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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  1. Barb Taylorr says:

    This has been an especially enjoyable thread, as can always be seen by the wide range of comments branching off from it. Thank you for stimulating so many ideas! Here’s my reaction to two that have really hit a cord for me this week:

    1. Thanks so much for saying the bit about how you feel a garment should spend more time in one’s closet than it does being produced and delivered to the wearer (paraphrased). What an excellent way to sum up, not only what we should strive for as an industry, but also as consumers. I am often guilty of wanting the latest styles, and struggle to maintain environmentally & economically responsible choices when I shop. This simple comment really crystalizes what value in apparel means to me. Maybe it will help to guide others.

    2. When you touched on “(slow=good, fast=bad)” not being black and white, it made me want to comment a bit about overseas factories vs US. (I expect no one will want to hear this). While it is easier to see how a factory in your own town is treating its workers, you should not just assume all overseas factories are “bad”. Some of the Asian and South American factories are the best jobs available in their countries. Some have better machinery and better trained workers than can readily be found in the US, which (in addition to substantially lower wages) is one of the reasons things can cost less to produce there. And while $2/hr may sound abusive to the American worker, that can be a fantastic job in another part of the world. Some of these companies do treat their people great, do not employ children, & employees will travel 100s of miles or relocate for those positions because they are the best opportunities available to them. They are devastated when those plants close, the same as happens here.

    That said, I still think it is better to produce closer to where the product will ultimately be sold. I also sincerely hope the US apparel industry will revive, & I have huge respct for people like you who are working to acheive that. I just wish American bussiness owners and shoppers would foster a less stereotypical view of their competitors on the other side of the world.

  2. Lainie says:

    A very interesting post. The concept of slow fashion is evolving; I’ve written about it a lot on my blog, along with its corollary for textile artists, slow cloth. I think the core of the slow food movement is a different, more intimate relationship with food and how it’s grown, produced, shared, and enjoyed (rather than just consumed). In a similar vein, slow fashion requires a different relationship to textiles, cloth, and clothing than we’ve become accustomed to, at least in the United States. And it does start by paying attention to where textiles come from and how they’re produced. Unfortunately, “sustainable” is a catch-all term that doesn’t have much meaning, but in textiles, it begins with responsible production (on the farm), sourcing, dyeing and processing, waste treatment, labor practices, packaging and transporting, and perhaps most often ignored, design.

  3. Oriole says:

    Hi Barb,

    I totally agree with you. I have worked in India, and the quality was wonderful. The people I worked with loved working at the company, and the company went out of their way to take care of the workers. They provided bus service to an from the job, had on site living quarters for those who needed it, provided extra health care ( it is free in India, but you have to pay for the med’s and food yourself). They had a clean plant with light filled open rooms. The machinery wasn’t as up to date as here but they did more traditional sewing because of that, producing a better product. French seams instead of serged. Not having so many different machines meant that the same person usually made the whole garment and was not just putting together pieces. Quality was very good. There was pride in workmanship. Not to say that we never had problems but they were easier to track down and fix.

    The company I was working for at the time also had plants all over the state, of those most closed down because of the older work force. It was hard to find people who could still sew. Most of our line sewers didn’t know how to put a garment together.

    I think it is sad that so many of the plants have shut down here, as have the mills and supporting resources. Even if we start producing here it will take a while to get up to speed. There just don’t seem to be that many people who could staff a plant. Most of the people at two different companies I worked for have retired when the companies were closed, the others have gone on to different jobs and most say they wouldn’t come back into the industry because it is just to risky. We have really lost a lot of talent.

    5 out of the 5 companies I have worked for went bankrupt and it didn’t matter the size. In fact most were huge and I thought that I would be there for years. In stead I have had to move every 8 to 10 years to stay employed.

    Now that I teach, I find that young people just don’t have a clue that they have had the luxury of cheap clothes for the last 20 years. They think paying $4 a yard for fabric is way to expensive. I get finial projects made in quilting fabric all the time. It is sad to think that most people don’t understand that clothing has been so inexpensive. I am old enough to remember that clothing was expensive, and that I didn’t have a huge wardrobe when I was in school. It was a big deal to go shopping for school clothes then. It was your whole wardrobe until Christmas. Now you can buy a new outfit for every occasion. It is no wonder why we need walk in closets as big as bedrooms now. That use to be only for the wealthy.

    I think it will be another 20 years before we see a real effort to bring back our industry. The living standards will have to rise in the countries producing for us now and the cost of clothing will have to go up to make it feasible for us to really bring this industry back.
    Sorry for the rant.

  4. Kathleen says:

    Re: ways to measure value and sustainability. Here’s an interesting link I found on Danielle’s site; from the Cost per Wear Project:

    The Cost Per Wear Project is a chronicle of closets and costs. To gain more visibility into financial and emotional ramifications of my wardrobe I will maintaining a spreedsheet of each garment I own and how many times I have worn it. The spreadsheet is populated with perceived and estimated averages for each garment. Those numbers will be updated as the project progresses.

    This blog will be updated with daily outfits, their cost (both retail and what I paid) and the cost per wear. Interspersed will be the stories of individual garments. It will also explore other people’s closets, their purchases, and the stories behind the extremes of their own cost per wear analyses.

    Our wardrobes are at once utilitarian and and expressive, mining the space between these two ideals is this blog’s goal.

    Barb wrote:

    2. When you touched on “(slow=good, fast=bad)” not being black and white, it made me want to comment a bit about overseas factories vs US…While it is easier to see how a factory in your own town is treating its workers,

    I think many minimize the degree to which large firms attempt to source ethically. It is also true that people are more inclined to believe a small local contract shop is more ethical and it often is not. It’s easier to hide if you’re small. If you’re big, you make a good target and are easier to hit -like the broadside of a barn.

    Then Oriole wrote:

    It is sad to think that most people don’t understand that clothing has been so inexpensive. I am old enough to remember that clothing was expensive, and that I didn’t have a huge wardrobe when I was in school. It was a big deal to go shopping for school clothes then. It was your whole wardrobe until Christmas. Now you can buy a new outfit for every occasion. It is no wonder why we need walk in closets as big as bedrooms now. That use to be only for the wealthy.

    I didn’t think this was a rant at all, just solid observations of the effect of our changing consumption habits, coupled with our expectations of value and what value has evolved to mean to us individually and collectively. The next 20 years will certainly be interesting…the interest in fashion seems to be growing at a time when innovation (imo) appears to be waning. It’s an interesting dichotomy.

  5. Lainie says:

    Thanks Kathleen — I’ve just not updated Making Good ( in so long (out of perhaps some of the same frustrations and concerns about the language that you touch on) that I didn’t think to link to it. Thanks for providing the link. I’ve also been frustrated that there are a few “celebrity” voices in the sustainable apparel world that seem to have a lock on the discussion in the media, so it’s been hard to get any traction. Maybe for 2010 I can re-invigorate it.

  6. Vesta says:

    In my struggles to run a “sustainable” sewn-product business, I have come to question so many of my own assumptions. At this point, I’m lost. And I’ve been thinking and working hard on this for five years now, riding the waves of mill closures, outsourcing adventures, economic changes. I feel like all I have now are more questions.

    As I mentioned in my comment to your previous slow fashion post, I just don’t think “slow vs fast fashion” is a construct that is helpful to me, in trying to suss out the factors that will lead to a “better” industry, whatever that means.

  7. Thomas Cunningham says:

    if you are producing in the US, the biggest cost of the garment is labor. “fast-fashion’ means cutting closer to demand, and reducing inventory, therefore reducing capital requirements and the risk of markdowns. to my mind that should be part and parcel of any ‘slow fashion’ movement and I think to the extent there is any real slow fashion in this country, it is. the model of bringing in huge quantities of low-cost goods sold with high initial mark-up and then savage price-cutting is destructive to everybody and most of all the environment as we destroy and deplete natural resources for useless consumer goods. whether there will be a legitimate slow fashion movement (rather than a marketing buzz) I don’t know since 1) the domestic supply chain hardly exists anymore and 2) the cost of producing real slow-fashion is high. Serious consumer uptake will require a shift in cultural priorities. i hope it happens. all these points have been made differently by other posters, but I wanted to throw in my 2 cents anyway.

  8. Jessica Parsons says:

    OK, I know this topic is old, and I shouldn’t even be commenting on something so long dead, but I got here from a link in the comments from a year-old post that was linked in a post that was published last week.

    I dislike the use of the term “slow” to mean sustainable because it is so easily misunderstood–it really has nothing at all to do with speed. The term “slow food” was created simply to run in opposition to “fast food.” Fast food is named for its speed, but that isn’t actually the characteristic that’s being opposed (except perhaps in discussions about how we actually eat the food). Perhaps a better name would be “cheap food,” or more accurately, “short-sighted” food: food which seems cheap in the short run, but bears hidden costs in the form of tax-funded subsidies, pollution requiring expensive cleanup, and environmental degradation reducing available resources thus increasing their future cost.

    These same concepts can easily be applied to fashion: regardless of how much time it takes to sew a pair of jeans or deliver an item to a client, “cheap” or “short-sighted” fashion relies on hidden costs not found on the pricetag. “Slow” fashion attempts to avoid these hidden costs, at a variety of production speeds. It’s a valuable effort, with a stupid name.

  9. Kathleen says:

    I’m glad you did comment so thanks for taking the time. I only regret it took me so long to publish your comment and respond.

    I agree with what you’re saying and you’re right, “slow” meaning sustainable is a lazy cognitive shortcut. I’m not discounting you at all but I’ve had to let some things go. For example, the use of the term “organic”. Organic means carbon based and has nothing to do with pesticides and all that. Some things I won’t stop arguing about (“sweatshop” to mean “sewing factory” for one).

    I agree that using the term “cheap” would be problematic but also (not to marginalize your points) “short sighted” could also be a landmine because it calls values into question. Not that I don’t think values shouldn’t be examined, only that I try to avoid judgements, mostly because I end up in useless debate. We do need a better way to describe these mechanisms.

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