Slow Fashion



It doesn’t always have to be fast and cheap! A new trend in the fashion industry is promoting sustainable and long-lasting products. It’s hitting a nerve with many consumers and begs the question: Is the way we buy clothing changing?
Text Tino Scholz 

Fashion represents the allure of the new, of change, of clothes that match the Zeitgeist. It is thus inevitably subject to regular cycles—clothing retailers and department stores traditionally clear their stock every six months for new seasonal merchandise. More recently however, driven in part by the increase in online fashion retailers, these cycles have shortened—with the result that fashions are becoming more and more quickly outdated. In the wake of this dynamic development of what is known as the fast fashion industry, there is a newer trend developing, however, focusing instead on a radical deceleration: slow fashion.

“There are many terms that describe sustainable fashion at the moment,” says Ellen Köhrer, author of the book Fashion Made Fair and the blog “Grün ist das neue Schwarz” (green is the new black). “These include slow fashion, fair fashion and even eco fashion. The dividing lines between them are vague, but what unites them is the same intention: producing fashion in a more sustainable fashion.” This movement relies on production under fair working conditions, environmentally friendly processes and the efficient use of resources. Furthermore they also want transparency in production processes. “It’s the countermovement to fast fashion,” Köhrer explains. “In the past years, it’s become a matter of course to buy clothing whenever you want, regardless of whether you need it or not. It’s cheap, so the cost is of no consequence.” But this begs the question: Does this slow fashion response potentially represent a sea change for fashion consumption? True to the motto: less is more?

“Let me be clear, slow fashion is a niche market and it will probably remain so,” Köhrer explains. But it’s also a very booming niche. Slow fashion is currently gaining popularity at a time in which consumer behavior is changing in parts of society. Consumer researchers have found this change in broad swaths of Generation X, today in their mid-thirties and mid-forties, and also parts of the subsequent Generation Y. And for people without financial concerns who are also interested in sustainability, resource-conserving shopping is becoming an increasingly important part of their lives. And this doesn’t just hold true for food, whereby the Slow Food movement has been around since the mid-1980s and can certainly be considered the spiritual antecedent of the slow fashion trend.

Illustration: Patrik Svensson


The staccato-like production of constantly changing fast fashion conflicts with this sustainable mindset and promotes the desire for more environmental consciousness: on average the production of just one t-shirt requires 2,400 liters of water, while it’s 7,000 for a pair of jeans. A study by McKinsey shows that the fast fashion industry rolls out up to 24 collections onto the market every year, placing increasing stress on resources. The documentary film The True Cost, for instance, claims that as a result of this, Americans buy 400 percent more clothing than they did 20 years ago—meaning that more is also thrown away. The devastating collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh in April 2013 also increased awareness for the topics of sustainable fashion and transparency, says Köhrer: “That was a turning point. Since that time the media and consumers are taking a closer look.”

Trendsetters in the slow fashion scene are hip, urban labels including The Reformation, Outdoor Voices and Alternative Apparel—brands that have achieved nationwide recognition in the United States and are thus the exception to the rule. It remains the case that slow fashion labels are only entrenched in their local and/or regional markets, especially in Europe. And that’s exactly where the movement is reaching its limits; there are lively scenes that have sprung up in numerous urban hotspots such as Berlin, Copenhagen and London, but their mass appeal often ends at the city or country borders. In contrast, global fashion giants benefit particularly from the scale of their worldwide business, which keeps the fast fashion market thriving.

Because of these differences, there probably won’t be any crowding-out process between faster and slower fashion—more of a parallel existence. But with the establishment of more sustainable fashion, consumers at least get another alternative—and thus have more freedom of choice. As Köhrer says, “This is where there the parallels to Slow Food pop up again. Slow fashion is like the organic grocery store around the corner. A bit higher priced and more individual—and thus an alternative for those who value sustainability. Fast fashion in turn satisfies the desire of the younger target audience: to be able to buy fashion from the catwalk a few weeks later in shops at affordable prices.”

Fast fashion goes slow

What this means for the future remains to be seen in this dynamic market. However there are initial indications that fast fashion giants are trying to hop on the slow fashion bandwagon. The designers for H&M for instance have been bringing out the “Conscious Exclusive Collection” onto markets every twelve months since 2011, which has included Jacquard fabrics made from recycled plastic bottles, bead embroidery using recycled glass and elegant dresses manufactured with organic hemp. Furthermore the company has announced a goal of sourcing all of the cotton used in their clothing from sustainable suppliers by the year 2020.

Yet the fashion giants probably won’t be giving up their focus on cheap and quickly manufactured goods any time soon. A recently published study titled “Fashion 2025” by auditing firm KPMG has once again shown that price remains the all-deciding factor. Of those queried, 46 percent said that the key stimulus for a purchase was a cheap price. To the question of whether sustainability would become more important as a part of fashion consumption by 2025, 42 percent said it would increase considerably. In contrast, 45 percent believe that is would only happen very slowly.

“Show fashion already has slow in its name,” Köhrer says. “It can definitely take a little bit longer if people and the environment benefit from it.”