Kiwi woman's small, eco-friendly business Kalakoa Swim makes waves overseas

Toni Burke, the director and owner of Kalakoa Swim.
Toni Burke, the director and owner of Kalakoa Swim. Photo credit: Supplied

A Kiwi woman's small, eco-friendly swimwear business has become the topic of mounting interest in the US and UK, with online traffic surging as COVID-19 restrictions begin to relax worldwide.

People around the globe are beginning to look at life beyond the pandemic, dreaming of their next retreat or preparing for a summer of sand and surf. 

Toni Burke, the woman behind the environmentally-friendly brand Kalakoa Swim, has been waiting in the wings to meet that demand. A former surf lifesaver, she is now combining her passion for the beach with a lifetime love of fashion.

"Starting my own swimwear company has always been my ultimate dream... I guess this was my next step in my career path," she told Newshub.

After a slow start due to lockdowns and border closures, Kalakoa Swim is now shipping daily orders to a growing base of sustainability-conscious customers. Burke says there is a growing demand for eco-friendly products, particularly in the US, UK and Australian markets, with traffic to her site increasing by 300 percent in just two days.

Plans to market the range through New Zealand retailers were disrupted by the COVID-19 outbreak, but talks are due to resume in the coming weeks. Burke expects local sales to accelerate ahead of the 2021 summer season.

"Still within New Zealand [sales are] a bit slow. We only just launched in February, on Valentine's Day, so it's picking up a little bit. COVID-19 did put a bit of a halt on things but everyday I'm just trying to do everything I can."

Each swimwear piece has been crafted from sustainable fabrics, with Burke sourcing her materials - made from recycled plastic matter - from both Italy and the US.

"I use two fabric companies, one is called Carvico Vita - an Italian brand that makes their materials out of recycled fish nets from the sea - and my other one is Repreve, an American brand, who make their [lycra] out of recycled plastic bottles salvaged from landfills," she explained.

The brand follows a global movement toward greater sustainability in the fashion industry. The environmental impact of mass-produced clothing - a significant contributor to pollution - has become subject to increased scrutiny in recent years, particularly amid the rise of online shopping and 'fast fashion' retailers. The system of production and distribution is putting immense pressure on non-renewable and threatened resources, especially water, and creates vast quantities of waste - the majority of which ends up in landfills. 

"I think it's so important these days, especially where we're heading - I'm seeing more and more brands using ethical, eco-friendly systems," Burke said.

"That's the direction we all need to be heading in, otherwise we're just going to get to the point of no return."

As part of the brand's commitment to an eco-friendly operation, the products are sent from the Bali-based manufacturer in biodegradable packaging and orders are shipped in locally-made, compostable bags. 

Burke is now planning to allow customers to return swimwear they no longer use. The garment can then be upcycled appropriately, and in exchange, the customer receives credit towards a new bikini. The move will ensure material isn't going to waste and will reward consumers for positive practices. 

"I'm really looking forward to doing [a] 'Mums and Bubs' collection and getting into men's swimwear. Especially in New Zealand, I'd really love to start stocking in the retailers, so I'm trying to get in North Beach at the moment and smaller ones like Chances and Underground Skate," Burke said.

"Everyday I'm trying to find new things to put on my horizon."