The case of slow fashion vs fast fashion

“Fast Fashion and Slow Fashion are two concepts that are polar opposites. The goal of Fast Fashion is to produce (and sell) as many items as possible in the shortest possible time in order to make as much profit as possible; typically, with little to no emphasis on environmental aspects or human rights. Slow Fashion tries to counteract these aspects and to produce fashion fairly, in a way that results in less harm to the environment and workers being treated fairly.”[1]

While you are reading this, you are probably sitting at home or you are maybe on the tram or having a coffee in a café. Either way, you probably stood in front of your wardrobe this morning and thought about what to wear for the day. You could choose between your cute cardigan you bought last spring, your vintage blue jeans or your favorite hoodie. But no matter how you decided, the label within these clothes suggest that it was most probably made in Turkey, Vietnam, India, Bangladesh or China – namely the five countries with the highest single output of textiles in the world. At first, that does not seem to be too problematic. Some of these countries are popular travel destinations that are mostly linked to beautiful beaches and an enriching culture. But what happens inside huge fabric halls in these countries often stays hidden from tourists and consumers. Behind all of that lays a very complex web of supply chains that spans the whole globe and makes the process of textile production almost as opaque as it can get. These multilayered supply chains give enough room for exploitation, both of soil and work force. Although this development is based on the very liberal concept of the division of labor with all its advantages, this outcome simply cannot be desirable in a mutual understanding of liberal values. But what is a liberal answer to existing inequalities in countries that produce cheap clothing for developed countries in the West or the Northern hemisphere? As this article cannot answer these questions in most thorough detail, you will find linked sources for further reading in the end.

First of all, we need to distinguish between the raw materials that are used in the textile industry and the work force that is needed to produce all varieties of clothing.

The materials that are used in fashion manufacturing are either natural materials like silk, cotton, linen or wool or synthetically produced chemical fibers. Depending on the requirements of the respective garment, these materials can be mixed or be used on their own. If a textile needs to be particularly durable, it is very likely that synthetic fibers are used. If we are talking about proper denim or high-quality garments, natural materials will at least prevail. Although waste (water) that results from dying clothes or the production of synthetic fiber burdens the environment, it is not the primary problem within the fashion industry. It is not the materials or how they are used but how our society deals with fashion and trends in general. On average, one piece of apparel is only worn 7 times[2] before it ends up in the landfill. And an even greater volume of clothing never reaches people’s wardrobes but is shredded or burned by the manufacturers. We have a huge excess supply because large fashion brands want to have pieces in stock at all times and everywhere in the world. A main driver of this development in consumption is social media. Instagram and TikTok are both platforms that certainly revolutionized the fashion industry. They make trends change in the blink of an eye. What is en vogue today might be outdated next week. The wheel of fashion seems to spin faster and faster. A couple of years ago, clothing was produced from season to season, commonly taking several months from the first draft to the final product. Now, pieces that are designed and sampled today could hang in stores two weeks later. And not just that: most fashion brands also increase the frequency with which styles change. To keep up with this pace, each style or piece of clothing is produced in far higher figures than necessary. As a consequence, there are huge leftovers that will never find their way to the customer.

Alternatives to this way of production and consumption are manifold. Since production was offshored to foreign countries, some designers and manufacturing companies looked into options to keep production geographically close to where it is designed, while still being able to compete with those brands that went to Bangladesh[3] (or comparable countries) for production. Before NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) nudged a globalization boom starting from 1994, most of US designed apparel was produced in the United States. Once tariffs for imports from and exports to NAFTA countries were abolished, many companies went first to Mexico and in the following years to the Asia-Pacific region for production, resulting in a huge wave of job losses and almost no expertise and production resources left in the United States.

Production was outsourced for very obvious reasons: wages are lower and worker protection almost non-existent. Contractors in those countries often sub-contract their orders, making it nearly impossible to trace who is working, when, on which step of the production process. Disasters like the collapse of Rana Plaza in 2013 and the following struggle of big fashion brands to even tell whether their products were made in this factory displays the absurdity of fashion industry supply chains dramatically. One argument that is often heard in this context is that badly paid jobs in Bangladeshi factories are still better than none. And this is certainly true to a certain extent. Still, Bangladeshi wages in the fashion industry are far from fair. Working conditions with gloomy work stations, less to no breaks, dirty sanitary facilities, a lack of safety measures and long shifts throughout the night and weekends just worsen the overall picture of production in Asian-Pacific factories.

But what can we do about it? First of all, fashion manufacturing companies are obviously responsible for what is happening in their factories. They are the ones who have to make sure that contractors apply the same standards for sub-contractors as they do with their contractors. There are many NGOs that reveal opaqueness in supply chains to make the public aware of production practices. By putting pressure on the companies, this has often led to a change in production in the past. Labels for fair and transparent production (although there is a lot to criticize) also pushed companies towards more economically conscious and worker-friendly manufacturing processes. As of now, there are many initiatives that point in the right direction without being able to establish an overarching scheme that would increase sustainability across sub-sectors of the textile and apparel industry substantially. Alongside these efforts, there are companies deliberately “rightshoring”[4] supply chains to have better control about their procedures. It is not very surprising that production costs increase if labor costs are multiplied many times. But the advantages cannot be denied either. Apart of local labor laws that have to be applied, it also allows companies to produce on demand and provide garments from one click to delivery in less than two weeks. Besides less waste and no overproduction, on-demand production also saves storage space, which makes fashion retailers more agile and flexible. This idea taken one step further, 3D-printing clothes at home might sound like fiction now, but is already part of haute couture collections from renowned designers. Additionally, fashion designers like Stella McCartney decided to completely get rid of animal-based products in their collections. McCartney can certainly be described as a pioneer in sustainable fashion production. From her perspective, it should be a designer’s aim to “create pieces that people want and won’t want to throw away”. Although this a very privileged point of view, as higher-priced fashion is just accessible for a small group of consumers, she makes a point many of us seem to forget: behind every piece of apparel, there is a designer who is creatively transforming his or her ideas into a piece of cloth that will be on people’s bodies all over the world.

For many, clothing needs to be functional. But for others, fashion is a statement and a way of expressing themselves. Creating sustainable and long-lasting garments is therefore not just saving the environment but it is also much more: the every-day appreciation of someone else’s work. So, if you think about buying three pieces of clothing you don’t really need, rather take a look at sustainably produced clothing that might be a little more expensive but will last and make you happy even longer. The case of McCartney and other consciously producing retailers has shown that the signaling effect of big brands going sustainable should not be underestimated. Resulting from increasing pressure from the public, many big fashion brands have either established “sustainable lines” in their collections, made re- or upcycling an integral part of their manufacturing procedures or even excluded certain materials or production processes from their supply chains. Some might call it actionism, but it is undoubtedly serving the right cause, regardless of the motivation.

As already touched upon, consumer behavior is probably the most powerful tool to nudge a shift in the fashion industry. There are some very obvious opportunities like thrift shopping or simply buying sustainable products but there also some less popular ones. In the past years, the demand for sharing goods became very apparent, especially in urban areas in the field of mobility. We are sharing bikes, cars and scooters. It is even possible to rent all kind of stuff online, either to try it out or because you just need it for a short period of time, which makes buying unreasonable. But for fashion, sharing is far from established, although there are plenty of options. Nuw, for example, is a Dublin based platform that allows you to borrow and lend clothing. In a few easy steps you can upload your styles and get a token for every piece of apparel that can in turn be used to borrow some yourself. By Rotation works in a similar way but with price tags for different rental periods.

All of what has been described in this article might sound complex for someone who is not too deep in this topic. This is what makes individual decisions so difficult. Nonetheless, with production practices that are becoming more transparent and fashion labels that are frequently disclosing information in their annual reports, it is the consumers’ responsibility to think twice when buying new apparel. This should not be a top-down discussion. It is rather the duty of society as a whole to raise awareness for fairer and ecologically produced fashion.

The possibilities of government intervention on the other hand are fairly limited. Apart of national supply chain laws, there is not much than can be done, as international bodies lack executive power to sanction misbehavior. Still, including stricter labor rights, environment-friendly production practices or internationally valid labels in free trade agreements might be a first approach to aim for an overall more sustainable global web of supply chains.

To put it in a nutshell: there are plenty of possibilities to personally contribute to a more sustainable fashion industry. Although it is far from perfect, the public, governments, designers and big fashion brands have recognized this issue and are providing alternatives to the conventional and environment-harming production practices. There are many reasons to make a change: the planet, the workers and your own well-being. Let’s not waste time – there is too much at stake.

Inspiration for this article was the book Fashionopolis by Dana Thomas. Most of what is described in this article is derived from her experiences and descriptions. I tried to put it into context of a liberal set of values but I highly recommend to read the whole book to get a more thorough understanding of the topic.

[1] Sanvt, April 2020:

[2] Based on a survey of 2,000 British women

[3] I will use Bangladesh as one example for countries that have a huge output of fashion production to keep reading and understanding easier. Although these countries are not so easy to compare, the basic notion of the problem becomes obvious.

[4] Rightshoring is a term that describes the relocation of production capacities to their origin.

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