.

CT: Are these the sustainability promises that you give to your customers when they purchase from Swim Society?

Yes, exactly! We’re actually also trying to make the whole process of making our clothes circular.

We make our swimwear from about 3 plastic bottles. The customer buys it, wears it for a few years, and then they want a new piece. The plan is, if they send it back to us, we can repurpose it. We can crush it down into the original plastic, and then get it remade into something else.

CT: So the raw material comes back out and you make it into another product?

Yes! But it's such a new technology, it’s not something we’re able to do right now. It’s something I'm really passionate about doing and I think it will be really worthwhile.

If someone was to send something back, we’d give them a discount on their next item. We can’t really do many discounts at the moment, because our margin is so much lower than other fast fashion brands! It’s not something that we can offer.

CT: Where do you see Swim Society going in the next 5 years?

We’ve got so many ideas for diversifying into new products - towels, tote bags, resort-wear. People look at a sustainable brand and say "you’re producing things so that’s not sustainable" but we do have to try and compete with the fast-fashion brands. If we can do that in a positive and sustainable way, then it’s better than nothing!

You can watch the full interview with Montana Brown on our YouTube channel now. She shares more behind-the-scenes info about running Swim Society, including her biggest piece of advice for starting your own brand and how she chooses who to hire in her team!

If your dream is to start your own fashion brand, studying at the Fashion Retail Academy can help teach you everything you need to know about fashion business - from startups to international brands.

Our Level 4 Fashion Business (with Marketing) diploma and our two-year accelerated BA (Hons) Business Management for Fashion undergraduate degree are both perfect courses for aspiring fashion entrepreneurs.

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