Have you ever wondered how a fast fashion brand is different to a slow fashion brand? Or whether fast fashion could ever be slowed down?
In this article we define what both fast and slow fashion means today, compare the differences between the two, and discuss what principles of the slow fashion movement can be incorporated into mainstream fashion for it to become more ethical.
Definitions of Fast and Slow Fashion
Fast Fashion is, put simply, items that are manufactured quickly in response to consumer demand for cheap and trendy attire; think H&M, Zara, BooHoo, Missguided, the list goes on. The purpose of fast fashion is to meet consumer demand for mass-produced fashionable clothing at record low prices….which tends to fly in the face of ethical clothing and slow fashion principles.
Slow Fashion on the other hand is a movement that acts in favour of ethical and sustainable production methods to protect people and the planet. From initial design to purchase, slow fashion brands put care and thought into every step of the process, creating items that are built to last rather than worn once and thrown away. Instead of focusing on short term profits, the slow fashion movement is making a long term commitment to protecting our future on this planet.
How Did Fashion Become So Fast?
Prior to the 1800s yarn and fabric were spun and woven by hand, and it was common for people to own just a few outfits. It was usual practice to adapt clothing to meet seasonal changes, and new purchases were made just a few times a year. This sounds very similar to the principles of the slow fashion movement we see today!
In the mid-1800s however, technological advances - such as sewing machines - vastly reduced outgoing costs and shortened lead times, and profits rose for clothing companies. Dressmakers sought another opportunity to save money by outsourcing work to individuals that could work from their own homes at much lower wages, known as ‘sweaters’.
The improvements to production unfortunately brought about new issues - factory conditions were poor, and cotton production was a dangerous and demanding job: hazardous chemicals including arsenic and mercury were frequently used, sometimes having fatal consequences for both workers and the people who wore them.
Over the next half of the century clothing production continued to evolve and gain momentum, but we notice a real shift occurring during World War II: clothing was rationed, regulations were placed on design, and material stocks were in short supply. With this in mind, and in an effort to boost morale, the government introduced an initiative whereby upper-class clothing designers would create a range of ‘utility’ styles for all: standardised outfits were mass-produced, and for the working classes this meant that for the first time, they had access to better quality clothes within their budget.
With society becoming accustomed to this new level of mass-produced clothing, demand increased on a large scale over the course of the next 50 years. Companies searched for new and innovative ways to keep costs down and maximise profits, the most popular approach being outsourcing labour to emerging countries like India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Cambodia, among others. These locations became notorious for having some of the worst working conditions on the planet, but the low cost and potential profits were, and still are, too enticing for brands to refuse.We may not be able to pinpoint the exact moment in time when fast fashion overtook slow fashion principles to become the Global production choice, but it’s clear that the concept has been developing gradually, and perhaps a little too quietly, over time.
The Impacts of Fast Fashion
As of today, it is common knowledge that the fashion industry is having a detrimental impact on the environment - with water contamination, waste, and carbon pollution at an all time high, it’s clear that something needs to change.
What you may not be aware of is the effects that fast fashion has on people, specifically garment workers and their families.
Low wages, poor working conditions
Fast fashion brands predominantly outsource parts of their production process to garment factories in lower income countries, where labour is cheaper and there are fewer regulations to adhere to. Workers are paid very little, often less than an adequate living wage, and it’s common to have to work long hours to meet unrealistic deadlines.
In some cases the situation has become so dire that garment factory managers have been known to lock the workers inside until the work is complete.
People are not a priority
From the get go it seems clear that the priority here isn’t people, it’s price, and fashion brands really do hold all the cards: factory managers have little choice but to accept low paying contracts, as to turn down work could put them at risk of going out of business. The knock on effect then begins as decisions have to be made on where to allocate the money: materials tend to carry fixed prices, so loss of funds are recovered by reducing wages, forcing employees to work longer hours, or by cutting corners on health and safety standards.
It seems as though fast fashion brands start with profits, and then work back through sale price, cost of production and materials, and then last up, garment worker’s wages. You might start to wonder how a £5 t-shirt covers all of that, I know we do! But what we do know is that it rarely involves prioritising people over profit, and that is where slow fashion differs significantly: by starting with the people and the origins of materials, there is thought and care at every step. Production might be slower, but we’re all the better for it.
Fast Fashion Vs Slow Fashion - The Pros & Cons
The real truth about fast fashion has seemingly crept along under our noses for a while now, and while we have revelled in the delights of cheap and trendy attire, we may have been a little distracted from the real truth.
So how is fast fashion different to slow fashion? Here are the pros and cons of each to help you understand the main differences between the two:
Originally published: November 15, 2020
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