The slow fashion movement is a much-needed response to the growing fast fashion industry and its resulting environmental damage. If you're asking, "what is slow fashion?" here's a detailed breakdown of the slow fashion concept and its meaning to the fashion industry.
The point of this movement is that it encourages people to be slow with fashion. Slow to conceptualize, produce, purchase, use, and discard. Slow fashion is about approaching what you wear with a clear vision of sustainability and using fashion items in ways that align with eco-ethical values and goals3.
In today's fashion industry, 'stylish' is almost synonymous with wasteful. On the surface, new weekly fashion styles, couture dupes, and the extravagance of fast fashion may seem to harm nothing but the pockets of those buying into the culture. But the issues with fast fashion run deep. And it's these issues the slow fashion movement seeks to address.
Over the past decade, we have had more choices of cheaper clothing rolling off the production lines than ever before. The first and most apparent problem with fast fashion is that these clothing items come from somewhere. Manufacturers make these clothing items from cheap, low-quality materials. This way, after they add up all the overhead costs, their brands can still sell the clothing for meager prices.
Manufacturers source most of the low-quality raw materials used to make such fashion items from synthetic petrochemical byproducts.
Yes, 63% of our textile fibers come from petrochemicals, the chemical products obtained from refining petroleum1. This includes polyester, acrylic, lycra or spandex, elastane, and many more derivatives. Then, manufacturers fulfill 37% of that textile need with cotton when making clothes to feed our shopping habits, one of the most water-consuming materials to produce globally.
Petroleum, the primary source of synthetic materials, is one of the most significant contributors to pollution. In a world trying to move away from fossil fuels for energy creation, mining petroleum to feed a growing fashion industry is counterproductive.
The production process for these clothes is even more polluting. Textile production uses our limited supply of freshwater and sends back wastewater into our water bodies. According to one study,
“Textile wastewater has a high pH value, high concentration of suspended solids, chlorides, and nitrates. It also contains metals like manganese, sodium, lead, copper, chromium, iron, and high BOD and COD value2”.
All of this makes it both difficult and expensive to treat and reuse.
Textile production also contributes to the emission of greenhouse gases such as CO2. In 2015, textile production released more CO2 into the atmosphere than maritime shipping and international flights combined5. We can measure the results in increased global warming and climate change levels.
Related: 37 fast fashion facts and statistics
For fast fashion to work and be profitable, their supply chain exists off the back of poorly paid, poorly treated workers.
A report by Kate Fletcher4, a popular slow fashion activist, explains how many brands pay workers "poverty wages" with no overtime payment. These workers are usually under temporary contracts that offer them no benefits. The mindless consumption of garments with little supply chain transparency can also hide child labor and a lack of fair treatment, among other ills.
And we can see this repeatedly from the point of textile manufacturing to the point of tailoring clothes. The bottom line is all that matters in fast fashion, and the workers suffer for it.
Because fast fashion moves well… fast, clothes come in and out of style at an alarming speed. A survey by Barclaycard shows that one in 10 British shoppers buy outfits to take a picture for social media and never wear them again. These clothes are either tucked in the back of their closets or sent back to the store. Whichever way, these clothes eventually go to waste.
Eventually, only 1% of these clothes will be recycled. Waste companies will bury the rest in landfills, in the oceans, or sell them off to foreign countries to satisfy the global demand for second-hand clothing. Even some of the clothing sent off to online thrift stores can eventually meet this fate as these establishments are already overwhelmed with clothes due to the growing fast fashion industry.
These brands are all too willing to churn out clothing items that no one needs. Well… until these items exist. Once they are out there, social pressures, along with the must-have culture of the fashion industry, encourage people to buy, creating more waste. One of the saddening aspects of all of this is the pirating of the works of creative designers.
Fast fashion brands move so fast that they don't have the structure to create unique pieces of their own. Their solution? To steal from designers. Although laws exist to protect creatives, they are often loosely enforced, or the legal process costs too much to be worth the trouble. There have been a few public allegations of such theft against these fast clothing brands.
Slow fashion is one of the best solutions to tackle the wasteful culture of the current fashion world. Slow fashion tackles the problem of wasteful fashion from the bottom up. When consumers decide to buy less clothing, this reduces demand mainly because consumers have the power to build a new slow fashion culture out of this concept.
With a widespread slow fashion culture, brands set up simply to feed the in-and-out frenzy of ever-changing fashion trends suddenly aren't selling so much. As a result, factory workers do not need to work long hours in poor working conditions to meet a demand that they will never satisfy.
Further, this also takes the pressure off the textiles industry, which uses up petroleum and our freshwater to create millions of yards of fabrics. All of this change seems beyond our reach, but we can make it happen simply by adopting slow fashion practices.
Additionally, this also brings to mind the need to be wary of brands that title themselves as slow fashion brands. Although many fashion brands are out there using ethical fashion practices, there's also a growing problem of brands greenwashing by tagging themselves as 'sustainable' or 'slow fashion' to fit into the current social climate.
In Kate Fletcher's report, she talks about how fashion media has adopted the term 'slow fashion' to describe brands that are simply 'slower' than fast brands. It's important to know as a consumer that this is far from what slow fashion is about.
The sustainable fashion industry should play its part by producing less and using sustainable, eco-friendly materials that can safely go back to the environment. From there on, the work is yours to do.
Regardless of where you are in the world, you can choose to adopt slow fashion practices and join the slow fashion movement. Here are helpful tips for getting started.
Sustainable fashion is closely tied to minimalism. Like the slow food movement, a close relation, a minimalist approach to fashion means that you simply do not buy anything that you will not need regularly. You should be slow to add any new clothing pieces to your closet with slow fashion.
Before you do, slow down and carefully consider if this is something you need to own or if you're simply following social pressures. (Also, check out our guide on how to minimize your wardrobe)
While all fabrics come at an environmental cost, some fabrics are more wasteful than others. First of all, petroleum-derived fabrics, such as polyester, rayon, acrylic, lycra, spandex, and elastane, are off the list. Only consider them if you want to buy activity clothing, e.g., a lycra jersey for workout tights. And in this case, look for slow fashion production methods that make use of recycled materials.
When shopping for slow fashion, make the conscious switch to more ethical and sustainable fashion fabrics such as linen, organic cotton, wool, peace silk, cashmere, and hemp. Each choice helps champion a more sustainable fashion industry.
Being a part of the slow fashion movement means that you have the patience to find sustainable fashion brands that are the right fit for you. Look for brands that make ethical fashion a priority, And even when you find them, don't take their promises at face value, even if they claim to be a slow fashion brand.
Research the meaning of their labels, their fabrics, and their practices. You can always reach out to their customer support team if you have any questions that are not already publicly answered.
Beyond the brand itself, ask what its supply chain looks like. Do their suppliers pay fair wages? Where do they source their textiles? How do they offset the carbon costs of their production and manufacturing activities? Taking the time to assess their slow fashion credentials is part of the change the movement encourages.
The secret to using less for long is buying high-quality slow fashion clothes. Fast fashion brands use low-quality materials to keep their products cheap and fast rather than slow. Avoid those. Shop at places that offer high-quality, sustainable materials with excellent-quality sewing and stitching.
Another tip is to buy at a place that offers repairs. For example, a real slow fashion brand will offer to fix or stitch your broken clothes or shoes because their eco-fashion values go against throwing out wearable clothing.
Sustainable fashion also means using the resources closest to you. When you buy everything online and have them shipped to you, you're contributing to the massive amounts of CO2 emissions that the transportation industry is responsible for.
So instead, adopt the slow fashion method of using what you have locally. Find your local tailors, good quality clothing brands, and thrift stores, and buy from them when you need a new item.
If you simply buy less and use the most of what you have, you would be operating by the values of the slow fashion movement. Choose a sustainable fashion store when you absolutely have to purchase new items. And maximize the benefits of every item you have before repurposing or recycling them.
Slow fashion culture encourages every stakeholder- manufacturers, suppliers, brands, retailers, and consumers- to consider what damages and/or benefits their role may be bringing to the world around them.
As consumers, we have the power to influence the speed of the fashion world and bring on a new culture of balance and respect for the environment. By both understanding what is slow fashion and personally adopting slow fashion values, we can encourage healthy respect and treatment of the people who work in the fashion sector.
In pretty much every way, the slow fashion revolution is the opposite of fast fashion. We can shop smarter for slower sustainable clothing by choosing the shun cheap clothing and excessive production.
|1||Gustav Sandin, Greg M. Peters, Environmental impact of textile reuse and recycling – A review, Journal of Cleaner Production, Volume 184, 2018, Pages 353-365, ISSN 0959-6526, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2018.02.266|
|2||"Parimal Pal, Chapter 5 - Water Treatment by Membrane-Separation Technology, Editor(s): Parimal Pal, Industrial Water Treatment Process Technology, Butterworth-Heinemann, 2017, Pages 173-242, ISBN 9780128103913, https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-810391-3.00005-9"|
|3||Fletcher, Kate. (2010). Slow Fashion: An Invitation for Systems Change. Fashion Practice: The Journal of Design, Creative Process & the Fashion. 2. 259-266. 10.2752/175693810X12774625387594.|
|4||Fletcher, Kate. (2010). Slow Fashion: An Invitation for Systems Change. Fashion Practice: The Journal of Design, Creative Process & the Fashion. 2. 259-266. 10.2752/175693810X12774625387594.|
|5||UN Environment Programme, 2018. Putting the brakes on fast fashion|
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.