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Fast Fashion Is Unsustainable. What Could a “Slow” Fashion Industry Look Like?

The fast fashion industry has created a culture of consumption that depends on the exploitation of people and the Earth.

A worker makes clothes at a garment factory that supplies Shein, a cross-border fast fashion e-commerce company in Guangzhou, in China's southern Guangdong province on July 18, 2022.

Three small designers have levied a lawsuit against Shein, alleging that the fast fashion brand uses an algorithm to identify trends, then sells exact copies of designs. They also claim that Shein has a purposefully complex organizational structure to avoid legal accountability.

This is not the first time Shein has been sued by designers for allegedly stealing designs, and the controversy with the brand doesn’t stop there. Shein also exploits textile factory workers with unsafe working conditions and pitifully low wages. The business has also come under rightful criticism for its production practices which are environmentally detrimental. The fashion industry creates 92 million tons of textiles that end up in landfills every year, and fashion produces 10 percent of global emissions — “more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined,” according to one report.

Consumers point to the fact that these affordable prices give them access to a wide variety of fashions. Some plus-size consumers also argue that the selection for them in traditional fashion lines is limited, and fast fashion provides a useful and affordable alternative. They accuse sustainable fashion companies of being elitists with very few plus-size options. These are valid claims as we witness the soaring cost of living with recent increases in inflation. But do the needs of some of these consumers outweigh the reality of the detrimental effects of fast fashion?

To bridge this gap, we need to first acknowledge that the responsibility for Shein’s labor exploitation and environmental harm is not on the individual consumer. The fashion industry has created a culture obsessed with trends and impulse buying for its own profits. This then produces demand as it becomes a social norm to buy something new after a bad day, indulge in a shopping spree, or buy a new outfit for every event. Like many industries under capitalism, fashion has created a business model that thrives off the exploitation of people and the Earth. It has also fed into the economic conditions that marginalize working-class people and people of diverse bodies. Consumers are important in shifting the demand, but the fashion industry must create viable alternatives.

In challenging this model of fast fashion, there must be an overhaul of the whole industry. From a systemic and cultural level, our relationship with clothing must change to deliver the transitions we need toward a more sustainable economy.

As the third most-polluting industry, the fashion industry must pursue rapid degrowth for us to reach our climate goals and not surpass certain ecological tipping points. Degrowth contrasts with current capitalist beliefs of the need for infinite and endless growth as a marker of successful economies. Instead, degrowth acknowledges that we live on a planet with finite resources, and high-income countries need to scale down unnecessary production. The goal of degrowth is to expand ecological well-being for people and the planet. It also differs from many mainstream “green economy” models that insist economic growth can continue as we transition into a sustainable economy. Degrowth becomes more and more necessary as we hurtle toward climate disaster because the cost of climate action has risen with governmental procrastination.

What could degrowth in the fashion industry look like?

I imagine a shift away from large fashion brands and their exploitative clothing factories to more local markets, perhaps with made-to-order options. The seamstress, tailor and dressmaker could make a comeback as important parts of local clothing economies.

Our relationship with clothes would change from seeing them as short-lived trends to long-term investments. The contemporary activity of purchasing clothes in a mall, selecting a piece made from a faraway place with endless copies at your fingertips, would be less common. Instead, acquiring clothing would take more time, and the labor that it takes to produce the piece would be visible when it’s done by small businesses or local hands. Yes, it would be more expensive than Shein, but a slower and personalized process would allow consumers to value their clothing differently. In this economic model, labor is respected and clothing makers receive a wage that can meet all their needs. Clothing styles would also be much more diverse, as they reflect regional resources and unique cultural and personal details, instead of a homogenous mass-produced style. This may seem like a pipe dream, but this pace of clothing manufacturing was the norm prior to the advent of mass production in the 1860s.

As we face a devastating climate crisis, it is time to rediscover this process and update it for the modern day. Some small fashion brands have embraced this model. Shelly Xu Designs is a fashion technology company committed to zero-waste production. The company eliminates inventory waste by producing clothing based on selected designs only once the items are ordered. Other designers are also coming out with made-to-order clothing, with about a one- to two-month wait time.

In contrast with current fast fashion, in slow fashion, we would know the time, labor and resources that go into making a garment. Garment care through sewing, upcycling and trading clothes would be emphasized in a degrowth fashion system. The end-of-life cycle for clothing would look very different, as clothing that can’t be worn is used to create other things.

I’m grateful that I don’t have to wait to put these things into practice. I’ve learned skills like sewing just so I can begin to implement these practices. But I am far from perfect, and many pieces in my closet are from fast fashion brands that I could afford in college. Yet the environment doesn’t need me to be perfect, it needs me to work towards doing better. With this in mind, the answer isn’t to throw away every Shein or Zara piece I have to restock my closet with chic, “sustainable” brands. Buying clothes from sustainable brands at the same rate of current consumption will not save the planet. Instead, it’s important to care for the clothes I have now as best as I can and slow down my consumption habits. As I do this, I’m transitioning to investing in quality, lifelong pieces when I need them.

As Shein faces backlash for its business model, I hope we can imagine a world beyond fast, unsustainable and exploitative fashion. Our clothes have the potential of carrying our culture, history and personal identity if we let them. As climate change threatens our current system of fashion, let’s imagine a new one that respects the Earth and its people. We don’t have to wait to try; we can begin today with a needle and thread and take time to appreciate the clothing we have.

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