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'Beautiful and environmental' - the highs and lows of a sustainable swimwear brand

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Georgina Wilson-Powell

7 October 2016

Five years ago Riz Smith decided to take on the world of men’s swimwear, creating a style of boardshorts that would be beautiful and feature the kind of tailoring that Saville Row would be proud of, but also founding (with his business partner Ali Murrell) Riz, a sustainable swimwear company with soul. 

While the brand’s prints are flamboyant, fun and full of sunshine, Riz Smith shares some of the challenges of developing a small sustainably focused company.

Knowing you’re a good business

“When I was thinking about setting up the business I remember writing in a notebook, ‘The most beautiful and environmental boardshorts in the world’ - it was a sense of what I wanted to do. It wasn’t so much about ‘sustainable’ or ‘eco’ but ‘environmental’ felt more emotive than practical,” explains Smith.

Working hard on the latest collection of ethical swimwear brand Riz
“A lot of people go into business purely for the money and we didn’t go in from that side. We went into be the best, whatever that takes”

For the owners operating sustainably isn’t something to shout about, it should be par for the course.

“I didn’t know how that would work in a business, but we wanted very much to do a business ‘right’. Ali and I have always said that we need to do ‘good business’ in the way that you aim to be a ‘good person’. That’s the way it should be, why wouldn’t you run your business as a good business? When we set up the business it was simple things like making sure all our packaging is recyclable – why wouldn’t you make sure that everything you’re doing is the right thing to do?”

We need to do ‘good business’ in the way that you aim to be a ‘good person’. That’s the way it should be, why wouldn’t you run your business as a good business?

Finding your own path

One of the brand’s point of differences is that it uses a sustainable swimwear fabric.

“I always knew I wanted to use recycled polyester for our shorts. In my previous role as Head of Global Design for Speedo I visited all the fabric fairs and came across it. The cost is marginally more, so there’s no real reason why it isn’t used more. I think big businesses are afraid of being seeing as an eco brand and they don’t like change,” says Smith. “We feel better for having a sustainable business but going into a retailer they really don’t care. I do think it will change though especially looking at the younger generation, they really care I think, and it will become just the norm to be eco and sustainable. Unethically made clothes will be seen as a real no-no.”

The brand has slowly grown over launching five years ago and is now stocked in selected stores in the UK, Japan, Australia – and Richard Branson’s Necker Island. Each small batch is digitally printed with waterbased inks and feature prints that have a ‘British-Hawaiian’ vibe. 

“A lot of people go into business purely for the money and we didn’t go in from that side. We went into be the best, whatever that takes. So if it’s a bit slower or we remain niche, that’s ok. It’s taken us five years to get the margins better and learn what works and what doesn’t work."

Supporting a charity

Riz has supported various charities in its five year history, both financially and in shorts, but it’s easy to spread a brand too thin and reduce the impact of the association.

“We mostly support the Marine Conservation Society, we do beach cleans with them and give them money but it’s a tangible amount. £3 pounds of every pair of shorts goes to them, which is the most we can give. So it’s a more direct way of giving and people can personally feel like they’ve helped,” explains Smith. “We like the idea of giving back to the oceans as they help us, so we help them. It’s very simple really.”

Riz's beach shorts in action

Riz's collections focus on British and marine imagery with distinct bright patterns

Creating your own supply chain

While Riz don’t want to diversify and prefer to be known for creating one product exceptionally well, the owners’ continued learning about fabric and plastic recycling lead them to the idea of creating their own recycled fabric using plastic bottles the company has collected. 

“We want to make shorts from ocean plastics to be worn back in the ocean which is an amazing closed loop thing,” says Smith. 

The reality though is a little more complicated.

“The logistics of creating your own fabric from plastic that people have collected off beaches is monstrous. We say roughly 20 small water bottles makes a pair of shorts but the mill won’t take anything less than 50,000.”

The brand is faced with a few issues to make this grand idea become reality. Firstly the fabric mill operates 24/7, with thouands and thousands of bottles being ground into polymers to make the recycled polyster and won’t stop so they can tip their own bottles in – they would just be added to the ever pouring mass. On the grand scheme of things this obviously helps the oceans but doesn’t allow them to trace the shorts back to their recycling efforts. The other is a lot of bottles makes a lot of fabric that they don’t need.

The last issue is that there don’t seem to be enough bottles needing collecting,

“We have around 20,000 bottles right now. We’ve been to many beach cleans where there aren’t any bottles which is great for the beaches, but not good for us when we have this idea in mind. Then there’s money and time and energy involved. We’ve been doing a lot of Thames beach cleans and getting 50 bottles - we need a minimum of 50,000.

We’re learning so much about what can and can’t be done. What we’d like to do is maybe lift the lid on it all a bit. We like being really transparent and saying what we wanted to do isn’t possible, but we are looking at other options.”

They are now looking at festival organisers to get their hands on the hundreds of thousands of bottles left behind by revellers and changing the focus from all the plastic coming from the ocean, to stopping the plastic reaching the ocean.

At the end of the day, it’s about trying. Trying to change the status quo, investigating new processes and seeing what’s possible. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

“If you’re going to set up something on your own why not do something different?” says Smith. “You want to the opposite of everything you hated in the corporate world."