Slow fashion

Fast fashion is about greed. Kate Fletcher says it’s time to slow down and consider the true cost of choosing quantity over quality

Fast speed in fashion is a defining characteristic of today’s textile and clothing industry. It’s fast in production – tracking sales with electronic tills and just-intime manufacturing, which can now turn a sample or design sketch into a finished product in as little as 12 days; and fast in consumption – a recent report revealed that people are buying one third more garments than four years ago, fuelled by the rise and rise of supermarkets and ‘value’ retailers like Primark and Matalan.

Yet the fabric in super-cheap, ‘value’ or fast fashion is no quicker to make or use than any other garment. The fibre takes the same length of time to grow, regardless of a product’s speed to market (in the case of cotton, around a year). It takes just as long to be spun, knitted or woven, cleaned, bleached, dyed, printed, cut and sewn; and going shopping and laundering the garment takes the same amount of time no matter how speedily a design makes it from catwalk to high street retailer.

Fast fashion isn’t really about speed, but greed: selling more, making more money. Time is just one factor of production, along with labour, capital and natural resources that get juggled and squeezed in the pursuit of maximum profits. But fast is not free. Short lead times and cheap clothes are only made possible by exploitation of labour and natural resources.

Yet it doesn’t have to be this way. We can design a different system for ourselves that makes money while respecting the rights of workers and the environment, and produces beautiful and conscientious garments.

Slow fashion is about designing, producing, consuming and living better. Slow fashion is not time-based but quality-based (which has some time components). Slow is not the opposite of fast – there is no dualism – but a different approach in which designers, buyers, retailers and consumers are more aware of the impacts of products on workers, communities and ecosystems.

The concept of slow fashion borrows heavily from the Slow Food Movement. Founded by Carlo Petrini in Italy in 1986, Slow Food links pleasure and food with awareness and responsibility. It defends biodiversity in our food supply by opposing the standardisation of taste, defends the need for consumer information and protects cultural identities tied to food. It has spawned a wealth of other slow movements. Slow Cities, for example, design with slow values but within the context of a town or city and a commitment to improve its citizens’ quality of life.

In melding the ideas of the slow movement with the global clothing industry, we build a new vision for fashion in the era of sustainability: where pleasure and fashion is linked with awareness and responsibility.

Slow fashion is about choice, information, cultural diversity and identity. Yet, critically, it is also about balance. It requires a combination of rapid imaginative change and symbolic (fashion) expression as well as durability and long-term engaging, quality products. Slow fashion supports our psychological needs (to form identity, communicate and be creative through our clothes) as well as our physical needs (to cover and protect us from extremes of climate).

Fast fashion, as it exists today, strikes no such balance. Indeed, it is largely disconnected from reality, with little recognition of poverty wages, forced overtime and climate change.

Slow fashion, with the shift from quantity to quality, takes the pressure off time. It allows suppliers to plan orders, predict the numbers of workers needed and invest in the longer term. It gives companies time to build mutually beneficial relationships. No longer will suppliers have to employ temporary or subcontracted workers, or force workers to do excessive overtime to meet unpredictable orders with impossible deadlines. Instead, workers will have secure employment with regular hours and the opportunity for promotion.

Of course, quality costs more. We will buy fewer products, but higher in value. A fairer distribution of the ticket price through the supply chain is an intrinsic part of the agenda. Jobs are preserved as workers spend longer on each piece. Slow design enables a richer interaction between designer and maker; maker and garment; garment and user. A strong bond of relationships is formed, which permeates far beyond the garment manufacturing chain.

Slow fashion is a glimpse of a different – and more sustainable – future for the textile and clothing sector and an opportunity for business to be done in a way that respects workers, environment and consumers in equal measure. Such a future is but a garment away.

Kate Fletcher is an eco textiles consultant and author.

Tips to slow down your wardrobe:
• Repair your clothes with a smile (it’s easier than going shopping)
• Or ask stores about repair services… that may get them thinking
• Ask your friends for new ideas about how to wear the garments you already have… it’s always good to wear things in a new way.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist September 2007


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