What is slow fashion, really?

Research project into the accessibility of slow fashion brands.

We originally hypothesised that slow fashion brands price out those on lower incomes, which causes a higher consumption of fast fashion.

Our investigation into this involved initial interviews that informed the construction of a survey, to which 60 people responded. Following these we conducted more detailed interviews with 11 research participants. As part of this we considered the meaning of fast and slow fashion, how this is mediated and understood, and whether this affects access to either. At what point is fast fashion ‘fast’, when at the time of reaching landfill the decay is slow to the point of non-existence.

Our interview participants defined fast fashion in these terms. The larger, darker items on the left were cited more often than the smaller, lighter ones on the right. As we can see, most often a word linked with speed or duration was used in the description of fast fashion – ‘quick turnover’ or ‘short lifespan’. Just as often the concern around the treatment of garment workers came up, possibly as this has been in the media in the last couple of years. This was followed by recognition of the environmental impacts that result from the cited short life span and quick turnover of clothing e.g. the unsustainability and negative impact on the planet. After this more specifics were given e.g. use of plastic fibres or pollution resulting from mass production and manufacturing methods used. Least often, some other factors were noted e.g. contribution to carbon emissions, textile waste and the difficulties for smaller designers to compete with the low price points of fast fashion.

We can see that the same participant group had less to say on slow fashion, in fact many did not know how to define this term. Those who had knowledge of the term, defined it as sustainable, ethical fashion production which is better for the environment than fast fashion. A few people noted the smaller scale of production, higher quality  of items and fair pay for the smaller teams who make them. Noticeably, a term denoting speed was only cited once by someone in the description of a slower life cycle of these items. It was also recognised that the items tend to be more expensive due to the production methods, and some include other sustainable dress practices e.g. second hand shopping, donation, making or repairing as slow fashion. Though for the purpose of this research we are viewing slow fashion in the sense of consuming newly made items from slow fashion brands.

Kate Fletcher’s 2010 article ‘Slow Fashion: An Invitation for Systems Change’ defines fast and slow fashion in very useful terms, outside of the restrictive definition of speed, and rather the affiliation of fast fashion with sustaining capitalist structures. Fast fashion is unsustainable environmentally, but why does it thrive? Because it is instrumental to economic sustainability under capitalism. Fletcher writes that ‘for the negative effects of growth (fast) fashion are endemic to the sector’s underlying economic model. The better the fashion sector performs; the worse these effects will get. “Lock in” channels thinking towards conclusions that reinforce the seeming inevitability of dominant growth-based fast fashion…because growth fashion is not understood for what it is: a business model tied to a specific set of economic priorities.’ (Fletcher, 2010: 263)

Fletcher tells us that slow fashion challenges the economic model that fast fashion relies on, as it ‘offers a changed set of power relations between fashion creators and consumers compared with growth fashion, based on the forging of relationships and trust that is possible at smaller scales. It professes a heightened state of awareness of the design process and its impacts on resource flows, workers, communities, and ecosystems. It prices garments higher than in the growth model to reflect true ecological and social costs and as a production model it offers a radical alternative to high-volume, standardized fashion, making profit by selling fewer higher priced items. Slow culture (even with associated high prices) is also seen to promote the democratization of fashion not by offering more people access to clothes by lowering prices (a claim often made in support of fast growth fashion) but by offering these same people more control over institutions and technologies that affect their lives.” (Fletcher, 2010: 264)

It is hoped that we can achieve the development of a truly richer society, rather than an economically flourishing one which exploits the people supporting the economic structures, this requires complete system change. Slow fashion is not a descriptor of speed, but rather an opposition of the values of fast fashion. So, our participant’s lack of citing speed related words in their description of slow fashion was quite accurate in defining the term. Fletcher notes that ‘while fast is the opposite of slow in language; in the context of slow culture; fast and slow are not in opposition. They are different worldviews, with different economic logic and business models, values, and processes.’ (ibid: 262)

Fig. 1 Fast vs Slow Fashion Survey: Question 5

Taking into account this definition from academia of slow fashion as not relating to speed, it is interesting that this is reflected in our survey participants’ definitions of what constitutes sustainable fashion practice. Many less people cited slow production as what they see as sustainable (43%), whereas social factors around garment workers’ rights and anti-slave policies were much higher (more than double).

Overwhelmingly the most popular response to the feeling when buying a new item of clothing, was excitement. For many, the dopamine hit associated with newness and novelty wears off quickly and the need appears again. 

For many, buying from fast fashion comes with feelings of guilt, but not for everyone. The participants were pretty split between feeling responsible for the social and environmental impacts of fast fashion, and feeling quite disconnected from it. The interviewees were asked to describe what they believe are the impacts of fast fashion consumption, mostly noting the pollution, inadequate conditions for garment workers and environmental unsustainability found in the participant definitions of fast fashion visited earlier. However, even for those that felt disconnected and did not claim feelings of guilt, there usually seemed to be quick follow-up justifications when discussing buying fast fashion e.g. they’d only use fast fashion brands for basics, or it wouldn’t be often, or just for their children as they grow out of items too fast. 

Many reasoned that they would never buy from the likes of Shein or Boohoo, only H&M or Zara. Likely because the former ones have received such negative publicity in recent times for their unethical practices. Many of the participants were unclear on the production practices of high street shops that are mid-range prices such as Zara and were not sure if these are fast fashion brands. Most of the interviewees told us that they keep a lot of clothing items in their wardrobes for a very long time, usually years anywhere from 3, 7, 10, and even for a couple of items up to 20 years. So although these may have been produced in an unsustainable way, the items have had long life spans with the owners, again bringing into question the point at which, and for whom, fast fashion is actually ‘fast’. Our interviewees on the whole keep clothing until items are completely unwearable, and only then will throw away or recycle them, most said they would sell or donate things which are still usable but no longer fit their body or style.

We anticipated that the price point would be the main barrier to accessing slow fashion brands, but whilst this was a factor it was not the main thing, and most said they understand the cost is part of what allows it to be slow because of ethical practices and fair pay etc.

In fact, the main barrier is knowledge of where to find slow fashion brands and which brands are sustainable. Many were unsure of mainstream high street shops and whether they are classified as fast fashion. And even more were either aware of no slow fashion brands, or just very few, and don’t know where to look for them. They hoped there can be more promotion of them online e.g. through social media, as well as more transparency around high street shop production methods and awareness or confronting imagery spread around the environmental and social costs of shopping with brands such as H&M and Zara. Even for participants who do try to shop slow, it was found that many brands are either not transparent enough to understand how sustainable they are, or they are not very representative. 

Most people noted that whilst cost is a barrier to some extent, they would buy some investment items from slow fashion brands, though realistically they’d likely still source basics from fast fashion. There was sound awareness of fast fashion being unsustainable, even if the actual impacts were not understood in detail, the problem  seemed to lie in not feeling very personally connected to these. 

More than anything this came down to fast fashion being too easy to access and slow fashion being much more covert. 

Fig. 2 Lucy & Yak, 2022. Fast Fashion vs Slow Fashion – Why we’re neither.

Further on the difficulty around popular imagination of the definition of slow fashion, it is interesting to see that some sustainable brands define themselves outside of the two labels fast and slow. Here we can see that Lucy & Yak find the term slow fashion restrictive and with negative connotations or ones which feel unattainable and hard to live up to. This feeling of inaccessibility is something which brands are clearly aware exists amongst consumers.

We can see the ideas generated in interview that the accessibility of slow fashion is not primarily limited by cost or income is reflected in our survey results. 20% of the people fell into the low income bracket. Interestingly, 72% of participants cared about the sustainability of their fashion consumption AND the same number shop fast fashion, by contrast only 41% shop slow fashion. The knowledge is not in place. Although this is not about shaming, and a couple of participants interviews ended in the despair over the depressing situation that there’s not much we can do to 100% avoid fast fashion and even as individuals if we do, not much change is made to industry as fast fashion holds up capitalism at its core.

Fig. 3 Fast vs Slow Fashion Survey: Question 9.

However, despite the findings in both our survey and interviews that cost is not the biggest barrier to slow fashion shopping, lowering cost was chosen in the survey as the most popular way to make slow fashion more accessible. This opens up questions as to what is wanted of slow fashion. Perhaps a combination of lower costs, as we hypothesised originally, in conjunction with more promotion and awareness, as discovered through our research, would make slow fashion much more accessible. Although, more availability of items both online and in store ranks very highly here too. Although, it was once talking with people that it opened up dialogues in which people realised they may not be able to conclusively define slow fashion and so they realised they would like more education on the topic.

How can we enact social change to address the consumption of fast fashion?

Many participants believed that consumer and industry are to blame for the ill effects of fast fashion, but that ultimately industry leads in this responsibility. 

It was suggested by our interview participants that Government action is required to regulate overseas and UK manufacturing practices for workers or taxation on use of unsustainable fibres. Additionally, promotions on Instagram or other socials of slow fashion brands with transparency on manufacturing ethics as well as education on fast fashion brands would help to spread awareness of how to consume slow fashion brands. Additionally being confronted with the realities of unethical brands through imagery. Also, this could be made accessible to people offline via magazine or newspaper articles and the focus should be placing blame on the brands, as we have seen in our research that negative publicity for brands such as Shein/Boohoo has steered people away, but people are not aware that high street shops are making up a huge proportion of the fast fashion industry. Ultimately the solution to sustainable fashion is not to produce new items and to repurpose or repair. A return of the make do and mend movement would encapsulate this.

A social act to encourage change

My proposal is that we encourage our peers to Relove, Resell, Revive already existing clothes through social media campaigns. The most sustainable fashion practices involve no new production. However I believe that it is inevitable that we will still want to shop new sometimes, therefore slow fashion should be promoted as the way to do this. We have seen that there is not sufficient knowledge about slow fashion, nor where to find slow fashion brands. This is why I have started The Slow Fashion Directory!

Érin Hanlon

Bibliography

Bajwa, G. Clarke, J. and Hanlon, E. (2022) ‘Fast vs Slow Fashion Survey’. Assignment for Research for Professional Contexts, MA Fashion Cultures
and Histories, UAL. Unpublished.


Fletcher, K. (2015) ‘Slow Fashion: An Invitation for Systems Change’, Fashion Practice, 2 (2), pp. 259-265. doi:10.2752/175693810X12774625387594.

Lucy & Yak, 2022. Fast Fashion vs Slow Fashion -Why we’re neither. Available at: < https://lucyandyak.com/blogs/news/fast-fashion-vs-slow-fashion-why-were-neither?utm_campaign=WK%2026%20SUN%2023%2F01%2F2022%20Fast%20vs%20Slow%20Fashion%20blog%20%2B%20products%20%28VqqCxm%29&utm_medium=email&utm_source=New%20Lucy%20and%20Yak%20Mailer%20List&_kx=qQKMrKG9VrhmRjTcmjbqfvUHlgX5EE8iSNNdptNXh5g%3D.LdD5wu&gt; [Accessed 9 March 2022].

List of Illustrations


Fig. 1. Bajwa, G. Clarke, J. and Hanlon, E. (2022) Fast vs Slow Fashion Survey: Question 5. [Screenshot] Assignment for Research for Professional Contexts, MA Fashion
Cultures and Histories, UAL. Unpublished.

Fig. 2. Lucy & Yak, 2022. Fast Fashion vs Slow Fashion – Why we’re neither. [Screenshot] Available at: <https://lucyandyak.com/blogs/news/fast-fashion-vs-slow-fashion-
why-were-
neither?utm_campaign=WK%2026%20SUN%2023%2F01%2F2022%20Fast%20vs%20Slow%20Fashion%20blog%20%2B%20products%20%28VqqCxm%29&utm_medium=email&utm_source=New%20Lucy%20and%20Yak%20Mailer%20List&kx=qQKMrKG9VrhmRjTcmjbqfvUHlgX5EE8iSNNdptNXh5g%3D.LdD5wu> [Accessed 9 March 2022].

Fig. 3. Bajwa, G. Clarke, J. and Hanlon, E. (2022) Fast vs Slow Fashion Survey: Question 9. [Screenshot] Assignment for Research for Professional Contexts, MA Fashion Cultures and Histories, UAL. Unpublished. Fig. 10. George at Asda (2022) Asda George Clothing. [image] Available at: -geor–asdacom–nav-_-
george-clothing> [Accessed 9 March 2022].

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