It’s hard to keep up with the various types of fashion production within the garment industry. It’s even harder to discern the ethical implications of the clothing you buy given the lack of transparency about manufacturing processes. To ethical fashion advocates like me, it’s important to get it right. More often than not, the ethical distinctions split across the umbrella terms of “slow fashion” and “fast fashion.” Generally, clothing that falls under the term “slow fashion” is produced in a socially responsible and environmentally-friendly way and sometimes both. In this post, I’m going to walk through some of the differences between slow fashion and fast fashion.
Slow fashion defines timeless, high-quality clothing that is intended to last, whereas fast fashion defines lower-quality, on-trend clothing. They differ on dimensions of seasonality, production, materials, environmental effect, and aesthetic. Slow fashion tends to be more socially responsible and sustainable than fast fashion, which is geared toward churning out disposable clothing.
The first major distinction between these two types of fashion is their seasonality. Traditionally, the fashion cycle follows the seasonal calendar, spring/summer, and autumn/winter. This cycle includes material sourcing, designing, making the garments, and getting them into stores. Slow fashion brands tend to follow this timeline, or even slower. Fast fashion brands, on the other hand, have compressed these cycles into short periods of 4-6 weeks, sometimes fewer. The development of fast fashion in the late 90’s has resulted in a clear product quality divide between these two types of clothing. Slow fashion garments usually last about 30 wears or up to several years. On average, fast fashion garments last only five weeks before being discarded. Many consumers tend to be willing to pay a premium for longer-lasting attire, which is why slow fashion is generally more expensive.
Another key difference is that slow fashion brands tend to place greater emphasis on ethical production. Slow fashion brands only work with factories that pay their workers a fair wage. They also support training initiatives that raise awareness of the circumstances that some factory workers are subjected to. Fast fashion brands need such a quick turnaround that they tend to use factories that pay their workers poorly and some even use child labor. At worst, workers at these factories can be subject to abuse, violence and forced to work in cramped unhygienic working conditions. In stark contrast, slow fashion designers will spend months searching for ethical factories around the world, building relationships with the factory owners to ensure the factories’ integrity.
The materials used in slow and fast fashion area also key differentiators. In general, slow fashion manufacturers use more ethically-responsible textiles. Slow fashion companies will sometimes utilize old fabrics, either by recycling or repurposing discarded garments. If they need a new material, they may use natural biodegradable fabrics such as tencel or bamboo. Slow fashion brands generally shy away from cotton as it’s deemed “the world’s dirtiest crop” due to its heavy use of insecticides. In contrast, fast fashion companies tend to use cotton as well as blended fabrics (e.g. polycotton blends) whose use make the garment non-biodegradable. Also of significance, is the heavy emphasis slow fashion brands put on animal welfare. There have been huge developments in the number of vegan “leathers” on the market due to slow fashion brands pioneering this research. Fast fashion manufacturers, on the other hand, use cruelly-sourced animal skins.
In addition to the ethics of the raw materials themselves, the manufacturing processes of slow and fast fashion have markedly different environmental effects. Fast fashion brands use manufacturing processes that introduce toxic pollutants and hazardous chemicals, including lead, to soften and dye the fabric. A fast fashion mill can go through an astonishing 200 tons of water for every ton of fabric dyed, which will then pollute the local rivers with untreated toxic dyes. In contrast, slow fashion brands utilize safer, traditional methods that are better for the environment. They use natural dyes, minimize water usage, address the amount of waste they are creating, and ensure they are as energy efficient as possible.
Finally, the aesthetic differs between slow and fast fashion. Slow fashion companies create “collections” just as they do in the fast fashion industry. However, creators and consumers of slow fashion aren’t as interested in what the latest trends are. Slow fashion collections are based on timeless pieces rather than what’s currently trending. Fast fashion collections, on the other hand, are based on the most recent catwalk trends and what’s “hot” now. It is this need to have rapid production cycles that perpetuate the throwaway fashion cycle and less ethical choices on the part of manufacturers.
As the world grows more ethically conscious and consumers look to understand the ecological and human footprint of their clothing, this movement for timeless, higher-quality clothing will only grow, which I’m really excited about. When looking at a garment by a company I’ve not heard, it’ll usually take me some time to figure out whether it comes under the slow fashion term. For example, I’ve been looking for a pair of sustainable socks for a while now and I’ve spent a lot of time researching each company to learn about their ethical policy. I feel that as I try to live more consciously, my knowledge constantly grows but I still have a lot to learn. I recommend using Ethical Consumer’s rating page to look up brands and Project Just offer a guide for responsible and ethical fashion.
I will continue to highlight some of these slow fashion brands that are pioneering the way and if you have any recommendations I would love to hear from you!
Photography: Dissident Dreamer