You’ve probably heard the term ‘fast fashion’ used a lot – especially in the news over the last few months. But have you heard of ‘slow fashion’? What even is slow fashion, and for that matter, why is fast fashion so bad?
Fast fashion's poor reputation
Fast fashion is characterised as being cheap to produce, cheap to buy clothing that is worn perhaps a handful of times and then disposed of, in favour of something newer and/or cheaper. I say “characterised” as it is entirely possible to care for and extend the usable life of a piece of fast fashion, however that’s not what typically happens to these items.
Fast fashion garments are made for pennies, and in some cases are sold for just as little – such as Boohoo’s infamous 99% off sale this past Christmas. This raises multiple questions over the supply chain – including how on earth it is possible for a company to make profits on items it is selling for 5 pence. It implies incredibly poor working conditions and wages for those making the garments, plus huge over estimations of how many garments to produce (and therefore huge amounts of textile waste) – not to mention how incredibly damaging the cheap, poor quality fabrics used for these items are to the environment, both in their production and their disposal. While cheap clothes are appealing to those who may not have much money, these issues are pretty sickening to anyone who takes a couple of seconds to think about them.
Fast fashion works on the “stack ’em high, price ’em cheap” model. This means the fabrics chosen for the garments are usually so cheap they will only last for a couple of wears before they start bobbling, wearing through or washing out. Most of these fabrics are produced from fossil fuels, in factories powered by fossil fuels, therefore seriously pushing up environmental pollution. In some cases, the fabric simply isn’t suitable for home washing and it’s often double or triple the price you paid to get those garments cleaned professionally, meaning many throw out their clothes in favour of buying something new. It also means that garment workers are paid and treated poorly, as Leicester’s serious issues with coronavirus highlighted last year. Fashion in general has outsourced to sweatshops in developing countries for so long that fast fashion has almost capitalised on the public’s blind eye to how their clothes are produced, which is why the revelations about Leicester’s garment workers during the first lockdown were so shocking to so many people.
It’s therefore no wonder that many people want to move away from the fast fashion model of business.
How does slow fashion work?
Slow fashion is the literal and figurative opposite of fast fashion. Slow fashion companies often prioritise ethical and environmental choices, creating garments from natural fibres or artificial fibres with good eco-friendly credentials like Tencel, or sometimes creating limited runs of garments from deadstock fabrics. They also typically have clear requirements for workers in their supply chain to be fairly treated and paid for their work, plus garments are often made either without any specific “season” or they’re made to order in limited runs.
You’ll pay more up front for slow fashion garments, but they’ll last so much longer and therefore work out better in the long run. A £150 dress from a small bespoke company like Blonde and Wise will last you far, far longer than a £20 dress from Boohoo will – especially since their popular wrap design tops or dresses are designed to fit multiple sizes and shapes of body (one individual dress could fit someone sized UK8 and someone else sized UK14 thanks simply to how they’re designed!)
Slow fashion is nothing new – it’s the way that the clothing industry worked right up until the beginning of the 20th century. Up until then, clothes were made by hand and to order – or, if you couldn’t afford the services of a tailor or dressmaker, you made them yourself. Clothes were made to last and it wasn’t unusual for items to be passed down through families for a couple of generations or more. Repairs and alterations would occasionally be made to extend their usable life, though hardwearing natural fabrics like wool, cotton and linen were used for everyday clothing and lighter, more delicate fabrics like silk were for special occasions only. When synthetic fabrics and dyes became readily available in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they revolutionised the clothing industry. Suddenly clothes could be made cheaply and quickly – and with the advent of standardised sizing, you could buy new clothes and bring them home the very same day.
The great thing is that slow fashion is gaining in popularity once more. More of us are choosing to reject fast fashion and the damage it does to our planet and our communities in favour of slow fashion and businesses with a circular business model (company produces an item > customer wears item > item is repaired by company or customer > fabric is completely recycled and used to create new clothes when item is no longer wearable).
How do you buy slow fashion if you don't have much money?
There’s many ways to transition across to slow fashion and they are especially useful for those who may not have much money.
Firstly, take a look at what you already own. There’s bound to be clothes you just don’t wear for some reason – perhaps because they’re ripped or worn through, maybe they’re stained or you no longer like the colour, or maybe they just don’t fit you that well. You can start your slow fashion journey with these items. Repair the clothes you love, and dye the ones that are stained or you don’t like the colour of to another colour that you do like. For clothes that just don’t fit, try altering them so they do fit, or use the fabric to create something completely new that you love.
If you absolutely have to buy new clothes (for example, if you have kids that are outgrowing their clothes), shop second hand. Charity shops, eBay, Vinted, Depop, vintage shops, even car boot sales are all great places to find preloved clothes. There’s also an ever growing number of clothing swap groups on social media, where members swap items of clothing they don’t want or need for items they do want – and as this is a “swap” group, you aren’t expected to pay for items in most cases. Yes, second hand and vintage clothing counts as slow fashion, as you’re extending the lifespan of the clothes you buy.
There’s been a huge increase in the number of people learning to make their own clothes in recent years and particularly during the pandemic, as people on furlough have turned to crafts to keep them busy while under lockdown. This boom in interest extends particularly to using textiles that might otherwise go to waste – turning unloved bedsheets or curtains into beautiful clothes is extremely popular mainly as it’s a cheap or free source of good quality fabric for hardwearing garments.
Making your own clothes is of course hugely satisfying and there’s an immense amount of pride involved in telling the person who just asked where you got your clothes that you made them yourself. There’s many ways to source good quality fabric cheaply – as mentioned, you could use old bedsheets, curtains or even other items of clothing for starters. You can also find fabrics in charity and vintage shops, buy from other makers who are decluttering their fabric stashes, buy deadstock fabric or even wait quietly until there’s a sale on at your favourite fabric shop. There are also sewing cafés and maker spaces you can join which have all the tools and sewing machines you could possibly need if you don’t have your own machine or can’t afford to buy one. Now that lockdown is easing and more places are opening up, these spaces are great for meeting new people and learning from others too.
Money should never be a restricting factor in making your own clothes, there are always ways to make clothes within your budget. It might just mean that instead of buying a £150 dress you like, you find a way of making something similar for a fraction of that cost. Sure, other people might choose to spend that same amount making their own version of a £20 jacket, but the maker community is generally a supportive one which will value your efforts and your skills far more than how much money you’ve spent on your materials.