Prophetik by Jeff Garner on display at Eco Fashion Week 2012 in Vancouver, April 2012. Photo: Jason Hargrove via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND).
A dramatic summer display at Zara - an early and highly successful pioneer of the 'pile'em high, sell'em cheap' philosophy in fashion retailing. Photo: thinkretail via Flickr (CC BY-NC).
Harris Tweed is the epitome of 'slow fashion' - slow in its making, long in its lasting, timeless in its elegance. Photo: Ali Elangasinghe via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA).
The Ecologist guide to Fashion front cover.
Sustainable fashion is slow fashion - because fast comes at a price
8th June 2015
The mainstream fashion industry is trapped in a competitive spiral of ever shorter and faster sales and production cycles, writes Ruth Styles - and that inevitably stresses both textile workers and natural resources. But there is another way: the way of 'slow fashion' in which clothes are timeless, beautiful and made to last.
Supply is a complex, opaque business, particularly where fast fashion is concerned - the average cotton top will have gone through at least seven pairs of hands before reaching the shop floor.
'Slow fashion' refers to clothing that lasts a long time and is often made from locally sourced or Fairtrade material. It might sound like an oxymoron, but it's rapidly becoming a force to be reckoned with.
As with slow food, the emphasis is on quality, which means dispensing with mass-produced petrochemical-derived textiles and instead using traditional methods and fabrics such as Harris Tweed (see photo).
Made by hand in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, manufacturing processes have barely changed in the past 200 years, and the cloth is now protected by an Act of Parliament.
Another benefit of local, traditionally made garments is the shorter, more transparent supply chain that accompanies them. This makes ensuring ethical and quality standards are adhered to much easier than the labyrinthine fast fashion system.
What slow fashion really needs to survive though, is investment, and this is where consumers from the Far East with an appetite for quality goods come in. Can consumption ever really be a force for good? If it's slow, then yes it can.
Slowing down the fashion cycle
Originating in the late 1990s, fast fashion is modelled on the American 'quick response' business model.
As the global economy boomed and cheap credit became ever more widely available, the fashion industry - led by Spanish high street giant Zara (see photo) - tapped into a pool of consumers, hungry for trends and passionate about fashion.
Mostly young and overwhelmingly female, this new breed of shoppers wanted catwalk looks but at high street prices. And they wanted them now. Scenting an opportunity, the high street swung into action, producing more fashion and selling it at ever diminishing prices. 'Pile 'em high, sell 'em cheap!' was the buzz phrase - and it worked.
Consumers loved it, with clothes - once a pricey investment - becoming a lunchtime treat. But cheap fashion came at a price. Shorter lead-in times meant turning a blind eye to unethical practices and increased the need for air transport, while lower prices meant screwing textile producers and workers further down the chain.
It also meant more man-made fabrics such as polyester - a cheap by-product of crude oil, says eco-textiles consultant Kate Fletcher. "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."
Quality, not quantity
Along with prioritizing quality over quantity, the rise of slow fashion has helped bring about one very positive change. As discussed in previous chapters, after years of t-shirts that don't last more than a couple of washes and shoes that fall apart on their first outing, consumers are fed up.
With the global economic boom a distant memory, few have the money for a £10 sartorial 'treat' and fewer still are prepared to shell out for clothes that don't go the distance. As a result, people are looking to handmade traditional items and textiles such as Harris Tweed, gabardine and silk, all of which last longer and wear better than polycottons and oil derivatives.
Like the increasing numbers turning to the Slow Food movement's rare breed meat and locally grown sprouts, there is growing momentum behind these traditionally made fabrics - all part of the slow fashion effect.
But it isn't just concern about quality that's driving the trend. Scandals surrounding labour issues have forced brands to look again at their supply chains, with many repatriating production to traditional factories in their own countries - providing a double benefit of boosting local industry and cutting down on transport emissions. Consumers pay a little more but the piece they buy lasts, and lasts, and lasts.
"Of course, quality costs more", adds Fletcher. "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 network of relationships is formed, which permeates far beyond the garment manufacturing chain."
Transparency and the supply chain
Transparency and supply chains have become an increasingly pertinent issue in recent years. Supply is a complex, opaque business, particularly where fast fashion is concerned - the average cotton top will have gone through at least seven pairs of hands before reaching the shop floor.
But what do convoluted supply chains have to do with the environment, and by extension, the slow fashion movement? The answer: more than you think.
For a start, complex supply chains tend to result in cutting corners and a lack of accountability. Can any brand, however big, be expected to keep track of every single garment produced for them? No, of course they can't. But for slow fashion brands, where the onus is on producing quality classics rather than responding to trends, casting a critical eye over the supply chain is part of the business plan.
Typical is Rapanui, a young company attracting attention thanks to its 'traceability' map - an interactive tool that allows shoppers to see the story behind their clothes. Type a garment code into the website and follow the trail of that item from seed to shop.
"When we started, we wondered why it was that electrical appliances and food had information on exactly where and how products were made, but clothing didn't", explains co-founder Rob Drake-Knight.
Elizabeth Laskar, an ethical fashion consultant and one of the Ethical Fashion Forum's founders, believes that this type of tool can benefit everyone: "Traceability systems are good news for the fashion sector. Organizations like Rapanui are accountable to the environment, their suppliers and their customers."
Getting the big boys on board
For bigger brands, however, the task of bringing transparency to their supply chains is tougher. Not that Drake-Knight thinks they should be allowed off the hook:
"If you consider how much power large brands and high street stores have and how much their suppliers want to keep them happy, it's just about asking for the information. It does obviously get harder for larger brands because there's a lot more information they need to get hold of."
And help is at hand. MADE-BY, a not-for-profit organization working to make sustainable fashion common practice, used to run a Track & Trace system, available to any brand that asks, and now works to help implement similar systems at companies across the world.
But, says spokesman Ulrich van Gemmeren, even with help, getting it right isn't easy: "It's a system based not on a brand declaring how its products are made but on information given by each individual supplier in the chain.
"It's important to have this independence, but also one of the challenges. Small brands, for example, have less impact and less ability to pressure their suppliers to enter data in time and deliver certificates."
This is why some brands signed up to MADE-BY's system decided to leave it again. "How can you guarantee sustainability in the chain if only one supplier enters data?" asks van Gemmeren. "You have to get everyone to do it."
Whatever the difficulties of setting up a system like this, Laskar is confident the movement is a convincing one.
"The concept is needed and will stay", she says. "It may develop into a legal requirement over time, especially if carbon reduction plans come to fruition. My hope is that more retailers will pick up the baton to become accountable and transparent about everything they put in their shops."
Ruth Styles is author of 'The Ecologist Guide to Fashion', published by Ivy Press (£9.99).
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