Fast fashion has been dominating the fashion industry for decades and filling stores with cheaply made clothing that’s in style one minute and out the next. Fast fashion has conditioned consumers to constantly expect something new more and more frequently. But, as the pandemic has changed our routines, needs, and buying habits, fast fashion may be suddenly losing its popularity contest as it’s counterpart, slow fashion, quickly becomes the new normal.
There are several things – both from the consumer and the business side of the industry – that I think have contributed to this shift. First are the changes in consumers’ buying habits. Being at home and isolated during this stressful global health and economic situation has prompted many people to ponder what is important to them. This renewed sense of priorities and values has led consumers to have greater interest in the values and causes that their favorite brands support. And I’ve seen more people make purchasing decisions based on brand values than ever before. This change in consumer behavior requires transparency, ethics, and conviction from brands – which are all things that slow fashion advocates.
Another consumer-driven reason for the shift towards slow fashion is the increased desire for community and creativity. Amid lockdowns, people are reaching out for meaningful human connection. Consumers want to buy from humans – be it the small business owner they know down the street, or the local artisan they want to see still around at the craft fair next year, or the online brand sharing stories of the fair trade factory seamstresses they’ve partnered with.
I’ve seen an increased respect for the craft of making things within consumers as well. More people have been using their time at home this year in creative ways such as tie dyeing a tee shirt, baking sourdough bread, or learning to repair their favorite vintage denim. Participating in this kind of creativity and making highlights the fact that to do so takes skill and time. This leads to a better appreciation for the items we buy as well as an increased respect for the people who make our clothes. This respect for workers and care for the items is all a part of slow fashion.
From the business side there have been shifts towards slow fashion as well. One of the biggest issues caused by fast fashion over the years – and highlighted by the pandemic lockdowns – is excess inventory. Fast fashion is cheaply made and flippantly disposed of by both consumers and brands. The sheer amount of time-specific and trend-specific products that were no longer relevant when stores opened back up after lockdowns in the spring was telling of just how expensive and prevalent of a problem excess inventory is. Slow fashion is a proponent of less is more and producing quality pieces that will last beyond one season. Throughout this year, I think brands are seeing the business benefits of that approach.
More and more brands are solving this inventory problem by moving toward made-to-order or on-demand production models where the products aren’t made until after they’re bought by either a retailer or end consumer. This decreases the amount of stocked inventory brands have to carry to almost zero. The brands get to save on up-front production costs as well as better meet demand for the best sellers while not getting stuck with excess product that didn’t sell well. More and more brands that I work with are using this made-to-order model from the start of their business as they see the advantages that this slow fashion approach has for their business both now and as they grow.
Another thing on the business side that is causing the industry to reevaluate its current process is just how complicated globally distributed supply chains are. As the pandemic hit different countries at different times, brands experienced delays in production, fabric shipments, and product deliveries throughout their supply chains. This showed just how fragile the system is. Brands who have their production closer to home with fewer stops to travel tended to do better. At least they only had to deal with lockdowns once for their local area instead of waiting through a series of shutdowns as the pandemic hit each country and step in the supply chain at different times. Brands who have simpler supply chains were also able to adjust their production schedules and inventory levels more nimbly to meet demand as lockdowns ended. This kind of slow fashion, lean supply chain makes sense for these uncertain times and avoids the environmental toll of long shipping routes in the long-term.
Global supply chains and outsourced production also brought to the forefront the disparity of wealth within the fashion industry. Factory workers are the essential workers of the fashion industry, yet they were hit the hardest by the pandemic, lockdowns, and cancelled production orders. Fast fashion is built off the labor of underpaid workers who make the clothes. This year has shown just what the effects for workers are. Brands, I hope, realize that this is not a fair way to do business. And with consumers demanding greater transparency and value alignment from brands, I hope fair wages and better working conditions become a priority going forward.
This year has shown where the issues with the current fast fashion industry are and awakened consumers to a better appreciation of and curiosity about how their clothes are made. As society moves towards a new normal coming out of this pandemic, I think slow fashion will become a big part of the fashion industry’s future.