Slow vs Fast Fashion pt.1

Several took me to task for the opinions I expressed about slow fashion in my previous entry. I think the key problem with slow fashion is a definition upon which we can all agree. As with lean (process) or “lean” (limited finances) manufacturing, definitions seem to be all over the map. Another problem is that the definition of “fast fashion” has become diluted. People erroneously equate the product types of the best known fast fashion producers with the fast fashion process.

Aside from the lack of a good definition, my central objections to slow fashion could be summarized as:

  • The belief that fast and slow fashion are mutually exclusive.
  • That slow fashion is more sustainable than fast fashion; there’s lots of trade offs.
  • That fast fashion is limited to cheap trendy items and quickly discarded.
  • That slow fashions are more valuable; fast fashion cannot produce classics designed to be worn for years.

Here are some ideas left in comments on the first entry:

Brina: As far as slow fashion–it’s not meant literally but more in terms of green/sustainability, knowing the supply and labor chain of your garments: here’s one article on it–but I’m sure someone else probably knows of something better.

Again, it’s a problem of definitions. The article Brina mentions -and for which I was interviewed but the material wasn’t used- implies that slow fashion means greater responsibility and transparency which can also imply the inverse, that fast producers aren’t as responsible or transparent. I don’t know if fast producers are or aren’t better corporate citizens but I do know that plenty of slow producers aren’t responsible so how do we differentiate between the two types of slow (process) producers? It’s the whole definition; in saying fast or slow fashion, are we talking about product or process? When I say slow or fast, I’m talking about the speed of the process to market, not the intangible albeit important attributes of the product which may have nothing to do with speed.

Emily: I found my head nodding in agreement with everything except the slow clothes/food bit. The slow food movement is not about applauding things taking longer to get the table, it’s actually two-fold:

  1. It’s about appreciating craft and technique and quality over speed (microwave cooking) and quantity (64 oz soda with that?).
  2. It’s about knowing what the heck is in your food.

An ear of corn going from field to table is fine. But an ear of industrial corn that goes to a lab and gets its sugars removed and processed into various compounds only to be added to other compounds into food-like substances is not.

I understand about food quality but in a manner of speaking, food processing is slow and contradicts the point of what people have come to define as slow food except when it comes to that last leg -namely opening a box of processed mac and cheese and serving it quickly. It’s a problem of ambiguous definitions. Likewise, you can cook and serve good whole fresh foods quickly which is also a contradiction to the slow foods movement.

Emily cont: Anyway, I don’t know how the slow fashion movement ties in except in the appreciation of quality and craft over quantity of cheap cr*p area. But I agree that the fast fashion movement is a smarter business model and potentially less wasteful as well. I think it’s just that retail hasn’t caught up with it yet.

Again, there’s some value judgments -about value because we haven’t settled on a definition. I totally agree with the appreciation for craft, quality and technique. We can go several ways with this. One extreme is the level of craftsmanship in couture products but this analogy isn’t useful because few can afford it or it doesn’t fit in our/their lifestyle or they may not appreciate the value of the item.

Second, the definition of value is unique to the circumstance of the consumer and for which the product is intended. For some people, a trendy top at the right price is all they want value. We can’t get people to want what we think they should want or what we want or think is valuable and expect them to pay for it. We want to be careful in making judgments (slow=good, fast=bad) about people’s values because it can be interpreted that we know better than they do. This also does not mean that I do not want or value a hand knitted sweater from an artisan who spun the wool into yarn from sheep she had tended and shorn herself. But I do know I can’t afford pieces like this for daily consumption.

Third, as in my example of good whole foods cooked and served quickly, I’m saying you can have quality, craftsmanship and technique in a rapidly produced product. These aren’t mutually exclusive. A garment that takes longer to make is not better because it takes longer (processed corn) anymore than a garment produced quickly necessarily implies it’s junk. If I’m going to muck out a barn, I’ll want to throw on an inexpensive pullover that was also likely produced “slowly” and savor the artisan made slow sweater for special occasions. We want to avoid value judgments we may attribute to the producer of the less expensive sweater because we also need those items.

Your comment “I think it’s just that retail hasn’t caught up with it yet.” invites another host of issues. Retailers buy what they think they can sell so it’s really more a matter of what their customers are interested in, namely price, quality level, and purpose amount to the value the customer defines. Now, if retailers always hit the mark, you wouldn’t have avenues such as artisans who sell independently -nor eBay where people are largely shopping on price. However, I firmly believe retail is delighted with what I define as fast fashion, items with value that are delivered quickly. They’re buying closer to season now. A small designer can actually get a bit more for their products if a retailer can pick it up at the last minute.

Brina: I wasn’t really trying to sell the CM article’s examples as the end-all-be-all of how folks should run their production if they want to be green/ethical etc. That said, if the CM and other pubs aren’t willing/able to write about the complexity… I know that you have written about being lean and green … but it might be nice if you could say how your thoughts on sustainability intersect with or not with Slow Fashion more specifically.

Richard: More about the messy “deep sustainability” for the clothing industry, if you don’t mind.

Here are some related entries I’ve written trying to sort out this mess:
Luxury vs Premium -or even free
Is fast fashion sustainable?
Zara and lean retail
Push-Pull manufacturing
Organic vs sustainability
Roundup: The birds and bees

Marie-Christine: I agree with Emily that you aren’t paying attention to the real concepts behind slow food or the awkwardly named slow fashion. Read up Kathleen, we know you can do that!

Actually, I’d like to hear what someone else has to say. If someone is interested in writing a careful treatment of the topic, I’d be happy to print it. Alternatively, I suppose people could continue to post their opinions on the matter and I could print a consolidation post.

Marie-Christine cont: Seriously, one problem with the concept of sustainable fashion is that everyone assumes it’s deadly dull. Armies of navy blue suits a la dress for success, tsunamis of khakis and polo shirts.. eeck.

I think this is less of a problem than it once was. Sustainable options have improved a lot, particularly in kid’s apparel. I don’t think the thought process is “why bother looking for sustainable twigs and berries apparel because I’m not going to like it” because at retail, most people are first attracted to style. Then, if it happens to be sustainable, it’s something they can feel good about purchasing. Searching on the web means one is not passive, they’re actively seeking those goods. Searching actively means they would likely have the expectation of finding twigs and berries -hopefully alongside style options and not be as dismayed with search results.

Again, if one of you would like to write a post to nail down some definitions, I’d love to know more.

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