WTF is slow fashion?

The problems raised by fast fashion go deep.

The industry — embodied by giant retailers like H&M, Forever 21, Zara and Uniqlo that crank out cheap, disposable garments — is beset with problems stemming from pollution to waste to unsafe working conditions. Fashion Revolution Day, happening this Friday, April 24, is an annual day of awareness to memorialize the 2013 collapse of a clothing factory in Bangladesh that killed over 1,100 workers and injured 2,400 more. Sixty-five countries will participate, asking consumers to tag the brands they wear and ask #WhoMadeMyClothes on social media.

Fashion Revolution Day will hype “slow fashion” as the antidote to the ethical and environmental havoc wreaked by the fast-fashion industry. The slow fashion movement has been taking shape since designer Kate Fletcher coined the term in 2008, but it’s still not at the front of many consumers’ minds.

Here’s what slow fashion is and why it’s on the rise with conscious shoppers:

What exactly is slow fashion?
Food that isn’t fast food doesn’t need to be called “slow food” to signify that it’s not from McDonald’s. But according to Jessica Navas, chief planning officer at Erwin Penland, the very word “fashion” invokes the idea of a fast-paced industry across the board.

“The definition of fashion is forward-thinking, innovative and fast-moving,” said Navas. “It’s about going after the latest trends. Slow fashion is about being purposeful and realizing that fewer is better.”

So, slow fashion is the deliberate choice to buy better-quality items less often. When purchases are made, they’re environmentally and ethically conscious rather than trend-driven. The garments are durable and lend themselves to repairs, not disposal. Slow fashion is also transparent: Buyers know where their clothes are coming from, and items are often handmade by artisans.

Consider it the “farm to table” of the fashion world.

Oh, come on. Do we really need this?
In her 2013 book “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion,” journalist Elizabeth Cline reported that 13 million tons of textile waste is generated annually in the U.S. Of that, only 15 percent is donated. And of what’s being donated, only 20 percent gets resold.

Cline sees slow fashion as a welcome respite for those who have burned through the cheap fashion circuit.

“Customers are embracing this shift after two decades of a global shopping binge that left them feeling very empty and detached from the clothes hanging in their closets,” said Cline. “Clothes are supposed to be personal, and that connection’s been lost.”

And slow fashion will fix this?
The fast-fashion industry isn’t showing signs of slowing down. Forever 21 announced last year that it plans to double its number of storefronts by 2016, as well as roll out F21 Red, an even cheaper sister store. H&M, meanwhile, plans to further expand internationally by opening 400 more stores this year. And affordable Japanese retailer Uniqlo has been barreling through U.S. markets, with plans to have 200 stores open in the country by 2020.

Yikes. Who are the major players in slow fashion?
Zady, an e-commerce company, was founded in 2012 as a lifestyle destination for the conscious consumer. Its clothing and home-goods manufacturing processes are transparent, and many of the items sold on the site are handmade in the U.S. with local materials. Similar ethical brands include Pendleton, The Reformation and Study.

In the mainstream, Patagonia (a certified B-Corps brand, meaning it meets the nonprofit B Lab’s standards of social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency) has exemplified how a big brand can maintain “corporate responsibility,” as it’s referred on the outdoor apparel company’s website. Patagonia is transparent about its work with factories and mills, and more about its ethical practices can be found online.

“There’s nothing on Forever 21’s website about a mission or purpose,” Navas pointed out. “Companies like Patagonia and Zady make it a point to display they’re conscientious at the forefront.”

Cline added that it’s not just the brands leading the movement.

“[It’s about] the thrift store shoppers and everyday people who are learning to love and take care of what’s already hanging in their closet, instead of giving into the urge to buy more.”

What does slow fashion mean for fast fashion?
Zady’s founders Soraya Darabi and Maxine Bédat are optimistic that fast fashion will come into focus as something that is actually bad for us, much as smoking did a generation earlier.

“People associate the lower prices with a good deal, but the connection hasn’t yet been made that they’re getting short shafted,” said Bédat. “Cost per wear, quality clothing is more affordable than fast fashion. Once that light is turned on, I think we’ll see slow fashion become the mainstream.”

Navas isn’t convinced the fast-fashion industry can be overcome, however.

“Forever 21, H&M – those are juggernauts, simply for the price points. But there has been a reaction to fast fashion and what it has led to in terms the cluttering up of our lives, and when it comes to streamlining, slow fashion is on point. Frankly, they both can coexist, as long as fast fashion is there, and it seems like it always will be.”

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