Not So Fast: The Differences Between Sustainable and Slow Fashion

Not So Fast: The Differences Between Sustainable and Slow Fashion

Ethical, sustainable and slow fashion are often used interchangeably but are they the same thing? We unpack these terms and explore our made-to-order brands.

Unsurprisingly, ethical and environmental concerns have been at the forefront of recent, global discussions regarding the fashion industry. Our modern world offers us an abundance of choices and heavily prioritizes convenience. Both these factors have been immensely valued for the past couple of decades but more and more people are starting to realize that the true cost of fast fashion goes far beyond the 5 bucks it costs to buy a new shirt. The conversation around sustainability is still reasonably new and many of the terms related to it are fluid or still developing. As a result sustainable fashion has become an umbrella term for a plethora of different movements and initiatives. But do ethical, sustainable and slow fashion all mean the same thing?


AK the Brand models wearing slow fashion

Faster But Not Better

Sustainable and slow fashion movements can be thought of as the antithesis to fast fashion, which almost from its inception took an unprecedented toll on the environment and the people who manufactured it. A turning point for how clothes were produced came when Zara landed in New York at the beginning of the 1990’s. Fast fashion became a term used to describe their highly profitable business model, which is based largely on replicating catwalk trends and high-end designs, then mass-producing them at low cost, and selling them for an easily affordable price.

Zara’s success has largely been driven by its ability to keep up with rapidly changing fashion trends and showcase it in its collections with almost no delay. Today the brand presents over twenty collections per year, which sounds like a lot but pales in comparison to the amount of items, which are produced by viral Instagram brands. A report by Coresight Research found that Missguided releases about 1,000 new products monthly, while Fashion Nova’s CEO has admitted that it launches a staggering 600 to 900 new styles every week. Meanwhile, the astounding rate at which new collections and designs are being released only feeds into shoppers’ desire to buy and own more.

Zara shop window ethical fashion brand

Sustainability to the Rescue

Sustainable ways of making clothes existed long before the rise of fast fashion but the popularity of sustainable fashion grew exponentially as a response to the expanding dark side of the fashion industry, which had trouble hiding from the public eye after the tragedy at Rana Plaza in 2013. Both ethical and slow fashion can be treated as sub-sectors of sustainable fashion. Ethical fashion is most often concerned with human rights. Since speedy supply chains often rely on underpaid labor from factory workers overseas, ethical fashion brands monitor working conditions, fair wages and forbid child labor. Oftentimes they extend their reach to the rights of animals and work with vegan garments. Many ethical fashion brands obtain certifications from organizations like Fairtrade International or the Fair Wear Foundation.

While a lot of sustainable brands are oftentimes also attentive to these issues, sustainable fashion tends to focus more prominently on environmental impacts related to the industry. The term helps identify labels that use biodegradable or organically grown materials  and minimize toxic chemicals, pesticides, and other harmful substances in their dyes and other parts of the production process. Recycling and repurposing, as well as reducing energy or water usage and waste are emphasized.

But where exactly does slow fashion fit in all of this? Linguistically speaking, slow is the opposite of fast, but when it comes to the fashion industry, we’re not talking about dualism or speed. It’s more about quality over quantity. The term slow fashion was coined by fashion and sustainability activist, Kate Fletcher, in 2007. It refers to garments that can last years or even a whole lifetime. The movement is sustainable in that it doesn’t view products as disposable and ethical in that it also evaluates the connections between raw materials and human labor. Slow fashion focuses on returning to a deeply personal relationship with clothes, where seasons and trends don’t matter, making it easier to escape the loop of constant consumption, and concentrate on finding a personal style that is ethical and aesthetically appealing.

Marrakshi slow fashion clothes

Speed Isn’t Everything

Though there are many ethical fashion brands, which employ different paths towards executing slow fashion, made-to-order clothes are probably the ultimate approach. Made-to-order is about tailoring individual garment to the customer's size and body type, as well as enabling brands and retailers to only make exactly what they know they need. That kind of precision should be especially attractive to both companies and customers which aim to decrease their overall waste.

Many of the sustainable and ethical fashion brands we work with at SlowCo embrace this slow fashion approach, such as AK Threads or Marrakshi Life. AK Threads uses selected industry standard sizing and adapts elements such as shoulder, waist or hip seams required for personal comfort. All of their pieces are available in additional sizes on request, with free alterations, and customisable lengths. Taking key style elements from the traditional Moroccan wardrobe, Marrakshi Life creates contemporary design pieces using the skill of traditional Moroccan weaving practices and ancient techniques to create clothing that is authentic, and complete with a fashion-forward urban twist. All their items are handsewn in their Marrakech atelier only when they are ordered.

In the end, fast fashion is about overproduction and overconsumption whereby consumers and corporations both play a role. British people alone will spend up to 2.7 billion pounds on clothes during the summer that will only be worn once. In the US that number is even higher. While there is a more or less stable understanding of what sustainable, ethical and slow fashion mean, their definitions are still relatively new and flexible. Popularizing these terms is necessary to progress away from using them interchangeably or incorrectly. Simply speaking, ethical fashion concerns human rights, sustainable fashion concerns the environment and slow fashion concerns the philosophy behind the piece of clothing itself.

‘Fast’ has become synonymous with a type of fashion that epitomizes ideas of unsustainability, but high speed is not in itself a defining descriptor of unethical or environmentally damaging practices. Speed is merely one of the tools used to increase sales and deliver economic growth. Unfortunately, on a mass scale, it does make space for the prioritization of ecological and social concerns.

That doesn’t mean, however, that sustainable fashion needs to be marked by extremely slow production. Oftentimes even made-to-order pieces are put together in a matter of days because the right craftsmen can be trusted to do things both, quickly and effectively. After all the speed, which really matters, is how long it takes between the creation, the purchase and the discarding of the item. When it comes to sustainable fashion, the idea is to prolong the life and usage of the garment as long as possible.