Sustainability

What is slow fashion?

Here I am with a slow fashion blog and the big question is, of course, what is slow fashion about?


Opposed to fast fashion

Slow fashion is the antonym of fast fashion. It sets focus on the quality and longevity of clothes instead of seeing them as trend-driven disposable goods.

The dominating fast fashion retail model involves producing clothing quickly and cheaply in large quantities, and selling them to the mass market at a low price point. It allows mainstream consumers to access affordable on-trend styles, but it also means compromising on quality, production standards and sustainable use of natural resources. Slow fashion is instead focused on the whole life cycle of clothes from materials, production, use and reuse.


Slowing down

Slow fashion encourages a slower rate of consumption, or rather, shifting from quantity to quality.

It also encourages a slower rate of production. It is ‘slow’ because ensuring quality, producing on a smaller scale and retaining decent working conditions takes time and effort. And that also makes slow fashion more costly compared to fast fashion.


The whole picture

Slow fashion is about seeing the bigger picture. It’s about understanding where our clothes come from and where they end up after our use. It’s about acknowledging the work and resources involved in farming and producing fibre and cloth. It’s about respecting the craftsmanship of making garments, and retaining that knowledge and skill.

Slow fashion is about supporting a sustainable and diverse clothing industry, often starting at the level of the local and small-scale. It’s about using and reusing what we already have, and thinking creatively about making use of local resources.


Consciousness, not self-sufficiency

Slow fashion is not a demand for self-sufficiency. Rest assured, you are not doomed to sew and mend for the rest of your life (unless that’s your thing, of course). But slow fashion does encourage consumer consciousness. Choose your purchases wisely. Buy things you will want to wear for a long time, that are worth repairing when they need it and good enough to sell or give away when you no longer need them.


New business models

Shifting away from the fast fashion retail model involves taking a fresh approach to business.

The New York based company Study changed their business model in 2013, stepping away from the fashion industry standard of producing new collections every season and designing a year in advance. Instead, they began releasing a few styles every month to create a cohesive capsule collection over time, allowing them to avoid the cyclical production peeks at their local factories and build more direct relationships with their retailers. (Read more about it here.)

The Norwegian clothing label Sølv changed their business model from seasoned-based collections sold through retailers, to a pre-order sales model. This allowed them to cut the costly middle link of the retailer and focus on the customer experience, while ensuring high-quality production and sourcing local wool. While they are sadly no longer in production, they openly share their business approach on their site.


Creativity and responsibility

Slow fashion is about being curious and humble, asking questions and challenging our whole approach to clothing. It’s about acknowledging our responsibility towards creating a more sustainable future. But rather than providing a single clear-cut solution, the slow fashion movement opens up to spectre of alternative paths with a few things in common: going slow, focusing on quality and thinking creatively.

That's what I like about it. It's an open-ended exploration. And we can all take part in it, in our own small ways.

Stitched Up, The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion

If you have ever wondered where your clothes were made, grumbled over sky-high salaries among fashion’s corporate tops or sighed over fashion models always being so very thin – well, you’re not alone. Tansy Hoskins’ book Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion published in 2014 tackles the many-headed beast that is the global fashion industry.

Hoskins digs deep and goes wide. She looks into everything from glossy fashion magazines and high-end crocodile skin bags, to garment worker’s wages and union rights.

Most importantly, Hoskins dares to think big. Hers is a voice we need to hear.

 

Against capitalism

“People are far removed from the production of the clothes they wear. The average high street shopper will never experience 20 years of picking cotton in sweltering heat or working in a polyester factory in Zhejiang. This gives the impression that clothes exist independently both of people and of nature.” (Stitched Up, p. 97)

The problems of the fashion industry are many and Hoskins tackles them one by one: great economic disparities, exploitation of garment workers, devastation of natural resources, unhealthy beauty ideals, consumerism and waste. Yet the main problem, she argues, is the profit-driven capitalist economy on which the whole industry rests.

Look at these economic facts taken from the book:

  • The profits accumulated in the fashion industry are huge – £759 million for Zara and £2.5 billion net for LVMH (Moët Henessy Louis Vuitton) in 2011 (p. 69).
  • The wages of garment workers could be doubled without there being a noticeable impact on the price of clothing, accounting for only 1-3% of the price the consumer pays (p. 87).
  • In 2009 North Americans discarded 300 million pairs of shoes, yet some 50 million Americans live below the poverty line and another 100 million subsist on a low income (p. 53).

Hoskins’ view is of a capitalist system fundamentally based on inequality, where status quo serves the wealthy few. As long as maximising short-term profits is the main incentive of fashion corporations they will squeeze costs where they can. Business as usual, then, inevitably means cheap labour, exploitation of natural resources, increasingly high turnovers and fierce advertising.

 

Why I don’t believe in a rosy Marxist future

Hoskins envisions collectively owned garment factories. There would be safe working conditions and feasible working hours, no over-production and clothes would be valued for their use, not merely as a commodities to be sold. All this would be secured through collective participation and democratic voting.

I am not immediately convinced. Would it be a centrally planned economy, then? Who would work in garment factories and where would their income come from?

If we are to overthrow the capitalist economic system that fuels the fashion industry, we better know what we are doing. The same economic system is integral to almost all aspects of our lives – food, housing, jobs, transport, health care and welfare.

Know thy enemy. So, what exactly is capitalism? And how are we better off without it?

Perhaps surprisingly to critics of capitalism, profits are not solely connected to devastation of natural resources and exploitation of workers. In fact, a fairly recent study from Harvard Business School shows that companies with a serious sustainability agenda tend to outperform those without. Environmental and social sustainability seems profitable, and economic prosperity is in turn integral to human welfare.

Reality is complex and capitalism is extremely hard to define. We should be wary of throwing it overboard without knowing what we are doing. But nor should we conclude that everything is fine just as it is. It is not.

While I certainly do share Hoskins’ sentiments that a lot is wrong with the fashion industry and our current economic system, I don’t share her trust in a rosy Marxist future as the all-encompassing solution.

But we need to think big and ask difficult questions. And Hoskins dares do that.


Women and making

Hoskins is no advocate of the handmade movement.

“Women have fought to free themselves from the domestic yoke; an ideal society would not send them back to it. Home-alone knitting is neither the most efficient nor enjoyable way to make socks, It represents a triumph of individualism over collectivity.” (Stitched Up, p. 193)

Yes, I am a woman who happens to knit socks at home. Ouch. Thankfully, it is not something I have to do because I am a woman or because I cannot clothe myself or my family otherwise. It is something I choose to do because it reconnects me to the materials and garments I wear. And yes, I do actually enjoy it.

Knitting by hand is certainly not as time and cost efficient as producing machine knits in a factory, but when did efficiency become the defining standard for all things good and valuable? And why on earth is Hoskins championing efficiency when she simultaneously argues for the downfall of capitalism? Efficiency is perhaps the one thing capitalist economic markets actually do extremely well. Equality, no. But efficiency, yes.

Yet, she raises interesting questions. Questions worth thinking about.

Why are there so many women knitters and sewers and so few men? On the other hand, why does Hoskins, along with many before her, rush to the conclusion that traditionally female domestic work is of little value?

 

Ethical fashion

On ethical fashion, Hoskins is clear: reform is not enough. What is needed is a revolution.

Again, she raises interesting questions: Is it really up to consumers alone to force change? What about the many who cannot afford to choose ‘ethical fashion’? Why are individuals and small businesses offering ethical fashion as a solution (*ahem* or bloggers writing about their personal quests for sustainable clothing), yet so few are campaigning for political change collectively and on a grander scale?

“Ethical consumerism can cement people’s identity as passive consumers rather than active citizens. Life is about more than just retail and we must not allow all major functions of society to be subordinated to the task of shopping.” (Stitiched Up, p. 172)

Why, oh why, is not all clothing ethically made in the first place?

Sharp, visionary and brave, Stitched Up makes you think. It is well worth a read, whether you share Hoskins’ conclusions or not. It provides food for thought, and that is something we need more of.

Have any of you read it? What did you think?

Who made my clothes?

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It’s fashion revolution week. I’m taking the opportunity to pause for a moment and consider: Who made my clothes?

Take these jeans. I wear them practically every day when they’re not in the wash. Who made them? I don’t know. H&M made them. In Turkey. Out of 90% cotton, 6% polyester, 4% elastane.

What did it take to make them? I don’t know. I counted 21 pieces of fabric. 50 seams. 12 overlocked raw edges. 1 zip. 1 button hole. 1 button. 6 rivets.

Apparently, a generic pair of five-pocket jeans is sewn up manually in an assembly line in about 15 minutes. (Wow, that’s fast!) However, the final process of washing, sanding and bleaching may involve up to 16 manual operations. At least, this is true of Jack & Jones jeans. Take a look at their blog series on the production process from denim to stitching to finished jeans. Fascinating read.

But my jeans were made by H&M in Turkey. What is the garment industry like in Turkey? I don’t know.

It seems the average wage of garment workers in Turkey range between 15% and 37% of a minimum living wage, according to this factsheet produced by the Clean Clothes Campaign in 2014. I sincerely hope the persons sewing up my jeans received a minimum living wage for their work. At the very least. To be fair, H&M is not mentioned on this factsheet. But what reason do I have to suppose H&M is so much better than other brands?

In the name of transparency, H&M do publish lists over their supplier factories. Thumbs up for that. Yet, that’s 449 – four hundred and forty nine! – supplier factories listed in Turkey alone.

And that’s just my one pair of jeans.

Faced with a wall of solid information, I give up. The persons who made my jeans seem as invisible to me as ever. There is such a huge distance between my world and theirs. A geographical divide of course, but also a huge knowledge gap. I’ve never set my foot in a sewing factory, nor ever witnessed how cotton is transformed to fabric. With no real-life experience in textile manufacturing, I need more than just the name and address of a factory to fully appreciate what it took to make my jeans.

Transparency is important, as this post on the fashion revolution blog makes clear. Publishing a full list of supplier factories, as H&M does, is certainly a good first step. While it doesn’t answer my question of who made my jeans, it does show how incredibly complex their value chains are.

Next time I'll take heed of that. I might turn to a company with less complex and more transparent value chains so I actually know what I’m buying. Perhaps like Community Clothing who aim to create jobs and restore pride in the British garment industry by producing staple jeans in high quality denim. Or I might try my hand at making my own, with the jamie jeans or ginger jeans pattern?

In the meantime, I will honour my pair of well worn, less-than-perfectly transparent jeans by continuing to use them. I will wear them, repair them, and be thankful for the work and materials that went into making them.