slow fashion by Charty Durrant

writer and lecturer at the London College of Fashion

below image - cosi alpaca blanket - one year to grow

As we move further into the 21st century it is clear that the entire planet is out of balance, and nowhere is this demonstrated more comprehensively than in the fashion industry. Whilst some issues are beginning to be addressed, social injustices such as sweatshops and child labour remain unresolved. But what we are only now beginning to register is the acute and profound social, spiritual and psychic damage we humans are suffering from after half a century of unrestrained greed, a daily diet of advertising, and rampant over-consumption.

Fast fashion is a relatively new phenomenon: it was not until the 1990s that we saw the rise of Primark, Zara and their ilk, with women’s magazines urging weekly wardrobe revisions, supported by just-in-time production and overnight global distribution. Fast fashion found its feet, and the industry congratulated itself on ‘democratising fashion, making it affordable for all.

Mass production and sweatshops have existed since long before the 1960s, but the new demands of ever-increasing output and more sophisticated design have pushed garment-makers into a new pressure zone. That the makers of these clothes are highly skilled, producing complex cutting and highly accomplished hand finishing – the quality of which has never been seen on the high street before – often goes unnoticed. What had previously taken at least a day to make is now expected to be made, perfectly, in an hour.

As sales rose, fast-fashion brands and factory owners colluded to push garment workers harder and harder. More and more workers were hired, whilst working conditions and wages deteriorated, simple human rights such as rest times, toilet breaks and food were, and continue to be, restricted, and child labour became an effective tool in quenching consumers’ desire for more and more stuff. As the money rolled in, nobody liked to question the ethics of such practice.

Modern fashion is made from many seemingly incompatible ingredients, but the cornerstones are built-in obsolescence, fear of humiliation, and sexual attraction. Warmth, comfort and personal style have for the most part taken a back seat. As the ‘trend frenzy’ deepens, we can see that fashion is no longer about style and self-expression: it is primarily about judgement – self-judgement and judgement of others. A toxic media reporting how women ought to look, and celebrity obsession further enforce this strange new paradigm.

The true ecological and economic impact of fashion is inescapable. Much of the pesticide-ridden cotton now produced by the United States is exported to China and other countries with low labour costs, where it is milled and woven into fabrics, cut and assembled according to fashion industry specifications, then flown around the world. China has emerged as the largest single exporter of fast fashion, accounting for 30% of all world apparel exports.

What is clear is that our obsession with fashion is now quite literally costing us the Earth. The water-hungry processes in the manufacture and dyeing of clothing have a devastating impact. China has now reached its ‘water wall’ and is facing critical water shortages, having destroyed 80% of its rivers with toxic chemicals and dyes and squandered its own water resources to make cheap clothing for export to the West.

Because of the insidious pressure of trends and built-in obsolescence, the average garment only has a three-month shelf life. Over 2 million tonnes of clothing are purchased in the UK every year. Most shocking of all is that we throw away over a million tonnes of textiles every year, most of it ending up in landfill. Landfilled textiles, garment dyes and bleaches cause toxic chemical seepage into ground and watercourses, and the build-up of methane gas as materials decompose causes further health hazards.

To buy organic is not enough. Thankfully many enlightened designers are seeing new opportunities in design and manufacture, working with less thirsty, more sustainable crops such as hemp and bamboo, so we are beginning to see a new wave of fashion design that is beautiful, practical and sustainable.

At last the possibility of fairness for all, good design and the old-fashioned notion of ‘built to last’ are re-emerging as solutions. Many organisations are addressing the problems directly by working alongside women’s co-operatives in India and Africa that support local families and ancient crafts while producing reasonably priced, well-made products.

Slow fashion is now emerging as a new paradigm as fashion labels address these complex issues by producing beautiful hand-crafted clothing with a cradle to cradle life span. When it comes to fashion, less really is more.

Abridged from Charty Durrant's article The Tyranny of Trends, in Resurgence magazine, www.resurgence.org

"To buy organic is not enough. Thankfully many enlightened designers are seeing new opportunities in design and manufacture, working with less thirsty, more sustainable crops such as hemp and bamboo, so we are beginning to see a new wave of fashion design that is beautiful, practical and sustainable"