Slow fashion involves timeless versatile design that transcends trends, thoughtful production that cares for people and the planet, intentional purchasing practices, and responsible clothing care that extends the life of the pieces we own.
In short, slow fashion is about mindfulness throughout the entire lifecycle of a garment (or accessory).
Sounds simple enough, but what does all of this actually mean? And why does it matter? Let’s dive in.
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Why Slow Fashion Matters
Before the rise of mass production during the Industrial Revolution, most garments were handmade in small batches slowly and relatively locally to the customer.
The introduction of textile machinery in England in the 18th and 19th centuries meant that fabric and garments could be produced in larger quantities at cheaper prices — and with lower quality standards.
While the machines themselves may have helped makers in some ways and definitely helped make clothes more affordable for the masses, the industrialization of fashion also created and exasperated a slew of problems.
Not only did mass produced fashion reduce the quality of garments and make fashion more homogenous, but it hurt the livelihoods of artisans and craftspeople. Instead of a fashion economy of small-batch makers, independent designers, skilled weavers and expert tailors, the fashion economy shifted to one of mechanized factories with factory owners and low-paid labor.
Industrialization of fashion created sweatshops where workers, primarily women and children, toiled in dark factories for long hours with low pay. The first sweatshops sprouted up in London, where the Industrial Revolution started and then spread across Europe and the U.S.
And now today, there are sweatshops all around the world, wherever fashion is produced.
In addition to the lack of worker rights, the industrialization of fashion created stark global inequities that can still be felt today.
Cheap imports from industrialized countries in the Global North to colonized countries in the Global South led to a rapid decline in local artisanal production.
As author Andrew Brooks outlined in the book Clothing Poverty (which is a book I definitely recommend reading by the way!) colonized territories in Africa, Asia, and South America were underdeveloped in order to serve the industrial economies. People were forced to supply raw materials for these industrial powers and this then led to a rapid decline in local artisan production.
It’s important to lay out that brief history to understand how slow fashion is interconnected with ethical fashion and sustainable fashion — the same forces that sped up fashion are the ones that diminished worker rights.
And also to show that fast fashion was not the start of the fashion industry’s problems.
That said, the rise of fast fashion has taken the issues in the fashion industry to new levels (or rather, lows) with widespread labor exploitation, ecological degradation, and an exponential increase in waste.
According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, clothing production has doubled in the last 15 years while clothing utilization has decreased 36%. An estimated 92 million tons of textile waste is created by the fashion industry each year.
And a recent survey from VICE which was taken by individuals mostly between the ages of 18 and 24 found that that 23% of respondents said that they sometimes wear an item just once before throwing it out. Eight percent of respondents said they buy more than ten items a month from online fast-fashion retailers. Yikes.
On the other hand, slow fashion borrows from the practices of the past (more on this below!) to create a better way forward.
The slow fashion movement is about pressing pause on the current endless trend hamster wheel and instead returning to the idea of personal style that is not about chasing trends. (Note: this doesn’t have to mean boring! Slow fashion doesn’t have to mean basic garments in neutral hues — it’s about finding your own style that you love and not feeling like you have to change up your wardrobe every season.)
On the design side, slow fashion is about designing garments with quality fabrics and durable construction so that they last the test of time.
Slow fashion is also about the way we consume fashion. It requires us to ask more questions before we “add to cart”, like:
- Do I really need this piece?
- Is this piece comfortable enough to wear again and again?
- Do I have something to wear with this piece?
- Is this piece actually my style?
- Do I like the fit of this piece? Do I like the fabric?
- Do I feel good about supporting this maker, brand, or seller?
- Is this piece high quality?
In essence, slow fashion is about slowing down literally every part of the lifecycle of fashion!
Fast Fashion vs. Slow Fashion
Slow fashion is essentially the opposite of fast fashion.
While fast fashion brands churn out countless new clothes weekly or even daily, slow fashion brands release just a few collections each year.
While fast fashion brands produce a shocking number of garments (and inherently, produce a lot of waste), slow fashion brands produce in small, intentional batches.
While fast fashion brands use aggressive marketing tactics and sales to drive conspicuous consumerism, slow fashion brands promote mindful purchasing habits.
While fast fashion is designed to fall apart after just a few wears, slow fashion is designed to last years, decades, or even lifetimes!
While fast fashion has a huge environmental footprint, slow fashion is mindful of their impact.
While fast fashion is made in massive assembly line-like factories in opaque supply chains, slow fashion is made in smaller workshops or facilities in transparent supply chains.
Behind production, though, slow fashion is also about more mindful purchasing habits. It’s about slowing down consumption and buying less.
Participating in this movement doesn’t have to mean purchasing from slow fashion brands, it could also mean upcycling thrifted finds, repairing and mending old garments instead of doing a shopping haul, or finding new ways to wear existing clothes instead of buying something new.
This is not about shaming any individuals for shopping fast fashion. I was there too — I understand that it can be almost addicting and very difficult to quit. And, sometimes buying fast fashion may be the only accessible or affordable option.
Also, know that buying from fast fashion brands does not exclude you from the slow fashion movement. You can still participate by simply buying less and trying to keep your clothes as long as you can.
Examples of Slow Production Practices
If you do want to invest in slow-made clothes, though, how can you identify if a brand is actually slow fashion? Here are some elements to look for…
(As hinted above, the processes behind slow fashion aren’t necessarily new. In fact, they often involve returning back to local production and using traditional techniques.)
- Designs that are more about timeless styles than trends. Of course, if you truly love a trend and are fine wearing it after it’s “out”, then go for it!
- Traceable supply chains. If a brand is really producing intentionally, they’ll be able to track each step of the production process. Preferably, a brand will be partnering directly with the facilities their products are made in or even owning the workshops/factories themselves.
- Made with durable materials and with attention to quality. Here are some tips on how to tell if a garment is actually high quality!
- Often made by hand or made with many handmade techniques/elements. While slow fashion isn’t free of machinery, it’s made in smaller workshops or artisan co-operatives as opposed to huge factories with assembly lines of workers. Sometimes, slow-made pieces will even be fully crafted by one or two artisans.
- Produced in small batches. When a brand is producing slowly and with more intention, they simply can’t produce as much. If you see a brand coming out with thousands of styles each month, you know they aren’t producing slowly!
Slow Fashion Brands
As mentioned previously, slow fashion doesn’t have to mean buying anything new — there are so many other ways to get involved.
But, if you are looking to make a purchase from a slow fashion brand, refer to the examples of practices section above! Hopefully, these key elements will help you identify which brands are slow vs. fast fashion. But if you’d like a cheatsheet, we actually created a guide to slow fashion brands here!
Sustainable Fashion vs. Slow Fashion
Some slow fashion may be sustainable but not all of it is sustainable fashion or ethical fashion.
Just because a garment was made slowly doesn’t mean that the fabrics were sourced responsibly or that the artisans behind that piece were paid fairly.
This is important to point out because there is greenwashing going on with brands marketing their clothing as “artisan-made” or “handmade” as if that equals ethical or sustainable fashion.
Although artisan-made may often mean smaller production quantities (though not always), we still have to ask questions about the pay those artisans received and the conditions they worked. Similarly, handmade or slow-made don’t guarantee environmental sustainability. We still must ask questions about the fibers and dyes used to make that handmade piece.
How to Get Involved With Slow Fashion
A very thorough resource to guide you through the process of assessing your style and wardrobe, I recommend the book, The Curated Closet.
If you’re not ready to dedicate that much time to do a full closet audit and style assessment, just start by taking a look at your wardrobe and seeing what you have.
Write out what you have in a spreadsheet or download a closet app like Stylebook. This way when you’re tempted to buy something, you have a list to refer to see if you may already have something similar you could wear instead.
And the added bonus of an app is that many of them give you outfit suggestions based on the existing clothes in your wardrobe.
Another way to get involved in slow fashion is to care for our clothes and try to extend their lives as long as possible.
This means washing clothes less (if you’re worried about smells, check out this guide to getting smells out of clothes without washing them).
When the time to wash does come, hand wash delicates, especially things like bras, and wash clothes on the cold setting if and when you do put them in a washing machine.
It’s also great if you can avoid or minimize machine drying and instead air dry clothes outside or on a clothing rack inside.
There are some great collapsible clothing racks online that are super convenient, especially when you have a smaller space.
These washing and drying tips are kind of like win-win-wins. They’re lighter on your clothes, they reduce energy so it’s a great way to reduce the ecological footprint of your clothes, and of course, washing and drying less saves you money too!
Note: It might not always be possible to hand wash delicates or air dry because this is more time-consuming than machine washing and drying, but whenever you can implement these things, these approaches can really help your clothes stay in good shape longer.
Of course, no matter how well we care for our clothes, there will be a time when a hole or tear appears in a piece.
The fast-fashion approach would be to discard that garment and buy a new one to replace it but the slow fashion approach would be to mend that hole.
Another resource is fixing.fashion, which is a free, open-source platform with tutorials on how to repair and upcycle clothes. Fixing Fashion has a collection of designs to inspire you, but they do not sell you anything — they simply offer information on how you can make it yourself.
However, not everyone has the time or frankly, the desire, to sew. And that’s also okay!
You can always take your piece to a tailor, seamstress, cobbler, or leather repair shop, depending on the type of piece that needs to be fixed. Your local Dry Cleaners also most likely have the ability to help you hem, mend, or alter your pieces.
There are people who have dedicated their careers to becoming expert seamstress and tailors and it’s fantastic to be able to support them. I believe that the future of slow fashion must involve the expertise of these skilled, talented experts.
And, we also can push brands to take responsibility for the entire life of their clothes and offer repair services — preferably free. Patagonia has a repair service and a number of smaller brands offer this as well!
As consumers, and more importantly, fashion activists, we can push the industry to move in this direction.
Another benefit of brands offering repair services is that then they will actually create higher-quality clothing! (Since high quality would mean fewer repairs.)
There is so much more on this topic but I hope that this post offered a good introduction to slow fashion!
The main thing to take away here is that slow fashion is about a mindset shift, not an aesthetic.
It can be deceptive on Instagram but really slow fashion is about buying less.
It’s about valuing the clothes that we wear beyond a monetary value and recognizing that time, effort, and resources went into making each and every single item (even those old fast-fashion pieces).
Slow fashion is about building a long-term relationship with our wardrobe.