As septuagenarian Tony winner Andre De Shields famously observed of show business, “Slowly is the fastest way to get to where you want to be.” The same can be said in my industry. Fast-fashion has exploded around the globe but its exploitative business model has taken the planet backwards. It will take years, maybe longer, to work through the damage done.
I felt a strong urge to help people and the environment before even knowing there was a thing called slow fashion, or discovering there was a way to dress with awareness and care. But when my son was born, I learned about the toxicity some materials have on the baby's skin. I did a lot of research and learned a lot about textiles, circularity and dyes. It became clear that someone should help consumers buy clothes without spending hours to make sure they’re buying a sustainable brand. Even now, with greenwashing, making a responsible choice of fashion is time consuming and frustrating.
Consumers should know that disposable fashion is only cheaper because someone else--an exploited worker or a victim of industrial pollution or both--is paying the price. These days we all need to ask ourselves a few questions:
- What was this made with? Organic, sustainable, recycled materials are fine. Nylon, polyester and blends are not.
- Where was it made? This can give you clues about wages and labor conditions. Typically, big brands use facilities in less developed countries to produce their garments and pay lower wages (many times illegally low).
- What is the label really telling me? Sustainability is all about transparency. Little to no information is the garments label is another clue.
Americans should know that if we contaminate a desert far away in Chile, sooner or later our kids and grandkids will get that contamination too in the US.
If taking time to answer these questions seems oppressive, please consider the consequences of fast-fashion and greenwashing. Labor rights and fair wages are uncommon in the garment industry, and the environmental impact of using non-renewable resources as well as non-recyclable resources is massive and maybe irreversible. What happens once the lifecycle of these “fast” products ends?
A photo went viral a few weeks ago showing the Atacama desert in Chile full of fast fashion clothing being thrown away. It was a clear and sad statement of how overproduction works: we make a lot in case we can sell it, and if we don’t we send it somewhere else to try to sell, burn or hide it. Please know that there is no circularity--i.e. no taking care of the effort it takes to complete that garment, and no concern given to the contamination of our lands and rivers.
Thankfully, in my native Latin America, social impact is a huge concern. Americans should know that if we contaminate a desert far away in Chile, sooner or later our kids and grandkids will get that contamination too in the US.
Of course, it would be most helpful to have a global law that would protect consumers and workers as well as the environment. If companies work globally, it only makes sense to have global regulations. There are private campaigns such as The Lowest Wage of Nisolo Shoes that are pushing fashion companies to reveal their lowest wage rather than the average. But we still have a long way to go and the only thing powerful enough to change companies are consumers.
Ironically, Westerners have long plied the idiom, “waste no, want not.” The more we care for what we have, including our clothes, the better. There has been so much produced that if properly distributed, we would all have everything we need. Sadly, that’s not the way the world works! Buying vintage and second hand, an emerging trend in Asia and the U.S., is a step in the right direction, though the materials of these clothes are still often toxic. A better solution is circularity.
Let’s take an organic cotton shirt, for example. We know it’s organic because they are not using pesticides and contaminants in the fields where it’s grown. Is it naturally dyed? If not, we know that it’s somewhat toxic, but let’s assume the shirt has been dyed with a plant-based mix. Is it bleached? If not, we’re good to go!
Going further, let’s say my shirt tears and is no longer usable as a garment. Because it’s sustainable I would find a use for that cloth--cleaning my windows, for example. Now comes the interesting part. Once my cloth is worn out, I can cut it in smaller pieces and throw it into my compost with the worms. That’s circularity.
The same can be done with packaging. Reusing packaging is great but it’s also hard. Not every recycling facility recycles every plastic, for example. But we can create circularity here also, by using soy-based dyes, non-toxic tape and compostable styrofoam substitutes.
Conscious consumers are moving away from fast-fashion brands, though mainly because they refuse to make the changes that need to be made. Their business models are too price-sensitive to absorb the added costs of circularity. Now, fast-fashion designers are taking matters into their own hands by creating their own small brands. They’ve found it too hard to keep up with the industry’s non-stop rhythm and high-pressure. They appreciate that slow fashion is more about seasons, long lasting designs and, of course, quality.
All of us can make an effort to bring awareness to our lives. And as consumers, we have the power to support sustainable brands and designers, even if it means buying one responsibly-made garment instead of five fast-fashion disposables. Slow is not only the fastest way to save the planet; it’s the only way.
Denise Reddy is the founder of Harebell Sustainable Shop, which can be found at www.HarebellShop.com. Harebell is a “Certified B” Corporation, meaning it has embraced the highest standards of social and environmental accountability and care.