Retailers take heed; slow fashion is on the rise

While most fashion retailers continue to dance to the drum of the changing seasons, a growing number of consumers are looking for a more sustainable and ethical approach to revamping their wardrobe. In a connected world, shoppers are increasingly aware of unfair labour practices in developing countries brought on by the demand for cheap and fast-produced clothing, opening the door to slow fashion.

What is slow fashion?

Slow fashion, a term coined by UK sustainable design consultant Kate Fletcher, wants shoppers to be educated about what goes into making a garment, starting with its design and fabric selection, all the way to its production and life cycle. Its proponents believe that this understanding will lead to better consuming practices.

Shopping for slow fashion means making a conscious effort to buy fewer, longer-lasting and better-quality garments that won’t end up in a landfill at the end of the season. According to WRAP’s Valuing our clothes report, a significant 350,000 tons of used clothing finds its way into UK landfills each year, a value estimated at £140 million. The slow fashion movement wants consumers to rethink their relationship with fashion favouring designers and retailers selling products made sustainably, ethically and of longer-lasting quality.

What does it mean for retailers and ecommerce?

According to a YouGov poll, 74% of UK shoppers would be ready to pay an extra 5% for clothing made by workers paid a fair wage and working in safe conditions. An end to the global economic high has also led consumers to look for clothes that will last, says the Ecologist. This has prompted some retailers and designers to develop or market clothing lines that are more sustainable, including slow fashion brands. UK online retailer ASOS, among others, has added an Eco Brands section to its ecommerce site offering a variety of sustainably made products. Others, such as Debenhams, have adopted more rigorous auditing standards to ensure ethical working conditions from its suppliers.

But slow fashion has an uphill battle if it hopes to replace fast fashion. Brands such as Zara, H&M, Uniglo, and Forever 21 generated total global sales of £31.5 billion in 2013, according to Triple Pundit. While sales of ethical clothing represented a much smaller £177 million they grew by 72% in 2010, indicating consumers’ growing interest in buying more sustainable fashion.

But the higher cost of slow fashion items and the anti-consumption ethos promoted by the movement can be obstacles when it comes to triggering purchase. While investment in slow fashion items may be a sound choice ethically, many consumers cannot see past the higher price tag or the easy and constantly changing availability of fast fashion options.

Some retailers’ solution to this problem is to denounce fast fashion as ‘unhealthy.’ In an advertisement in the Wall Street Journal, the American ecommerce retailer Zady declared: ‘Fast fashion is Fast Food… Process Matters. Quality Matters. Honesty Matters.’ Others, like Fletcher, speak of a necessary redistribution of the consumer’s money. ‘Of course quality costs more. We will buy fewer products, but higher in value. A fairer distribution of the ticket price through the supply chain is an intrinsic part of the agenda. Jobs are preserved as workers spend longer on each piece.’

Is ecommerce slow fashion designers’ best friend?

One guiding principle of slow fashion is to reduce the footprint of fashion production and consumption. This goal makes ecommerce an ideal partner in its development. It’s no surprise then that the greatest inroads made by slow fashion designers and retailers has been online. In a globally connected world, ecommerce and the blogosphere offer slow fashion designers the flexibility they need to market their often-unique products and be active participants in the promotion of their clothing, accessories and ethical principles. Zady’s use of the Internet to market itself is a great example of the possibilities of that medium for slow fashion.

While slow fashion is not threatening fast fashion’s stranglehold on the market yet, and probably won’t for years to come, it offers an alternative to an increasing number of consumers who want to get off the never ending carrousel of disposable fashion. Retailers need to take heed of this trend not only because it will benefit the planet but also for their future bottom line.

UK (e)retailers embracing slow fashion/sustainability