This week marks at once the annual campaign of the Fashion Revolution and the 10th anniversary of the tragic collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory building. The event, which killed over 1,100 garment workers and injured two thousand more, sparked a global debate at the time about the true cost of the fast fashion industry. Everyday brands such as Benetton, Mango, Zara, Walmart, and C&A were revealed to have resorted to factories inside of the faulty eight-story building, setting many on a racetrack to reclaim their ethical and environmental credentials since.
The fashion industry, ten years on from the disaster
But ten years on, has anything changed? There is widespread agreement to the contrary. In fact, it would appear the pace in the fashion industry has accelerated. This is evident from the rise of ultra-fast fashion retailers like Shein, which carries the fast paced logic of the field to extremes by adding several thousand new items per day. In this regard, no one can deny it is important we have a public conversation about the toll fast fashion is taking on people and the environment. However, too often that conversation ends with individual responsibility and customers’ “hunger for cheap clothing.” The chorus is now a familiar one, as civil society calls on consumers to stop buying fast fashion and those who still do struggle with feelings of guilt. As marketing scholars specialised in sustainable consumption and fashion, we argue that it is misguided to focus on consumer responsibility to solve systemic issues that seem too large even for companies to address.
Indeed, studies show focusing on consumers as scapegoats further reinforces power imbalances that exist in the industry, as the focus distracts from the financial and technical resources that powerful corporations possess. Rather than empowering consumers to solve the problem, the approach often leaves them feeling demoralized, in prey to shame and and confusion over the multitude of choices spread before their eyes. Started in early 2022, our ongoing research on slow fashion shows that there is a more beneficial way to move away from fast fashion.
A closer look at consumers’ perspective
Everyone needs clothes, but for consumers the choice of clothing has become a moral minefield. Consumers are held responsible for issues that they are not the architect of. Rather, we argue they are the victims of a system that glorifies outfit variety and makes exposure to fast fashion items unavoidable. Aggressive social media advertising keeps consumers addicted and influencer-generated content of #sheinhauls further normalizes enormous volumes of disposable fashion.
Even when consumers try to step out of this treadmill, they often struggle to orientate themselves toward ethical options. The power relations in the fashion industry go in hand with an information asymmetry and consumers often have no possibility to know how and by whom their clothes are made. Initiatives such as the Fashion Transparency Index, which ranks fashion brands and retailers according to the information they disclose on their supply chain operations, are laudable but even when possessing all necessary information, consumers are still constrained by parameters outside their control, not least economic ones.
Indeed, fast fashion is often the only clothing affordable especially to younger consumers for whom expressing themselves with fashion is an important part of their personal development. Rising inflation has made the financial accessibility of fast fashion clothes even more attractive. According to recent studies by customer research company Untold Insights, the majority of Generation Z and Millennials are unable to shop sustainably as a result of the rising cost of living. Sustainable fashion is simply out of reach. Even among those individuals privileged enough to afford fair fashion, turning to cheap clothes is perpetuated by psychological mechanisms, such as our ability to purposefully ignore ethical product aspects to prevent potential negative feelings or to retrospectively find arguments that justify our decision. Last, social considerations such as the acceptability of outfit repeating and the difficulty to find size-inclusive preloved clothing have pushed some consumers to turn to fast fashion.
If the only accessible option is fast fashion, the problem at the base is the productive model and not the person who looks for a practical solution. So, what are the potential pathways left for consumers who care?
Slow fashion tips from experts
Rather than asking consumers to shop more ethically and guilt-tripping them over certain brands, our research shows slow fashion practices offer us the best chance to reboot our relationship with clothes. Our aim is to better understand how slow fashion practices empower individuals and help them gain a sense of control by decelerating the pace of their fashion consumption. To explore this, we are currently following 14 slow fashion consumers and observing their practices, from carefully picking fabrics and threads to patch their clothes to patiently rummaging clothing racks at thrift stores.
Slow fashion is about mindfulness and attentiveness and can help consumers “get out of the frenzy in which [they] are in,” as one of our interviewees puts it. To get started, consumers should turn to their wardrobes and look at what they already have. Then, they can explore practices that are ready-to-hand: If you wear mainstream sizes, organize a clothing swap party with friends or join one of the events organized via platforms such as Meetup.
Clara, one of our interviewees, consider them a “fantastic way to satiate your appetite for something new.” Don’t hesitate to bring the fast fashion pieces that might be banned from resale sites such as Vestiaire Collective. The longer clothes are kept in circulation, the better. If the clothes needs touching up, and you have the time to do so, repair them with guidance from online tutorials such as #fixingfashion or in one of the local workshops that have popped up across Europe.
Fancy making a statement? Visible mending is a trend that allows to show your creativity while extending your clothes’ lives. Our research shows that the manual activity and process of craft allows consumers to regain a sense of control and empowerment in a system Lara, one of the slow fashion practitioners we spoke to, describes as “suffocating”. This week represents a great opportunity to explore slow fashion practices and do something for individual, collective, and planetary well-being.