Fast Fashion vs Slow Fashion
image sources: Guardian UK / Not Just a Label
The fashion industry has diverse ways of marketing product and addressing trends, as well as various modes of production. On this blog we've written before about sustainable and ethical fashion issues and the impact that evolving modes of production have had on the industry. A current dilemma industry-wide from designers all the way down to consumers is weighing the choice between fast fashion and slow fashion. Let's briefly look at the benefits and drawbacks of each side.
image source: Made In America Movement
What is Fast Fashion?
The concept behind fast fashion is exactly as it sounds: speeding up the cycle of design and production to quickly address the latest trends and deliver them to the consumer. The breakneck speed doesn't stop there - product is also quickly and inexpensively moved through the retail stage as well to keep current with trends and keep the customers coming back for more. Some examples of popular fast fashion brands include Topshop, H&M, and Forever 21, which boasts new merchandise on the floor daily.
What's the benefit of fast fashion?
Fast fashion exists to make inexpensive pieces that will be trendy as soon as they hit the stores. It has mass appeal because even customers shopping on a budget can afford to look current and freshen their wardrobe with an updated piece or two. It wasn't very long ago that someone shopping on a budget would have to wait a while before the latest trends trickled down from high fashion runways, through expensive boutiques and high end department stores, and eventually landed as watered-down iterations on more budget conscious retailers' shelves. With the onset of the internet, runway shows and information on trends became more widely available to anyone who was interested, whereas before it was only accessible to industry insiders - the masses would have to wait for to fashion magazines to tell them what was fashionable more than half a year later. As people gained access to up-to-the-minute information on trends, they also wanted a means to access those trends even if they didn't have a high-fashion budget. Fast fashion has made fashion much more democratic - sounds great, doesn't it?
What's the harm?
In order for fast fashion retailers to achieve their goals, trendy product must be in store 8-10 weeks after the trend has gained traction. This is a far cry from the typical year or so turn around time that apparel companies were used to adhering to. This shift in how business is done and in consumer expectation has been nothing short of seismic for the industry as a whole. The fast fashion industry is huge and represents approximately $1.44 trillion dollars in business annually. Some of the largest downsides have been negative impacts on the environment and the treatment of industry workers in developing countries. Since the primary goals are quick turnaround and low cost, corners are cut on everything from how waste is dealt with to worker safety and the use of underage workers. In addition, the use of overwhelmingly synthetic materials also adds to an already large carbon footprint.
Not to be downplayed either are the erosion of manufacturing jobs in more developed countries having higher standards of living and better working conditions guaranteed to their citizens, as well as the shuttering of many wonderful companies and cottage industry brands that simply could not keep up with the demands of the challenging fast fashion development and production calendar.
Another overwhelming obstacle is the shift in consumer mindset. Consumers have been trained to pay insanely low prices that are not feasible to maintain for companies that are making sure workers are paid a living wage. In addition, the readily available cheap clothing is an easy impulse buy and typically these clothes are not cherished in any way by the end consumer; in fact most consumers now consider a garment 'old' after having it for only ONE YEAR. This is a notion that would have been unheard of a couple of generations ago. The fact is, after a year many of these poorly constructed clothes made of cheap materials are falling apart - quality is something the consumer doesn't demand of fast fashion because they don't expect to even want it in a year anyway. In the end, this is not a sustainable model on so many levels.
image source: Boutique Mexico
What is Slow Fashion?
Slow fashion is the process of making designs in a slower, more careful, and often more ethical manner. Slow fashion is made with the environment and workers' well-being in mind, and emphasis is placed on craftsmanship and quality. Brands like Thought, People Tree, and Alternative Apparel are all sources of slow fashion. You can find more brands that support sustainable fashion at Sustainable Fashion Directory, and if you are interested in sustainable activewear specifically, we wrote a nice little review of our top 5 brands earlier this year.
What's the benefit of slow fashion?
Supporting slow fashion is about more than just the clothes, although a higher quality product is generally a natural outcome. Slow fashion emphasizes a business model based on the workers and concern for reducing the massive carbon footprint the fashion industry is responsible for. In slow fashion, focus is put on making sustainable, lasting clothing that is carefully made. The items tend to be seasonless and lasting, and these companies often give back to the community in some way. There is an emphasis on processes that are less harmful to the environment, and typically natural or organic or recycled fibers are used. There is often an effort to manufacture locally if possible. Workers are treated fairly, paid a living wage, and ensured a healthy working environment. In some cases employees are even given a path to equity in the company.
Just because slow fashion is more mindful, doesn't mean it is only the realm of smaller houses or independent designers; some large brands are on board as well. However, if a higher standard of practice was not a primary directive for a large brand from the get-go, it can be so much more difficult for a them to completely turn around the way they have been doing business. Large brands that have been successfully living up to promises of ethical practice and environmental responsibility have had that mindset since their inception. The gold standard of this is Patagonia - ethical practice and sustainability are in the DNA of this brand and that is because environmental stewardship is a primary directive of theirs. This is a priority because it is what their consumers demand and the company keeps itself in line with its promise of transparency, which is considered the gold-standard in the industry. Brands like Patagonia prove that the slow fashion mentality is not only for small, idealistic design houses, but can be really big business. The key is that the dogma of slow fashion needs to be an essential part of the brand's identity.
What's the harm?
The downsides to slow fashion are mainly the cost and currency of clothing items. Garments from slow fashion sources tend to be more expensive mainly because workers are paid fair wages, factories are held to strict safety standards, and materials and methods of production are chosen which have a lower environmental impact. Another side effect of following an ethical code is that production can naturally take a little longer. The garments tend to be seasonless and meant to last, not burning through each new trend that flashes across social media, which can bother some consumers who are trained to crave something new on a constant basis. Many retailers carrying lines that are produced with slow fashion directives will not have all new product in the stores every single week. The downside, rather than harm, is that designers working in this way have a big challenge - they need to turn around the instant gratification mindset that cheap throwaway fashion has planted so firmly in the average consumer's psyche. It has been proven that the dopamine hit that many get from a fast fashion shopping spree can be very powerful - that puts the term 'fashion addict' in a whole new light!
In the end, there are not really many drawbacks to slow fashion, but there are lots of challenges to overcome as it will necessitate a dramatic shift in consumer expectations and priorities. It is hard to pay a realistic price for a slow made T-shirt when you have gotten used to paying $3 for one that looks very similar.
What's the verdict?
Both modes of fashion have their benefits and drawbacks.
Slow Fashion will most likely be the path we SHOULD take for the sake of humanity, but it may be difficult to implement on a large scale. Brands like H&M, which is which is one of the largest fashion companies in the world, really have their work cut out for them in order to become more sustainable, but admitting they have a problem and are wiling to make changes is a good start. It is up to the consumers to hold them to their promises and to make sure they are not just leveraging a greener mindset as a marketing ploy - commonly called greenwashing.
Fast Fashion delivers instant gratification - a steady stream of attractive (albeit cheaply made), trendy product that is affordable to just about anyone. BUT you have to turn a blind eye to the workers who are being treated, frankly, like garbage, as well as the greater cost to the environment that we will all be paying in the long run. It's surprisingly easy to do when you are very budget conscious, though, and the average consumer may not be ready to look less trendy while paying more at the register.
The question to ask before purchasing is which YOU personally believe in and want to support as a retail consumer. As designers, we definitely have some sway; it will be up to us to find creative ways to resonate with the customer in such a way that ultimately, a more ethical choice is also the most trendy and attractive. It does not have to be all or nothing, and a path to being a more conscious consumer (and designer) can start with baby steps. The important thing to remember is that the consumer is king. If they demand a change, companies will eventually have to fall in line.
Are you interested in learning more about these issues?
If so, you are in luck! This week is Fashion Revolution Week and there are many events going on worldwide to promote discussion around these issues.
In fact, Polychrome is sponsoring several events at the Rhode Island School of Design in collaboration with the
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