From Fast Fashion to Slow Style
Posted on June 12, 2013
When my youngest (and final) child was born, I was eager to try and return to my former glory as soon as possible. I had spent most of the previous decade either pregnant or trying to get pregnant. Not having control over either of these things meant I never knew what size, shape or state I’d be in six weeks or six months in the future so I had to shop and dress accordingly, never really committing to a style or statement because, you know, I might be pregnant (or not pregnant) next month.
So when I was finally freed from the shackles of fertility treatment and miscarriage forever, I decided to take full control of proceedings. Because I could. I did the Couch to 5K programme and ran my first 5k race, then my first 10k race. I enjoyed hours of online window shopping and fashion research. Not being in possession of a good fortune, I learned the tricks of the trade and revelled in bargain hunting. I also learned to mix and match separates in a way that allowed me to maximise my wardrobe rather than buying random items just because I liked the look of them. As with most things I do, I got extremely involved (avoiding the word ‘obsessed’) in the process and somehow ended up with a blog!
Somewhere along the line, I became aware that the nature of fashion had changed dramatically since I were a lass. Fashion seemed to come straight off the catwalk and onto the high street. “Is that Chanel?”, I was asked of a Zara jacket. Designs rarely stayed put for more than a few weeks – if you missed it, it was gone forever, to be replaced quickly with a new line. And you may well need another top/jumper/dress at that stage as many clothes didn’t survive a few light washes. I guess that is one reason they are so, so cheap.
Fashion is now faster, cheaper and more disposable than ever before. The fast fashion business model is based on reducing the time cycles from production to consumption so that consumers engage in more cycles per year. Traditionally, there were four fashion seasons per year but now retailers can produce a new line every four to six weeks. Some of the big names who employ these methods are H&M, Topshop and Forever 21 but the queen of fast fashion is Zara, which has grown at the mind-boggling rate of over a store a day for the last two years. With over 6,000 stores worldwide by the end of 2012, Zara is now the world’s largest clothing retailer.
Fast fashion producers rely on lightning-fast production cycles where catwalk designs are tweaked and then produced using poor-quality techniques (no lining, single seams, cheap fabric). Most of the world’s garment production takes place in Asia, often in dangerous conditions with little or poorly-implemented regulation and workers receive on average only 1-2% of the cost of the garment. Most people will have heard of the collapse of the Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh in April, the deadliest garment factory accident in history with 1,127 people killed and over 2,500 injured.
According to the International Fair Claims Guide for Consumer Textiles, the average fast fashion piece lasts only one year and 85% of it goes directly to landfill. In fact, many retailers send surplus stock straight to landfill – apparently they damage it first to “protect” the brand, i.e. to stop people taking it out of bins/landfill and selling/wearing it.
So consumers are suffering thanks to poor quality clothing that doesn’t last, workers are suffering because of low wages and dangerous working conditions and the environment is suffering due to the overproduction of clothes and a complete lack of regard for sustainability. The clothes may be cheap but we are all paying for them one way or another.
One of the reasons that fast fashion is so desirable is that consumers feel they are getting designer looks at bargain prices. We are used to the crazy price tags on designer goods so feel like we are being clever, like we are getting away with something by emulating the looks at a tiny fraction of the cost. There is a certain amount of dissonance among consumers as it is often the very groups that show the most concern for environmental and political issues that are the biggest consumers of fast fashion.
But people are starting to wake up to the fact that cheap clothes are not necessarily a good thing. The Dhaka factory collapse concentrated many minds and consumers are starting to look for alternatives. Even those who are not switched on to world events must surely question why they have to buy the same items over and over and why last year’s little-worn wardrobe now seems more shabby than chic.
So what can you do? The easiest and most obvious change you can make is a change in your way of thinking – from fast fashion to slow style. Only buy what you love. If you think an item will make you feel great, you will wear it often and keep it for years, then go ahead and make that purchase. I have started to look at every potential purchase from this point of view. I say ‘potential’ as I think I’ve bought two items in the last couple of months – a top from Baukjen and a pair of sandals from Cos. I wear both regularly, with everything and hope they will still be with me for years to come. So the second piece of advice, which I guess I’ve already given, is to spend a bit more on quality items of clothing that will last and save you money and waste in the long run.
Another rule is to look beyond the price tag – check the seams to see if the garment is well made, read the label to see what type of fabric is used and where the garment was made. Never impulse buy – walk away, have a think about it and if you really, really want it and feel good about buying it then do so at a later date. No matter how cheap the item, clothing has a high price – resources were used to make it and people had to put it together so don’t buy it unless you plan to make good use of it.
There are many campaigns for ethical practice in the garment industry. Re-dress is an Irish initiative that promotes fashion that lasts, respects human rights, treats natural resources with respect and accepts the consequences of design. Re-dress also runs the Irish wing of the Clean Clothes Campaign to fight for the rights of garment manufacturers worldwide.
If you are concerned about how ethical high street clothing retailers are, you can check to see which ones have signed the Bangladesh Safety Accord, a legally binding initiative to offer financial support for improvements in building safety following the Dhaka factory collapse. You can also check out the Guardian’s ethical fashion directory.
I know I have a bit of a cheek coming here and preaching about ethical approaches to fashion when I’ve previously been over-exhuberant about my bargain-basement purchases. But you live and learn. And you get fed up with crappy quality and people dying and all that sort of thing. Just sayin’.