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Slow Fashion Guide: Everything You Need to Know

Posted in Fashion by Mariusz Falkiewicz. Last updated

Slow Fashion Guide: Everything You Need to Know

Slow fashion is the most exciting development in fashion right now and it’s gaining momentum as conscious consumerism takes off and the public grows weary of the current establishment (namely, fast fashion) paddling its mediocre apparel with an enormous hidden cost attached to it.

Slow fashion is an antidote to pure consumerism and a viable blueprint for introducing a systemic change to the otherwise broken industry.

It’s also a promise of original and beautiful, high-quality fashion to enjoy in a responsible and sustainable way.

But before we get there, we need to start with the basics, since not everyone is aware of what slow fashion is, or that it even exists, never mind “how to do it”.

To address these issues, we’ve created the most comprehensive guide on slow fashion written to date (plus a complimentary infographic!)

So get comfy, dig in, and enjoy (…and please spread the word, share, and help slow fashion grow)

What You Will Learn:

What is Slow Fashion? Is it a Movement, a Philosophy, or a Trend?

Some refer to it as “the slow fashion movement”, some call it “a fashion revolution”, yet others (the naysayers) believe that slow fashion is nothing more than a passing trend.

So, which is it?

idea iconFundamentally, slow fashion is an ideology.

It propagates a set of principles that aim to improve how we engage with fashion on multiple levels in order to create a balanced and sustainable industry with a healthy product lifecycle.

Specifically, slow fashion aims to transform our approach to:

  • Fashion creation » by promoting originality, diversity, and thoughtfulness
  • Fashion production » by employing artisans and sustainable manufacturing
  • Fashion distribution » by serving local markets and utilizing lean supply chains
  • Fashion consumption » by releasing long-lasting products and promoting conscious consumerism
  • Fashion end life and disposal » by utilizing a high percentage of natural, compostable fibers

Originally, the idea of slow fashion referred to the need for “slowing down fashion” and restoring traditional values.

Today, despite growing in popularity and adding new objectives to its agenda, slow fashion is still predominantly about releasing 2 to 3 high-quality collections per year (adhering to the traditional fashion release schedule).

If you’re familiar with the cost-quality tradeoff triangle (a.k.a “pick two out of three; fast, cheap, or good”), you will immediately understand which of the two values slow fashion brands concentrate their efforts on:

Fashion-Cost-Quality Tradeoff Triangle: Slow Fashion delivers high-quality apparel at a fair cost.

The aim of slow fashion is to produce high-quality apparel (products with high intrinsic value), at a fair cost. Note, that the term “cost” here encompasses both meanings: the actual product price as well as the environmental and socioeconomic costs (more on this later).

By sacrificing high-volume turnover, slow fashion delivers quality goods and upholds ethical manufacturing standards with a significantly reduced environmental impact.

It’s possible that the notion of slow fashion will continue to evolve since the strive towards ethical consumerism is a relatively new phenomenon, however, it’s sensible to assume that the following values will remain at the core of slow fashion philosophy:

  • Pragmatism and responsibility
  • Sustainability and ethics
  • Diversity and originality
  • Traditional values
  • Transparency
  • Local sourcing, production, and distribution
  • Preservation of the ecosystem

Slow Fashion Definition

A single, holistic definition that encompasses the meaning and aims of slow fashion, is this:

Slow fashion is a conscious effort to move away from the excessive consumerism encouraged by the fast fashion industry through changing consumer behavior and forcing the industry to embrace sustainability and to produce high-quality fashion. Unlike fast fashion, the primary focus of slow fashion is a continued commitment to creating fewer collections per calendar year with pieces made from high-quality materials that lengthen the life of the garment. Slow fashion is founded on the principles of conscious consumerism, environmental sustainability, and transparency, with design and production methods upholding high ethical standards.

Why Slow Fashion Matters and the Urgent Need to Abolish Fast Fashion

The widely held consensus is that we’re on a collision course with an impending environmental disaster unless we curtail overconsumption and reestablish a symmetrical relationship with the ecosystem.

There are many alarming statistics and projections to support this view:

  • 2018 was the fourth hottest year on record in nearly 140 years1
  • By 2030, half the world's population could be living in areas where there isn't enough drinking water2
  • We’re expected to start running out of resources, such as oil and natural gas in approx. 50 years3
  • By 2050 there could be more plastic in the ocean than there is fish4
  • 30% to 50% of wildlife species could be extinct by 2050 due to human activity5

The point is:

You can no longer turn a blind eye to the issue of sustainability and hope that others will resolve it because the crux of the problem is our ignorance surrounding the ever-expanding consumption of the scarce, natural resources.

Today, when it comes to sustainability,You're either a part of the problem or a part of the solution.

So, how does fashion fit into this picture?

Fashion is one of the largest industries in the world, and consequently, one of the biggest polluters of the planet (along with oil and agriculture).

Fast fashion companies (and honestly, which mainstream brands are not borrowing from that playbook?) are particularly ruthless offenders because of how aggressively they pursue profit generation by engaging in low-cost, high-turnover manufacturing.

It’s estimated that:

  • The number of garments produced annually has doubled since 2000 and exceeded 100 billion for the first time in 20146
  • More than half of fast fashion purchases are discarded in less than a year7
  • Less than 1% of materials used to produce clothing is recycled (representing an over $100 billion loss each year)8
  • Estimated 17% to 20% of industrial water pollution comes from textile dyeing and fabrics finishing treatment9

To understand the root of the problem let’s have a look at the cost-quality tradeoff triangle again.

Fashion-Cost-Quality Tradeoff Triangle: Fast Fashion delivers low-quality apparel expeditiously.

Fast fashion forgoes quality to focus exclusively on delivering goods at the lowest possible price-point in the shortest conceivable time frame.

It’s a common practice to launch 50+ fashion collections per year following a weekly release schedule, instead of 2 or 3 cycles, like in the traditional and slow fashion schedule.

Diagram Demonstrating Slow Fashion vs. Fast Fashion vs. Ultra-Fast Fashion Production Cycle

Then, there are brands that target an even higher production throughput.

“Ultra-fast fashion” makers, such as Boohoo, for example, use real-time sales data to flood the market with minor variants to product-lines until the supply influx is rejected. In other words, market exhaustion dictates the end of the production cycle.

Rapid, high-volume garment fabrication, combined with a business model that disregards quality as one of its determinants, leads to the introduction of goods that are, by design, of substandard material composition, finishing, and durability.

The end result is apparel with a very limited lifespan.

So much so, that the fast fashion industry ushered the new era of so-called “throwaway culture”10, where shoppers are conditioned to treat apparel as single-use, disposable items that are predestined for landfill.

Once you realize how the discounted fashion syndicates operate, it shouldn’t take long to conclude that this “garbage in – garbage out” business model cannot be sustained long-term.

After all, our ecosystem can only take so much abuse before we need to foot the bill.

Which brings us to the final, critical aspect of understanding why the fast fashion model is inherently corrupt:

Fast fashion subsidizes (or offsets) production costs by means of environmental and socio-economic exploitation.

Fast fashion outcompetes and outperforms the rest of the industry by pushing its manufacturing standards beyond the boundaries of sustainable and ethical norms. This is the fundamental reason why fast fashion apparel is underpriced so aggressively when compared to other market offerings.

Now, all things considered, does anyone still believe that companies like Boohoo can deliver €5 dresses and turn a profit without a foul play involved?

The enormous environmental damage inflicted by these corporations and the ongoing exploitation of a disadvantaged workforce is referred to as the true, hidden cost of fast fashion (or the negative economic externalities of fast fashion).

Understanding the implications of fast fashion methods and business practices leads to the realization that we’re in a dire need of a systemic change to fix the broken industry and to embrace a more sustainable alternative.

“Nothing to Wear?" The Problem With the Attitude for Disposable Fashion

Here is sobering news:

Fashion manufacturers are not the only ones to blame for the status quo.

So, before you boycott your local H&M, remember, that industries thrive by responding to market demand.

Collectively, as consumers, we co-create and shape the fashion industry.

The truth is, we sought after cheap fashion novelties to fill closets to the brim, and the industry delivered in earnest.

Worse yet, it didn’t take long for these bad shopping habits to spiral out of control to the point where fast fashion became the new norm, and for many, a buying compulsion.

There exists a deep disconnect between the traditional fashion values and the contemporary fashion culture, especially for those who grew up alongside brands like Forever 21, Boohoo, or Primark et al., that proliferate the mainstream market with the second-rate goods and propagate a careless attitude for cheap, disposable fashion.

You could be led to believe that having access to a nearly endless supply of affordable clothes would end the “what to wear” dilemma and introduce a somewhat of a renaissance when it comes to developing a personal style, but it seems not to be the case.

I think we can all agree with what the real “spoils” of fast fashion are:

A part of my closet is still filled with plenty of unremarkable clothes acquired over the years that didn’t stand the test of time. Having quickly stretched out, or faded, they’ve lost their initial appeal so I can’t really wear them in public anymore, but it would also feel like a waste to just throw them.

As a result, I have shelves dedicated for clothes to “wear around the house”, or “things that might come handy”, but a darn hard-time deciding what to wear when going out when it actually matters.

This is a familiar experience for many that’s apparently compounded by our tendency for hoarding.

Consider this:

Despite having an overabundance of clothes at our disposal everyone wears just their favorite few pieces throughout the season. As a result, we utilize only a fraction of our wardrobe while the rest of the clothes rarely see the light of day.

So, how much gets stashed away?

According to Weight Watchers’ survey11, about 55% of the clothes in an average woman's wardrobe and 47% in an average man's are never worn. That's around £10.5 billion worth of unworn clothes, or nearly as much as the entire gross domestic product of Malta, permanently stowed away - and that's just in the UK alone.

It’s safe to assume that Vivienne Westwood wasn’t the only one who took notice when proclaiming: “everyone buys too many clothes”. She was, perhaps, the first one to admit it.

Apart from all the environmental waste generated by the disposal of non-biodegradable, synthetic fibers, now counted in millions of tons per annum, clothes that are acquired with a sole intent of storing serve as a prime example of needless overspending and prodigal consumerism - habits that need to be curtailed and reformed if we’re to thrive.

Which leads to a question:

Why simply not buy less, but better quality clothing?

Quality Over Quantity - Your Journey to Ethical Fashion Begins Here

If there is a single, most important message to take away from this article and a single most important approach to adhereing to slow fashion values, it is this - "Buy less. Choose well. Make it Last". This motto by Vivienne Westwood12  perfectly embodies the philosophy behind the slow fashion movement.

Vivienne Westwood Quote Against Fast Fashion: 'Buy Less. Choose Well. Make it Last.'

Mindfulness and discipline are at the center of conscious consumerism so it is easy to understand why slow fashion proponents caution against impulsive spending on poor quality clothing, shoes, and accessories.

It simply won't work, neither for us, the consumers, nor for the overstrained biosphere with its finite resources.

However, even putting the environmental benefits aside, there are other, immediate advantages to be had from resisting the temptation of buying fashion on impulse.

Foremost, it saves a lot of money that could be put to better use. Likewise, it frees up space, declutters home, and helps to keep the mind focused on the more important aspects of life.

Finally, when buying something meaningful, you’ll connect with it and appreciate your purchase for a longer time. You’ll also feel empowered by slow fashion because it helps to develop a unique, personal style, and escape the allure of following commercial fashion trends.

Want to know the best part?

It’s remarkable to be a part of a positive, transformative movement that supports brands and designers who care about the environment, pay fair wages, and produce genuine fashion products that are meant to last.

That’s why the quest to incorporate sustainability into personal style should begin by assuming the role of an active and conscious consumer. One, who’ll ask the right questions prior to making a purchase.

So, next time you’re about to use a credit card, ask yourself this:  

  • Do I need this, or is it just a spur of the moment decision?
  • Does it fit my style, or am I getting sucked into a trend?
  • How often will I wear it? Will I be wearing this the following season? How about the one after that?
  • Is the product quality good and will it last?
  • Who made my clothes? Are the company’s philosophy and process transparent enough to be trusted?

Developing a personal, timeless style, is essential to avoid getting sucked into the frenzy of chasing after the latest shopping trends.

Develop a Personal Style to Transcend Seasonal Fads

I think we can all agree that fashion trends quickly lose their initial appeal after enough of people jump on the same-style bandwagon.

After all, who wants to be just another face in the crowd?

While the short-lived fashion fads and seasonal trends align perfectly with the marketing agendas of the big brands, granting them the ultimate control of the market, repeat opportunities to dictate what's in vogue, and rewarding them with perpetual sales cycles, it could be argued, that for fashion as a form of self-expression, it's a setback.

The excessive number of similar-looking, "must-have" trends, which are constantly forced into the market by fast fashion cartels deemphasizes the importance of creativity and simultaneously deters the act of self-expression, which, many believe, are the quintessential cornerstones of contemporary fashion.

You have most likely heard of the truism accredited to Yves Saint Laurent: 'Fashions fade, style is eternal'?

Surely, you've also noticed how iconic figures, from Audrey Hepburn to Steve Jobs developed their own approach to fashion by assuming a unique style that eventually became synonymous with their personas.

Whether the aim is to be classic and elegant (Audrey), or to look pragmatic and casual (Jobs), the idea is universal - a well-defined, personal style, which compliments the silhouette and projects character, transcends seasons and surpasses the artificially-dictated industry trends.

Yves Saint Laurent Quote On Importnance of Having a Personal Fashion Style

Since fashion is primarily a visual language of self-expression, how you dress should emphasize who you are.

Therefore, finding your own unique voice which embodies and expresses your character through the language of fashion trumps the act of copying the latest advertisements for the sake of looking trendy for a season.

Sure, developing your own style will take time and effort, but doesn't everything else worth pursuing? In the end, it really is about the journey itself and about how you choose to share your story through how you dress.

Rest assured that there are outstanding tools and techniques to help you in your quest to get inspired - techniques that zero in on a unique look, and help to create a perfect personal wardrobe. The one we recommend to start with is building a capsule wardrobe.

Capsule Wardrobe - Sustainable and Ready for Everyday

It should come as no surprise, that we are enthusiasts and proponents of capsule wardrobes.

The concept ties seamlessly into everything that was already discussed and fits perfectly into the mindset of a slow fashionista.

In our opinion capsule wardrobe strikes an ideal balance between minimalism, sustainability, and practicality. Thus creating one, should provide the much-needed structure to carry out your new plan, design your outfits and help you stay organized.

If you are unfamiliar with the term, then capsule wardrobe is "a collection of a few essential items of clothing that don't go out of fashion, such as skirts, trousers, and coats, which can then be augmented with seasonal pieces."13

Image of capsule wardrobe: sustainable fashion applied on personal level

You could start building your personal style and assemble your private capsule wardrobe by investing strategically in a few pieces to center your wardrobe around.

We recommend selecting well-made, timeless pieces that will cover all aspects of life, from professional to casual. If you are not sure where to start, take advice from Susie Faux who popularized the concept of the capsule wardrobe14. She recommends choosing the "essential pieces that can be easily mixed and matched to create many varieties of different outfits and looks, so, for example, one type of pants or skirt becomes a part of many ensembles that actually look very different and can be worn through the few seasons."

To stay relevant and timely it helps to accent and adjust your ensembles seasonally with new pieces (or accessories and details), showing that you are aware of the current trends. You will signal to the world that you speak the language of contemporary fashion and that you can engage any craze by incorporating it flawlessly into your personal style - however, that you don't depend on it to look your best.

Don't Be Shamed Into Buying Ethical - Be Critical and Honest With The Brands and With Yourself

Yes, we said it!

Don't be shamed into buying sustainable apparel, footwear or accessories if you don't like them.

Buying something solely out of hope to contribute to the success of slow fashion is a flawed idea.

For one, the chances are you'll rarely wear what you don't enjoy, so the behavior becomes an exercise in wasteful spending and goes directly against "buy less, choose well" principle.

More importantly, however, it actually weakens slow fashion brands and reduces their chances of gaining a sufficient market share to become successful and thrive.

Think about it:

If all sales are generated by inferior products, then the brands that create them will never stand a chance against the fierce market competition. Just because a brand is sustainable, ethical, or involved in social entrepreneurship, does not warrant its success, nor oblige customers to buy its products.

Slow fashion is still a commercial activity at the end of the day and the products introduced by slow design brands need to stand on their own and be appealing and desirable to a wider audience. Only then will the movement gain sufficient traction and win a wide enough adoption rate to put the industry on the path towards a more environmentally-sustainable and socially-responsible fashion.

If you like a particular brand or its initiative, but not their products, then be genuine about it. Contact them and let them know what prevents you from making a purchase. If a cause is particularly important to you then consider volunteering your time and expertise to help a particular company grow.

Likewise, be as honest with yourself as you are with the fashion makers.

Just because you were conditioned to buy cheap, mass-produced apparel or footwear does not mean that you can realistically expect to pay the same prices for quality goods that are handmade by the skilled tailors and artisans who are compensated fairly. So be realistic, and set your expectations right.

A final word of advice:

Watch out for companies that "eco wash" their fashion lines. There are plenty already, and you'll see more as fast fashion loses ground from under its feet.

Be skeptical of brands that keep promising to introduce sustainability and ethics into supply chains, or release a one-off "organic-cotton pajamas" line to whoo their clients, while continuing to force 50+ second-rate collections per year produced by the disadvantaged workers. No matter what the PR spin is, it's in no way a sustainable or ethical business model.

Pay It Forward - Support Slow Fashion by Engaging Your Community

As consumers, we often like to blame big companies and governments for the current state of affairs and the environmental crisis we're faced with.

It's always easier to point the finger and to blame others.

It is worth remembering, however, that markets are co-created by all participants. Sadly, there was a huge demand created for cheap, disposable clothing and fast fashion companies delivered on it. Now it is up to us to reverse that trend.

Collectively we are responsible for it.

Every movement is only as strong as its members, and whether slow fashion can reach a critical mass and gain sufficient support to affect the industry at large is yet to be seen, but don't assume a passive role.

If you believe in the premise behind sustainable, ethical fashion and wish to support slow fashion then engage with the brands and help to raise awareness about them in your social circles. Become a smart and conscious consumer and choose with your wallet what's right for you and for the environment.

Woman walking through tall grass: metaphor for sustainable fashion

For any meaningful transformation to take place and hold, the change must happen gradually.

It would be foolish to assume that adopting an ascetic lifestyle, or a fashion style for that matter, will bring an ethical renaissance to the fashion industry. After all, prohibition didn't work as a countermeasure for alcoholism and neither will the boycott of mainstream fashion chains, or wearing hemp-only clothing.

Instead, keep an open mind to new ideas, new designers, and new brands and give them a fair chance.

Make a conscious effort to ask the right questions. Understand what the brands stand for and what materials they use for the production. Finally, evaluate the product, see the quality, and ask yourself whether it'll fit your style.

If it feels right, then give it a try and invest in the brand - it might just become a favorite one in your closet.

Slow Fashion vs. Fast Fashion, a Side-by-side Comparison

A summary of the most prominent differences between slow fashion and fast fashion :

Slow FashionFast Fashion
Celebrates creativity and diversity, with limited-edition, original collections“Borrows inspirations” from others; streamlines the design process and commoditizes fashion to minimize the costs.
Adheres to the traditional production schedule, releasing 2-3 collections per yearAims for aggressive market penetration with 50+ collections per year; “Ultra-fast fashion”, such as i.e. Boohoo, produces continuously relying on real-time market feedback to gauge fading demand
Uses high-quality materials with a high percentage of organic fibersUses poor-quality materials and synthetics that are non-recyclable and non-compostable
Sources materials depending on the current production needs; Relies primarily on the local suppliersSources materials depending on volume-based discounts and multi-year, fixed international contracts
Garments are designed and made to last for multiple seasons/yearsDesigned to make a favorable first impression but designed and manufactured for short lifespan
Encourages consumers to engage in mindful, selective buying and prolonged product careEncourages overconsumption and overspending; propagates the notion of disposable fashion.
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