The term “slow fashion” was coined by Kate Fletcher in her 2007 article for The Ecologist, where she compared the eco/sustainable/ethical fashion industry to the slow food movement. Slow clothes are good quality, cleanly produced, and fairly acquired:
We can also add other elements like “locally made” (or made in Canada), “up-cycled,” “naturally dyed,” and “vegan” to the mix.
With this information in hand we may be inspired, but also find ourselves at a crossroads. While we can understand the problem of fast fashion and recognize the benefits of a slow fashion alternative, we may struggle to figure out how to actually make the shift from fast fashion to slow clothes. We are the practical steps we can take? To answer that question, let me share with you a bit of my story: what got me motivated to move away from fast fashion and how I began making the transition to “slow clothes.”
My first shift towards slow clothing was a mental one that slowly developed over a number of years. Twenty-five years ago, when I started shopping for my own clothes, there didn’t seem to be the option to “go slow.” In the mid-sized Ontario town where I grew up, the only new clothes available were mass produced and sold in malls and outlet stores. Or there was the option to buy used clothing at Value Village and Salvation Army. I was an equal fan of thrift stores and boxing-week sales at outlet stores because I could buy more for less. My values at the time centered on “careful budgeting” and “good deals.” Though I was starting to learn about the deplorable conditions and human rights violations of garment workers in developing countries, I felt helpless to do anything about it. It wasn’t until I moved to Vancouver in 2004 that I discovered local boutiques that were actually selling sustainable clothing and numerous consignment shops that offered trendy used clothes. As a graduate student, I still didn’t feel like I could afford to go slow—especially not in buying new garments, but at least the opportunity to shop differently was there. For me that created a niggling sense of ethical responsibility. Doesn’t mean that I changed my shopping habits much, but the seeds of change had been planted.
What really started those seeds growing was personal experience. For me, that experience came in a newfound interest in the fiber arts about 10 years ago. One December afternoon, I stumbled upon a small fibre store in rural Niagara that had wool sourced from many different kinds of sheep. It was soft, carded wool ready to be spun. The spun fibres could then be knitted, crocheted, felted, or woven into endless imaginative textile projects. I literally had a creative awakening in that shop. I came home with my first pile of wool and a little hand-spinner and I was off and running.
As I spun my wool I got to thinking about where fibres come from. I wanted to know their backstory: Where were the sheep from? What was the wool production process? How was it cleaned, carded, and dyed and who did that work? From there I became interested in the backstory of other fibres – of cotton, rayon, and polyester; where they came from and how they were made; who grew these fibres and produced them? This brought me to slow fashion from another angle. I began to learn about the environmental factors surrounding the fibres that go into our clothes. The backstory, it turned out, was far from benign. It was brutal, toxic, and wasteful.
Along with my passion for fibres, I also started sewing some of my own clothes a few years ago. In the process I discovered first-hand that sewing is truly a craft. It takes a lot of skill and patience. And it takes much practice. This gave me a newfound respect for garment workers in developing countries. They were skilled laborers. It also made me realize that I had developed an unrealistic expectation of how much clothes should cost after years of being able to buy them so cheaply. If I were to sell the clothes I was making and gave myself minimum wage for doing so (never mind a livable or a professional wage), I would have to charge a small fortune for them.
For example, to sew a pair of pants or a sweatshirt would take me about eight hours. Add that to the cost of the fabric and I’d have to charge at least $130 per garment. This realization raised some serious questions for me:
It slowly dawned on me that we, as a culture, are not only largely indifferent to the skills it takes make clothing, but also tend to devalue the craft of sewing itself in ways that would have baffled our ancestors. We don’t take it seriously as a viable or livable profession in Canada. At best, sewing garments is a little hobby on the side, while we do “real work” somewhere else.
Knowledge, opportunity, and personal experience have worked together to create a deep shift in my values surrounding clothes. And ultimately, it’s this value shift that has brought me to change my habits and embrace slow clothing. Values are sometimes tricky to detect and we are often not aware of which ones are driving our buying habits. But if we look at how we currently shop for clothing right now, we can start pinpointing what we actually value as consumers:
All of these consumer-based values are fine in and of themselves. But they do become complicated when we consider how they line up or clash with the ethical principles of slow fashion: environmental sustainability, organic or non-toxic farming, fair living wages, safe working environments, transparent business practices, fair trade, local sourcing, right-shoring, waste reduction, and recyclability.
So how do we negotiate our ethical principles with the values that drive our buying habits? Inevitably, the answer will be different for each one of us. Some of us might be more concerned about fair wages and good factory conditions for garment workers, while others might be more concerned about environmental sustainability and waste reduction. Our particular ethical principles will shape where we place our attention and how we shift our actions towards slow clothing. Which ethical principles of slow fashion are you most drawn to? For instance, I am drawn towards sewing my own clothes and buying Canadian-made garments more than I am towards buying thrift or consignment clothes.
The thing to realize as we start living into our ethical principles, is that it’s really hard to put more than one or two of them into practice at the same time. I can buy a Canadian-sewn garment, but that garment may be made of synthetic material that doesn’t biodegrade. I can buy a garment made of organic cotton, but the company I’m buying from is not able to guarantee an ethical supply chain and it may be inadvertently exploiting its farmers. I come out practicing some ethical principles but not others. That is one of the realities of embracing slow clothing. What is important here is not that we berate ourselves for not being able to follow all our ethical principles at the same time, but that we begin to live into the slow practices that make the most sense to us and fit with our other values.
Consider where you find yourself in your own journey towards slow clothes and try one of the following exercises that reflects where you’re at. On your journey you may currently be most interested in.
Go into your closet and pick out 10 garments (they could be random or your favorites). Look at the labels and write down (a) where the garment was made, and (b) what fabric the garment is made of. What do you notice or realize in this process?
Recall the “Aha” moment or personal experience you had that began your shift towards slow clothing. Spend 10 minutes reflecting and writing out what was so powerful about that moment or experience. What are some ways you could encourage a similar experience for others?
See if you can identify your consumer-based values--those values that motivate your buying habits. Write them down. Do these align or clash with your ethical principles? If they clash, what are some ways you can begin negotiating between your ethical principles and your consumer values? What slow practices make the most sense to you and could fit with your current values and habits?
Change is possible. It’s not only possible, it’s happening. In the last few years, we’ve been seeing some designers and companies start going slower with their fashions: They may not be subscribing as many fashion “seasons” as they used to. They may be cutting out extra waste by developing small runs of clothing and selling clothes “direct to consumers” (DTC) online. Many smaller designers and companies are right-shoring—sourcing materials and labour locally and sustainably. Some are working directly with farmers to produce organic fibers. Others are returning to natural dying processes to keep the toxicity of synthetic dyes out of our waterways. Still others are offering clothing recycling programs.
The truth is, the fast fashion industry has been unraveling at the seams for a while now—designers and companies knew that the pace and the waste were not sustainable, but the system had turned into an uncontrollable beast. Something had to give.
Enter Covid-19. In the past two years many large companies have had to close retail spaces, postpone or cancel their seasons, close some of their factories, and move entirely online. As a result of Covid, customers are also buying less clothing because, let’s be honest, who needs trendy fashion when we’re mostly at home? If we are buying clothes, it’s mostly basics and lounge-wear . . . online. We will certainly be seeing major changes to the fashion industry moving forward from here.
Covid-19 has also brought many consumers up short and made us stop to think about how we’re shopping and what we need. Now more than ever, we have the opportunity to choose slow and sustainable clothing. Given the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal 12: “Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns,” we can do our part to promote global environmental justice by buying high-quality clothing that lasts longer, shopping at second-hand stores, repairing clothing we already own, and purchasing from retailers with transparent supply chains.
Let me close with three very practical ways to embrace slow and sustainable clothing.
Fast Fashion thrives on the idea of more for less, but the age-old motto “less is more” must be adopted by consumers if social and environmental injustices in the fashion industry are to be addressed. Here are two ways we can embrace a “less is more” motto as we shop:
Fast Fashion thrives on a linear model of production and consumption with little concern for human cost or environmental waste. To embrace a more circular model, we can focus on choosing our garments well. This includes two things: choosing quality fabric and choosing quality of life for those in the garment industry.
Fast fashion thrives on disposability. Garments are not made to last because customers are only expected to wear them for one season before they wear out. To combat this waste, we can extend the life of our clothes and make them last in many ways:
I hope these suggestions give you some practical starting points or new areas to consider in your journey towards slow clothing.
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