The summer of 2005 was a turning point in my life. During a trip to Vietnam I saw something beautiful that was missing from my experience of Canadian urban and suburban culture.
Each morning, before 5 a.m. farmers from surrounding regions brought fresh produce to the city center of Ha Noi to be sold at markets. Each day locals went to the market to select goods for their day’s meals. The market was filled with herbs, flowers, vegetables, fruits, eggs, meats, and fish I had never seen before. And the people used everything well.
Market vendor in neighbouring Thailand
It was after returning to Nova Scotia from Vietnam that I experienced a fresh hunger to know what types of produce and traditional recipes were unique to Nova Scotia. I wanted to know who grew and prepared the food I was consuming, and to feel as connected to the place I lived as the people in Vietnam appeared to be.
My trip to Vietnam and many subsequent trips to the farmer’s market have taught me that getting the most out of my dollar does not necessarily mean getting more items faster. Sometimes it means getting more quality. Bess Nielson once said, "true luxury is that which gives as much to one’s spirit as it does to one’s material needs" (Selvedge 79). Buying food from Superstore does something to fill my material needs. But buying goods from the farmer’s market allows me the opportunity to support local businesses, enjoy the creativity of local, independent artisans and meet them face-to-face. This meets my material needs as well as my spiritual needs for community, connection and contribution.
Recently the Slow Food movement has gained recognition and influence across the globe. In the mid-1980s Slow Food was born in opposition to the proliferation of "identical, repeated, predictable" fast food (Sterling 112). Alice Waters, in her foreword to Carlo Petrini’s book Slow Food: The Case for Taste, poignantly summarizes the key principles held up by the movement, and the impact they can have on one’s thinking and everyday experience:
The principles described here—preservation of cultural diversity, wise use of natural resources, allowing time for creation and enjoyment, connecting product with raw material and producer, and working in community—have deep relevance to patterns of production and consumption of all objects, including clothing.
In this essay I compare "fast fashion" to fast food, and examine how conventional fast fashion practices today have led us to a critical point of decision. The damaging effects of wasteful consumption on Earth, and the uniformity that globalizes fast fashion produces leave us yearning for an approach to fashion that has more integrity, endurance, and meaning. In the same way that Slow Food arose to build sustainable alternatives to careless, frenzied eating habits, the Slow Fashion movement provides viable alternatives to cheap, speedy, image-based fashion. It calls us to give care, attention and intention to our fashion purchases. It calls us to be creative and work within limited resources, leaving behind the attitude that more and bigger are always better.
The Problem of Fast Fashion
When you think "fast fashion" you can think disposable, short-lived and cheap; seasonal change, image glorification, and mass marketing; mass production, quantity, standardization, and identical product; mediocre quality, lack of meaning and value; and international acceptance and global homogenization. These are the qualities that characterize fast fashion, and for many North Americans it is the only type of fashion they know.
As a result, much of the Western world has an increasingly insatiable lust and ability to buy more clothing than ever before. According to Sandy Black’s investigation into this issue, "Relative to income, clothes are now far cheaper than they were a few decades ago. Clothing sales have increased by 60 percent in the last ten years. We now consume one third more clothing than even four years ago…and discard it after wearing just a few times or indeed, even once" (Black 14).
In the same way problematic fast-food values are manifested in the North American obesity pandemic, the consequences of fast fashion gluttony are becoming increasingly evident. For example, in the UK, 30 kilograms of textile and clothing waste per person is dumped in the landfill each year! (Collet 18). There are also the problems of sickness and death resulting from the use of pesticides on conventional cotton crops, water pollution and damaged ecosystems from textile manufacture waste, and a great deal of energy and water used to make and care for an overabundance of clothing (Scatturo 469-88).
Farmers in Thailand grow organic cotton
along the banks of the Mekong River
along the banks of the Mekong River
In addition to the burden on the planet and the resulting illnesses for those in polluted areas, fast fashion takes a toll on the factory workers who must meet high demands for output. We have all heard sad stories of workers being extremely underpaid and overworked to meet the demands of massive global retailers. Thanks to trade liberalization, this pressure is now not only felt by overseas workers but also by Canadian manufacturers, as they struggle to compete in the global manufacture market (Industry Canada 5). The Earth and its people are groaning under this weight of injustice and greed.
An Opportunity to Celebrate
Situations like this inevitably dampen our spirits. However, there are two kinds of sorrow: one that leads to death, and one that leads to repentance. The first type despairs, seeing no future, no hope and no opportunity for change. The second type acknowledges what is wrong and turns around to walk in the other direction, celebrating the opportunity to change, and looking beyond the situation towards the potential.
Slow Fashion is like the brave soul who leaves the masses on their wide, smooth dead-end highway to march steadily along a narrow, difficult path to a bright future. In Grace Cochrane’s article "Australia and New Zealand: Design and the Handmade" she states that businesses working on a smaller scale have the option of "offer[ing] something that is of higher value and produced in smaller runs that reach a particular discerning market both at home and elsewhere". She goes on to say that while the "game is hard", it is also "often rewarding and distinctive" (Alfoldy 64). Many advocates of Slow Fashion are small enterprises and, though their position is tough in light of powerful and vast retailers, I am convinced that they have an essential and influential role to play. The success of the Slow Food movement gives us hope, and at this point I would like to parallel the two movements by adapting the principles quoted earlier:
Slow Fashion responds to the problems of fast fashion by offering an alternative approach to design, production and consumption. When you think Slow Fashion, you can think value, quality, and craftsmanship; creativity within limitations, versatility, and personalization; staying power, heirloom quality, and extended life span; transparent production systems, regional and traditional craft skills, and collaboration.
Alfoldy, Sandra, ed. NeoCraft: Modernity and the Crafts. Halifax: The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 2007.
Black, Sandy. Eco-Chic: The Fashion Paradox. London, UK: Black Dog Publishing, 2008.
Clark, Hazel. "Slow + Fashion—an Oxymoron—or a Promise for the Future…?" Fashion Theory. Vol. 12, No. 4, pp. 427-446. December 2008.
Collet, Carole. "The Next Textile Revolution". Responsive Textile Environments. Ed. Sarah Bonnemaison and Christine Macy. Halifax: TUNS Press, 2007.
Industry Canada. A Canadian Approach to the Apparel Global Value Chain. Prepared by Milstein & Co Consulting Inc. March 2008.
Petrini, Carlo. Slow Food: The Case for Taste. Trans. William McCuaig. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.
Scaturro, Sarah. "Eco-Tech Fashion: Rationalizing Technology in Sustainable Fashion". Fashion Theory. Vol. 12, No. 4, pp. 469-88. December 2008.
Sterling, Bruce. "Revenge of the Slow". Metropolis. Vol. 27, No. 8, pp. 112-116. March 2008.