The Genteel
May 17, 2021


Ultimately, only paying customers can truly slow down the fashion cycle. Photograph by Erin Ridley.
slowing down fast fashion paper dress

Would you wear a paper dress to make
a statement about the dramatic
rise in fast fashion retailers?

Confession: I haven't purchased any new clothes in the last six months - an impressive accomplishment considering I live in one of the world's most notorious fast-fashion capitals: Madrid. Within just a few steps of my front door, I'm bombarded with multiple Zaras, a slew of H&Ms, and various sidewalks filled with trendy Spaniards sporting ensembles that are yet to make their debut on the runway

But alas, I find the idea of filling my miniature European closet with one more seasonally disposable item to be as anxiety inducing as sifting through a post-holiday sales rack. It's an unease brought on a few years ago after watching The Story of Stuff, a short film that looks at the dire consequences of society's out-of-control product lifecycle. Despite moving to Spain four years ago and being more fashion-obsessed than ever, I have become equally averse to thoughtless consumption. 

It turns out that I'm not alone in embracing the growing trend towards being more thoughtful when acquiring new clothing; a philosophy coined as "slow fashion." The approach puts great emphasis on elongating the purchase process, with investments being made in high-quality garments instead of cheaper items that will be thrown out along with last month's edition of Vogue

The motives behind this are driven by more than just an increasing lack of closet space across the globe, though. A "buy it today, replace it tomorrow" attitude affects all points in the supply chain. From consuming finite natural resources and contaminating the environment, to often supporting poor labour conditions and producing endless amounts of waste, such a high-speed cycle system simply isn't sustainable. 

From consuming finite natural resources and contaminating the environment, to often supporting poor labour conditions and producing endless amounts of waste, such a high-speed cycle system simply isn't sustainable.

This is the premise behind Elizabeth L. Cline's new book, Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. In it, she explores the obsession with low-cost clothing that, she claims, has led to "Americans … buying more than one garment per week on average now." And with the popularity of stores like Primark and TK Maxx in the UK, this phenomenon is unquestionably taking place across the pond as well. 

Indeed, consumers continue to feed the cycle's momentum, a tendency - according to The Story of Stuff creator Annie Leonard - that, in America at least, dates back to post-World War II. It was then that the government encouraged the country to produce more consumer goods in order to boost the economy. The goal for distribution, she explains, has become "to keep the prices down, keep the people buying and keep the inventory moving."

The strategy behind it depends on both planned and perceived obsolescence. The former is essentially just economic-speak for creating products that will break quickly and therefore must be replaced. However, the latter is accomplished, according to Leonard, by convincing "us to throw away stuff that is still perfectly useful," essentially by changing the way that stuff looks. Sound familiar? 

No one knows this better than Zara, the Spanish company that has set more than just clothing trends, by essentially inventing the modern-day model for fast fashion. Their approach involves the release of new styles in limited "get them now" quantities. This generates an almost FOMO (fear-of-missing-out) sensation among trend-conscious buyers. According to Lucy Siegle, author of To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing out the World, "Whereas a typical retailer could expect its customers to visit four times a year, Zara could bank on an average of 17 visits." 

zara slowing down fast fashion
A shopper carries a Zara bag in New Delhi, India.

With profits high and customers happy, companies like Zara have little reason to slow down. Instead, advocates like Cline, Leonard and Siegle are working to raise awareness with hopes that buyers will change their ways and the constant consumption cycle will eventually break. To some degree, their plan may already be working: companies such as Topshop and H&M have already started to develop their own eco-friendly lines. However, only time will reveal whether these efforts are merely PR stunts or blueprints for bigger change within infamously fast-fashion corporations. 

Meanwhile, us consumers might be left feeling somewhat helpless - or, in my case, watching all the fashionable Spaniards in their endless supply of up-to-date styles. Cline offers her own solutions, such as purchasing second-hand, altering items, buying from emerging or indie designers, organising clothes swaps or rentals, and simply spending a little more on high-quality pieces with a longer life span. Whilst these are not the ultimate solutions, Cline is certainly excited, by her own admission, to see what creative alternatives will be inspired by the growing drive for change.

...ultimately, only paying customers can truly slow down the fast fashion cycle.

Initially, it might be a rough sell, as Cline admits in an interview with Boston magazine regarding more time-consuming tasks like second-hand shopping. "The reality is that you have to be prepared to put a lot of time into it. I think the hunt is a big part of the fun." Sure, the hunt might be fun for some, but most of us these days expect to find and get exactly what we are looking for at the simple click of a mouse. 

This is becoming increasingly possible, with the introduction of companies to the marketplace such as Fashioning Change, which brilliantly bridges the gap between convenience and the traditionally tedious task of scoring slower, greener, more socially-responsible purchases. Online shoppers can easily find stylish alternatives to their favourite fashions in a side-by-side showdown between the two options, and, of course, without the "hunt." Perhaps this is exactly the kind of ingenuity that Cline has been hoping for.

At the end of the day, whether Zara goes green, or business-savvy companies like Fashioning Change help us shop with a conscience, ultimately, only paying customers can truly slow down the fast fashion cycle. We might have to forget the weekly binges on fresh-from-the-factory garments, and instead find joy in reinventing an old look, buying vintage, or investing in a classic high-quality piece. Now, if only the streets of Spain were more tempted to slow down. 



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