From fast fashion to slow style

The term ‘fast fashion’ is well-known by now. It is the highly profitable business model where fashion trends are pushed to change quickly, the collection in clothing stores changes on an almost daily basis, and consumers are enticed with low prices to update their wardrobes to these new trends as often as possible. This high volume may work well for profits, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that the effects on working conditions and the environment are far from good.

High volume, low cost

The fast-fashion model relies on low selling prices, meaning that production costs have to be as low as possible. We have seen the effects this has on working conditions, with the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory still being one of the more iconic examples. Unfortunately, it is far from the only one.

Clothing production relies heavily on manual labor – sewing is still very much done with hand-operated sewing machines, and automation is only able to take on supporting steps such as fabric cutting. This reliance on manual labor, combined with the drive for low prices, means low wages, rushed production speeds and sub-optimal construction techniques. As someone who sews their own clothing on occasion, I can tell you that quality takes time. And lower costs mean less time per garment.

In addition, clothing production comes with many environmental concerns. The high water use of growing cotton has been heavily discussed. The WWF states that we need 2700 liters (713 gallons) of water to produce a single cotton T-shirt. With this in mind, we can easily imagine the effect fast fashion has on global water use. But that’s not everything. The use of fertilizers, fossil fuels, dyes and other materials affects climate change, biodiversity, toxicity and much more. Not to mention the release of microplastics from washing clothing made of synthetic fibers.

Initiatives for change

Thankfully, the world is becoming more and more aware of the environmental and social impacts of the fast fashion industry, and there are many initiatives intended to reduce these impacts. Examples are the use of organic cotton, clothing recycling initiatives by fashion stores, and labels indicating fair labor practices. These are all steps toward a more sustainable fashion industry, which we need more companies to take and which consumers can help encourage with our purchasing choices.

Challenging consumption

Still, this sidesteps a large part of the problem. It’s great that clothing producers are making incremental improvements in the environmental and social impacts of clothing. Making better buying choices as consumers also makes us feel like we are doing the right thing. But to really make a change, we need to challenge the ‘fast’ part of fast fashion. This brings us to the question of quality.

Fast fashion relies on high volumes and low prices. The push for quickly changing trends and short fashion cycles means there is no need for high-quality clothing, since it will be out of style soon anyway. In fact, high quality just gets in the way of low prices. As a result, clothing is no longer designed and made to last. This affects the quality of the fabric and threads, as well as the construction techniques. While we intrinsically understand that a cheap T-shirt is probably not made to last, a recent announcement by Primark that they intend to increase the guaranteed lifetime of some of their products from 5 to 30 washes makes this abundantly clear.

The drive toward low quality puts consumers in an interesting position. Of course, we can try to buy less, but if the clothing is of such low quality, we’ll need to replace it soon anyway. So to truly move away from fast fashion, we need to start paying attention to the lifespan of our clothing again.

What can we do?

There are many ways to ensure a long lifespan for our clothing. Personally, I’m making some of my own clothes so that I have full control over the quality. Of course, I realize that’s not for everyone. So let’s explore some other ways to reduce our consumption and help our clothing last longer.

An important starting point is making sure the garment you buy is high quality. This means high-quality fabrics and solid construction techniques. Naturally, these items will be more expensive than the almost single-wear fast fashion items, but you will be able to trust that your clothing is made to last.

Another great option is to sell or donate clothing you no longer like. Buying second-hand clothing is a great way to update your wardrobe without spending a lot of money. The sale of used clothing is on the rise. It has now also reached online platforms in what has been dubbed ‘re-commerce’ (a combination of resale and e-commerce). As an example, online fashion retailer Zalando now has a section for selling pre-owned clothing. Buying used is becoming easier and easier.

Finally, there are some great initiatives to make repair stylish again. Repairing our clothing was the norm for thousands of years, but fast fashion has changed that. The low quality of the garments hardly makes repair worthwhile, and because new items cost so little, replacing can be cheaper than repairing. But repair is a beautiful thing. The Japanese visible mending technique sashiko actually takes the philosophy that a repair increases the value of the garment, and uses wear and tear as an opportunity to improve both beauty and functionality.

Sewing stitch on a blue fabric with a traditional Japanese embroidery technique ‘sashiko’. It can be used for mending, repairing, strengthening and decorating. 

While darning your own socks may be a bit intimidating, there are several brands investing in repair services for their customers. For example, outdoor clothing brand Patagonia not only offers repair guides and videos but has been offering free repairs on their products for many years now. And UK clothing brand TOAST employs in-store repair experts to mend your clothing for you on site, often using visible mending techniques to celebrate repairs as a sign of a well-worn garment.

So while the fast fashion industry can feel like it’s trapping us in a vicious cycle of buying low-quality clothing that needs replacing sooner rather than later, there are ways to break free and enjoy our clothing for longer. Buying fewer garments but from high-quality brands, buying used and celebrating repairs are all ways we can both improve our enjoyment of clothing and reduce the adverse environmental and social effects of the fast fashion treadmill. The old adage of quality over quantity once again rings true. And in the words of designer Yves Saint Laurent: “Fashion fades, style is eternal”.

Want to know how PRé helps clothing companies work toward a more sustainable approach? Read more on our sustainable apparel page.

Ellen Meijer

Senior Consultant

My background in industrial design made it clear to me that the current system of consumption and disposal cannot be maintained in the long run. I quickly became interested in quantifying sustainability, so that well-supported decisions can be made in our move towards a more sustainable world. LCA provides the ability to focus on the facts.

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