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Slow/Sustainable Fashion: How Can We Get Consumers to Care?

 

Where did you get your outfit? This is a seemingly simple and flattering question that many of us hear frequently, but don’t consider the impact of. Fashion designer Orsola de Castro says “We can communicate through clothing … it is fundamentally a part of what we wish to communicate about ourselves.” With brands such as H&M, Zara, and Forever 21 offering us new cheap and trendy clothes almost daily, it is hard not to get everyday basics and statement pieces from them, as they give many people the ability to express their personal style without breaking the bank. We as a global society buy and buy, always wanting prices to go down and value to go up, but that equation can’t possibly be rational – there has to be a variable in that that cannot be sustained. Consumers of the world purchase around 80 billion new pieces of clothing a year, and in the US alone, 11 million tons of that becomes waste every year. A large majority of that waste will sit in a landfill, never decomposing due to the material it was made out of. (Morgan)

How does something like this happen? “Fast fashion” has gripped the fashion industry and world in its constant profit business model, using cheap labor and bad quality to get the trendiest pieces out as quickly as possible. This greatly harms both animals and humans – species frequently go extinct due to ecosystems being destroyed by farming and construction, and those living in 3rd world countries often have no other option than to work in a big business’ factory sweatshop. Socially responsible designers and consumers have, in recent years, started creating and shopping more responsibly and respectfully to the earth – a concept called slow fashion, which aims to leave the smallest footprint possible. This new business model, while definitely profitable, puts more value on human lives and the state of global ecology as a whole as opposed to money being the only goal. Although customers are more comfortably able to purchase clothing through cheap fast-fashion retailers such as H&M and Zara, consumers should shift toward slow fashion and sustainable/low-harm buying habits because of the severe environmental, social, and costly consequences of low-quality clothing and textiles.

95% of clothing purchased in America were made in America until around the 1960’s. Now, about 3% are made in America, with 97% being outsourced to developing 3rd world countries, particularly in the far-east (Morgan). This transition was made due to high demand for speed and profit.  “Fast fashion” got its grip on the fashion industry beginning in the 21st century, when big name brands (H&M, Zara, etc.) began to fight for a bigger stake in the market with almost instant retail turnover producing trendy styles for them with extremely low lifespans. “Design facilitates mass production and rapid turnaround of new styles ensuring shorter product (market) life cycles and encouraging consumption for fashion’s sake rather than for real need”  (Clark 428). Currently, there are about 40 million garment workers in the industry, most in poverty stricken 3rd world countries, and 85% of them being women. Women in this profession are especially marginalized and exploited by their employers, making about 3 US dollars a day.

Since speed is the main goal behind the design and construction of the garments made in these factories, quality suffers. “Fast fashion” has changed the typical 2 seasons a year (spring/summer, fall/winter) to about 52 seasons, allowing new product to be released every week (Morgan). These clothes are basically made to break, and for customers to need to keep purchasing more – a perfect business model for the CEOs of the fast fashion giants. Currently, about 70% of disposed clothing and textiles have ended up in landfills and in some countries it has begun to become the fastest growing source of waste material (Niinimäki 62). Overall, this model is beneficial for those who are in power – CEOs, big business, and first world customers who don’t see the consequences of this level of consumption. The clothes are incredibly profitable and give those who cannot afford expensive clothing (students, middle to lower class citizens, strict budgeters) an alternative that remains consistently stylish and keeps up with what is “current.”

Countering the ideals of fast fashion, “slow fashion” was conceived in 1991, and gained footing over the course of the late 90’s to early 2000’s. Materials are the epicenter of the sustainable fashion movement, and also the fashion industry as a whole. In the early 1990’s, natural and recycled fibers were leading innovations to encourage a green movement, and in the mid-2000’s, innovators introduced organic, fair-trade, and rapidly renewable fibers as the next big thing. During these times, brands would begin to base themselves on using alternative materials (Fletcher 3). This began what would become the ecofashion, “slow fashion”, or sustainable fashion movement. Sustainability is described as “…fundamentally a process of changes in which exploitation of resources, rules for investments, developments in technology and institutional changes all are in a correlated balance and enforce the presence and future possibilities in responding the needs and hopes of the human beings” in Eisabeth Tosti’s work. The terms environmental, ecological, green, sustainable, ethical, recycled, organic, and inclusive fashion are frequently heard and generally confused in fashion marketing and journalism. While some are interchangeable, most aren’t and the incorrect overuse of these terms brings mistrust from customers and an element of illegitimacy to the hopeful transparency of ecofashion (Thomas 531-4).

The goal is to challenge fast fashion and offer sustainable ways to approach fashion and the effects it has on the environment. There are approaches to it, namely: Challenging the hierarchies of designer, producer, and consumer; changing the notion of fashion only being about being “new;” showing fashion as a choice rather than a mandate; the reliance of fashion on image; finally, adding cooperative and collaborative work, especially for women (Thomas 536-7). Extending the life span of a product is also essential to create sustainable consumption, and one of the main issues with that is that many consumers associate how durable something is with how high quality it is, not the impact it can have on the environment. Designers also need to account for the purchase itself (Niinimaki 64, 65).

This eco-friendly business model has shown to be very profitable – in 2005, “£29 million alone was spent by British consumers on fair trade, organic clothing or recycled clothing, with a rise of an astonishing 79% in 2006, to £52 million. (Beard 452). Brands across the globe such as PeopleTree work diligently toward ecofashion practice, encouraging customers to be more responsible about their purchases while remaining “in style” enough to keep a profit. Most labels, though, do not apply measures to protect the workers they employ or environments they use – and almost always have a loophole to keep it legal. An organic cotton farmer living and working in Texas was interviewed in Morgan’s documentary, stating that she “[thinks] the problem with the current [fast fashion business] model is that it is all about profit, and it doesn’t take into consideration that- this cost comes at what cost: the cost of polluting the water the cost of labor, of bars on the windows that people die from when a factory catches on fire, the cost of farmers that don’t have access to education and healthcare and so we haven’t really factored in what the true cost is (Morgan).” Businesses have two options to use as solutions. From their inception, a brand can be based on ethical practice. Existing fashion powerhouses can re-examine their procedures and adopt new eco-conscious principles. Balance is a necessary aspect of the entire situation – business must remain steady to improving, while promoting the ethical aspects, but also need to stay cautious not to alienate customers with the political message since “nobody likes to be dictated to” on how to make their decisions (Beard ***).

The fashion industry is known for being one of the most polluting industries in the world that is also associated with poor conditions for workers (Tosti ***) Workers are given extremely long hours and many times work in unsafe conditions – such as the incident at Rana Plaza in which hundreds of workers perished in a collapsed building after evacuation orders were ignored. Profit came before the value of human life in that case and it is not an uncommon situation. However, some argue that the role a sweatshop plays in third world countries is not as harmful as thought. “…They’re doing a job. There are a lot worse things they could be doing.” Many people see garment factory jobs as a sort of savior because the alternatives are much worse (Morgan). While most companies produce in the far-east, having a local factory working on the products engenders a sense of trust and responsibility. They want to be as close to the consumer as possible, some even offering to repair their [products] for the consumer. This relationship created by creating and producing locally is extremely important for transparency and the relationship between makers and consumers, which gets lost through mass-producing clothing (Clark 440).

The major difficulty with putting slow fashion into practice on a more massive scale is the question of apathy. Do customers just not care enough to act on the knowledge that fast fashion is killing our planet? If they are aware, are they too stuck in their ways to ever want to change? “Guilt doesn’t drive change, desire does. If you want someone to buy a fair trade dress, then make sure it looks absolutely gorgeous. You can’t expect people to do it altruistically, because they won’t. It needs to be stylish first, the ethical part needs to be added value, as in “Oh, its ethical too – perfect. (Beard 464-5).” This quote shows that a lot of the pressure is on designers to create products that people actually want while also implementing responsible practices to make them preferable. Introducing a bond between product and consumer can encourage customers to keep their garments or accessories for a longer time and increasing their shelf life while encouraging less consumption– this can be accomplished through customer personalization such as Nike shoe customization online. Products carry a special meaning to a consumer, which they use to create their own identity. By making a product more easily personalized, the designer is able to create a connection with the consumer and the product. When a product loses that emotional attachment for a consumer, either due to falling out of fashion or the consumer losing interest in it, they will be urged to replace it. This can cause a consumer to discard a garment that may still be functional, and designers need to focus on avoiding the obsolescence of products to extend its lifetime (Niinimäki 67).

Taeib, et al.’s studies with children in Tunisia showed how they do genuinely care about pollution and solutions in the textile and fashion industry – and are most certainly not apathetic. The project “develops awareness of children’s perception and understanding of ecological problems, highlights the relevance… of ecological problems to children, and establishes what they think is the best way to go, and explores how they would do it.” If children are exposed to eco-friendly action and are asked to find solutions, they generally will gladly take part. “By making the more sustainable alternatives more appealing, children will willingly embrace it. … The more we can integrate ecological products in our children’s daily lives, the faster we can move to a more sustainable future.” This could just as easily apply to young adults and adults. If people are more surrounded by positive messages about sustainability, it becomes something they’re likely to embrace (Taeib 318-9).

Today’s cultural pace leads to many people constantly searching for a greater meaning in life. Once a person has achieved a goal such as a promotion or materialistic gains, it can become very apparent that they wont necessarily bring happiness. With everything moving at such a fast pace, many people turn to nostalgia and the past for comfort, taking up practices such as thrift and vintage shopping to regain a simpler time while also in a way critiquing society. In this mindset, social responsibility precedes materialism. Beard refers to the lifestyle of the people who have the mindset of always searching for something and trying to improve oneself to gain that as ‘Liquid Life”. “Liquid life means constant self-scrutiny, self-critique, and self-censure. Liquid life feeds on the self’s dissatisfaction with itself.” These people frequently turn to slow fashion on their own accord as opposed to needing a materialistic push to it. They seek it due to seeing the social responsibility of consuming and aim to leave the smallest footprint as possible, as slow/sustainable fashion designers are trying to encourage anyway. This lifestyle suggests that larger groups of people are less apathetic than assumed. “The challenge now is how to extend the slow concept on a larger scale. But signs of change are already evident (Clark 444).”

“Buying less, and more ethically, could be the most ecologically sound way to shop. (Thomas 534).” There are many paths that can be taken to implement slow fashion principles on concumers, and seeing as a sizeable portion of the fashion industry and consumers already care, there seems to be quite a bit of possibility that it could become a mass-market reality. “We need huge systemic change…[and] a new way of doing capitalism and economy (Morgan).” Implementing more eco-friendly legislation would lead to change, especially in the mind of consumers. Legitimacy in ecofashion is something that lacks on a mass scale, such as greenwashing terminology confusion. There basically is no set glossary or definitive terms for what everything exactly is, and there is also no governing body controlling the global use of these terms. Caution must be used when a brand labels themselves with terms such as “green,” “organic,” and “fair trade”, etc. Confusion occurs generally when terms are substituted for each other, which is very common seeing as there is a lack of regulation (Beard 450). If this issue were cleared up by a globally recognized standard, customers may be more willing to partake in responsible shopping. Also, using education in schools to teach students about what needs to be done to reverse fast fashion’s effects would greatly increase the number of invested people. Elisabeth Tosti included a list of solutions in her report:

“1. Encouraging the integration of sustainable fashion curriculum into pre-school, primary, secondary, university and vocational education and research.

  1. Supporting consumer engagement and behavior change and campaigns.
  2. Supporting expansion, standardization and accessibility of transparency product disclosure.
  3. Enforcing guidelines for product communications and marketing to discourage and penalize greenwashing.
  4. Stimulating voluntary agreements with industry covering extended producer responsibility.
  5. Providing economic incentives for sustainable fashion products and services.
  6. Restricting harmful substances.
  7. Developing a multi-stakeholder platform and provide funding for the exploration and implementation. (Tosti 103)”

Overall, implementing slow fashion and sustainable ideals in school curriculum, campaigns, transparency in the market along with guidelines and incentives, and restricting harm while rewarding good is the goal. These recommendations are made in hopes that political legislation will be made to enforce ideals such as these. Legislation seems to be the best option to bring greater legitimacy to the world of slow fashion and legitimacy is the preferable solution to getting more firms, designers, producers, and consumers involved.

Fast fashion is constantly bringing our world into greater and greater turmoil with its severe capitalistic business model – the earth cannot sustain the level of production currently taking place. Ecosystems are destroyed through farming practices, water pollution, and textiles which remain as garbage and will never decompose and human lives are taken advantage of in sweatshops around the world for big businesses financial gain. Customers are even harmed by this process due to being tricked into an endless cycle of purchasing. While fast fashion’s business model is greatly profitable for big businesses, and is comfortable and affordable for customers, the market should shift toward slow fashion and sustainable/low-harm habits to protect the global environment that is left and the human lives that are taken advantage of to produce “cheap” clothing. Getting customers to care might not be as difficult as it seems – children and adults show to be less apathetic than they are assumed to be about environmental effects and the problems that fast fashion has and continues to cause. Implementing legislation regarding a global fashion lexicon, market transparency, restricting damaging processes and substances and sustainability education in schools at every level could be the most reasonable solutions to making customers care through the movement gaining legitimacy, and it is already on the way to becoming that. Slow fashion is a vital part of humanity moving forward – without designers, producers, and consumers working together to implement change, we will only keep on the path we are on, but if responsibility is taken, we can get on to fixing these problems.

 

 

Works Cited

 

Beard, Nathaniel Dafydd. “The Branding Of Ethical Fashion And The Consumer: A Luxury Niche Or Mass-Market Reality?.” Fashion Theory: The Journal Of Dress, Body & Culture 12.4 (2008): 447-467. Academic Search Complete. Web. 6 July 2015.

Clark, Hazel. “SLOW + FASHION–An Oxymoron–Or A Promise For The Future…?.” Fashion Theory: The Journal Of Dress, Body & Culture 12.4 (2008): 427-446. Academic Search Complete. Web. 14 July 2015.

Fletcher, Kate. Sustainable Fashion and Textiles: Design Journeys. London: Earthscan, 2008. 1-41, 185-198. Print.

Niinimäki, Kirsi. “Proactive Fashion Design For Sustainable Consumption.” Nordic Textile Journal (2012): 60-69. Academic Search Complete. Web. 20 July 2015.

Taieb, Amine Hadj, et al. “Sensitising Children To Ecological Issues Through Textile Eco-Design.” International Journal Of Art & Design Education 29.3 (2010): 313-320. Academic Search Complete. Web. 9 July 2015.

Thomas, Sue. “From “Green Blur” To Ecofashion: Fashioning An Eco-Lexicon.” Fashion Theory: The Journal Of Dress, Body & Culture 12.4 (2008): 525-539. Academic Search Complete. Web. 9 July 2015.

Tosti, Elisabeth. “From The Brundtland Report To The Global Organic Textile Standard.”Nordic Textile Journal (2012): 100-106. Academic Search Complete. Web. 18 July 2015.

The True Cost. Dir. Andrew Morgan. Untold Creative, LLC., Film. 2015.

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