Fast Fashion vs. Slow Fashion: What are the Most Important Differences To Know?
What is fast fashion?Fast fashion is marked by a constantly revolving clothing market, where new collections from designers are snapped up by consumers almost as quickly as they can be produced and brands produce new items more frequently while also hiring cheap labor to keep prices low. The result is a phenomenon where clothing fads rise and fall more quickly than ever before, with just a handful of seasons separating one high street trend from another. The greatest dangers from the speedy fashion approach are poor worker safety and pay standards, environmental concerns, and the sheer amount of waste produced by the clothing industry.
What is slow fashion?Slow fashion is a movement towards natural materials, lengthy production times — sometimes extending to entire seasons rather than just a few weeks — heightened emphasis on long-lasting design, and sourcing practices that focus on long-term sustainability rather than cheap prices or fast production times. Conscious fashion can be identified by its materials: more natural fibres such as cotton, linen, and wool; and its silhouettes: a return to classic, simple shapes.
The negative impacts of fast fashion
The primary environmental and ethical problems of the fast fashion world are not only to do with the workers but also with the production and distribution of apparel in general.
Unethical/unsafe labor practices
Quick fashion workers often have poor pay and can be forced to work very long hours without substantial time off. This can also lead to long-term health issues. Nearly 86% of clothing contractors investigated were found to be in violation of labor exploitation by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) in 2016.
Health hazards from manufacturing/chemicals in clothing
Another detrimental impact of traditional apparel factories is the health hazards that can be associated with garment manufacturing and chemicals in clothing. Not all manufacturers are properly regulated, and can use chemicals such as dyes that can be toxic to humans and animals. Gap has stated that they will no longer continue to manufacture clothing made from fabric derived from dead animals. This came about due to the possibility of diseases being spread from animal carcasses to humans through clothing production.
Impact on animal wellbeing
Toxic clothing manufacturing and textile waste is known to be damaging to wildlife, including birds and mammals. For example, the habitats and wellbeing of certain bird populations are affected by the fast fashion industry’s use of pesticides. The industry is also responsible for the wiping out of endangered species, with people hunting reptiles, antelopes, and seals for their pelts.
The clothing market is responsible for 1.2 billion tons of CO2 emissions annually. This is primarily fuelled by clothing overproduction due to decreasing clothing utilisation (i.e. clothes ending up in the garbage after 1-2 years, adding up to 92 million tons of textile waste each year) and overconsumption (i.e. carbon emissions associated with manufacturing and transporting garments).
When it comes to the clothing industry’s obscene water usage, the numbers speak for themselves. About 20% of industrial wastewater is generated directly by fashion manufacturing. The growing of fabrics, bleaching, dyeing, softening of garments, and spinning also uses approximately 79 trillion litres of water annually, making the clothing industry the second-largest water consuming industry in the world.
How to spot a quick fashion brand
It’s clear that the traditional clothing industry needs to adjust the way it functions for any significant environmental change to happen. As an individual, here are ways shoppers can help by identifying and avoiding quick fashion brands.
A simple and effective way to identify a quick clothing designer is to check for ‘micro-seasons’. These are frequent new collections. Instead of releasing fresh styles for each season, i.e. two to three times a year, fast fashion brands can have up to 52 micro-seasons of hundreds of styles. This high volume is meant to cater to the lowest denominator of consumers.
Trying to please the highest percentage of customers possible with micro-seasons ties in with the tendency to stay on top of trends. Quick fashion brands like H&M and Zara take cues from the runways and social media to constantly release up-to-the-minute designs for cheap prices. This has the detrimental effect of training shoppers to value their garments less.
Greenwashing is the marketing tactic of using eco-friendly language, packaging, and ambiguous claims to look more sustainable than a brand really is. These cheap fashion companies try to take advantage of uninformed shoppers without taking real Corporate Social Responsibility. Also called ‘green sheen’, be on the lookout for environmental imagery and ‘salads’ of eco-conscious buzzwords like “non-toxic”, “waste-free”, and “natural”.
When a brand actually commits to sustainability, its language is naturally more clear and informative. If a clothing label or the fashion brand’s website doesn’t share details about specific sustainability initiatives like carbon-neutrality or waste management, that’s a bad sign.
Low quality construction is visible to the naked eye, making it a layman-friendly sign of fast fashion. Look for threads that have been left untrimmed, a sign of hasty craftsmanship, and garments that already look wrinkled. These are signals of cheaply sourced fabrics that could lead to microfiber shedding.
How to adopt conscious fashion into your wardrobe
Now that you know which brands to avoid, what are the factors you should look for in a clothing designer to know if they’re environmentally and ethically conscious?
The first principle of slow fashion is to purchase fewer, higher-quality pieces. If you’re just starting the journey of creating a conscious wardrobe, then one way to go about it is to buy timeless designs that fit your personal style in multiple ways. This could be a classic long skirt or a silk scarf that carries you through multiple seasons.
If you want pieces that last a long time, there is naturally a higher price tag associated with them. This is because more time spent on design to ensure longevity, sustainably sourced fabrics, and working with green-certified factories costs more money. A higher price point doesn’t always mean better quality, but it’s one of the indicators.
There are multiple ways that clothing fabrics can be considered eco-friendly. They can be organic materials farmed without pesticides and other chemicals toxic to the surrounding environment, revolutionary new materials that repurpose waste into usable fabrics like fruit leather or recycled nylon, or ethical fabrics such as peace silk harvested without killing silkworms.
The flip side of fast fashion, genuinely socially responsible clothing brands usually give specific details about their manufacturing. Examples of transparency in supply chain information is the name of the carbon-offset shipping company they use, where fair trade factories are located, and the names of biodegradable fabrics they use.
Finally, responsibly made clothing will sometimes contain sustainable clothing certifications on their labels. The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) denotes a cotton item that has been ethically grown and exported; the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) sets that standard for responsibly managed forests, and Certified B Corporation (B Corp) signifies a company that meets exemplary standards for environmental and social management and transparency.
FAQ about fast and slow fashion
How do you identify fast fashion?
The most effective ways to spot quick fashion practices are to look for poorly constructed garments (loose threads, excessive wrinkling, shedding), frequent collection releases with the goal of keeping up with trends, and vague information about supply chains. This can be indicative of unethical worker conditions.
What are the principles of slow fashion?
The principles of mindful clothing are timeless designs that outlast style trends, durable and organic fabrics (which can sometimes mean a higher price tag), multi-functionality so you can get more out of fewer pieces, environmental claims backed up with evidence, and sustainable clothing certifications like Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) and B Corp.
What are the biggest problems with fast fashion?
The heaviest impacts of the fast fashion industry, which is marked by being stuck in overconsumption and overproduction, are chemical leaching from landfills, underpaid and unsafe worker conditions, carbon emissions from textile waste and clothing production, and high water usage.