The paradox of slow fashion—evergreen or elitist?

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If you’ve combed Carousell for a secondhand top, scrolled through TikTok while procrastinating an assignment, or been on the internet at all in the past few years, you’ve probably heard about the push for sustainable fashion. Like the vast array of video documentaries and literature online, I too think it’s time we talk about taking fashion slow.

The case for slow fashion

At the top of fast fashion’s long list of ramifications is its devastating environmental impact. The average Singaporean buys 34 new pieces of clothing and discards 27 annually, contributing to Semakau Landfill’s ever-shortening lifespan that’s now estimated to last only till 2035—barely enough for our generation, let alone the next. Across the globe, fashion production comprises 10% of global carbon emissions, depletes thousands of gallons of water, and crowds space on an already overwhelmed planet with non-biodegradable fibres. 

Another more insidious issue with fast fashion is how it devalues the labour that goes into making clothes. The average shopper who’s become accustomed to a $20 Shopee dress, in addition to an 8.8 sale or 10% cashback lure, would likely balk at a $300 dress whose only appeal is the promise of being made sustainably. “It’s not fair!” one might protest. But it is fair. 

In December 2020, American writer and lingerie expert Cora Harrington tweeted about a set of lingerie she photographed that cost US$1,000. She said, “Most people would insist the set was ‘overpriced’ and could be found at Wal-Mart.”

“In truth, the set is constructed of French Chantilly Lace […] with Leavers Lace machines that are over a century old and take at least two people two months to thread by hand. Loading the loom with a new pattern takes at least a day. All lace patterns are drawn by hand—down to every thread […] Once the lace is made, any faults or defects are corrected by hand, and any loose threads are trimmed by hand. Any embroidery or embellishment on the lace […] is also done by hand. The people who work with laces of this quality are top level specialists. The lace is then marked up appropriately (because none of these employees are working for free), to be sold to […] fashion houses and designers […] There’s already been a ton of labour involved, and we haven’t even gotten to the lingerie-making portion yet.”

In sum, from the costs of premium quality textile to the creative labour of designing and marketing, the set’s final markup barely covered its costs.

What all this means is, many corners have likely been cut to achieve the $20 price tag of a fast fashion piece: by compromising fabric quality, biodegradability, or even using underpaid sweatshop labour that’s all too common in neighbouring Southeast Asian countries like Cambodia. 

But abstaining from fast fashion isn’t always a viable choice.

Slow fashion isn’t sustainable for some

Obviously, not everyone can afford to stock their wardrobes with well-made garments like that of the $1,000 lingerie. In fact, those who can only afford fast fashion aren’t the ones contributing to its prevalence. The broke university student who winces when spending $10 on a top they’ll be wearing to attend lectures, sleep, or both at the same time, isn’t the one filling Semakau Island. The rising TikTok influencer filming a $500 Shein haul on the other hand though, might be. 

Moreover, cost isn’t the only concern. Many sustainable fashion brands fail to cater to a sufficiently wide size range, with most only producing about five sizes of XS to XL. This completely excludes people with certain body types from the slow fashion discourse, leaving them to choose from a narrow range of unsustainable and poor-quality clothing options regardless of their sartorial inclinations.

Another issue that’s more unique to Singapore, at least in my personal experience, is the lack of physical access to sustainable fashion. Unlike in other countries with long-standing thrift stores frequented by the young and old, Singapore’s thrift culture mostly resides in hip Queenstown corners or Instagram shops. Thrift shop customers thus usually comprise Internet-savvy Generation Z-ers or Millennials who have the time and literacy to scour multiple physical and online shops for their perfect thrift find, while those of an older age or lower socioeconomic bracket tend to buy first-hand clothes from market stalls or affordable fast fashion brands in heartland malls. 

It’s regrettable that the above demographics often can’t partake in the slow fashion movement. Then again, they’re not the main drivers of fast fashion’s negative impacts—large corporations churning out hundreds of millions of garments annually are.

So what on earth are we supposed to wear? 

TL;DR: Whatever fits your wardrobe and wallet. 

Even if that’s fast fashion, we can still make it sustainable by buying clothes with discernment and intention. 

The first step in doing so is reducing the amount of clothes you buy in the first place—there’s no point in thrifting if you’re foraging Lucky Plaza every week and consuming dozens of pieces every year. Before eagerly rushing to the cashier, ask yourself if you really want the items in your hand, or if they’re just elements of a trend that you’d like to hop on the bandwagon for. The latter case isn’t inherently wrong, but it does mean it’s highly likely that you’ll no longer like the item and dispose of it once that trend dies out—which may happen in less than a season, with the rise of micro-trends on Tiktok and other social media platforms. 

Another way to estimate the longevity of an item is how it fits into the rest of your existing wardrobe. We all have personal preferences with regard to the way we dress ourselves and would like to be seen, whether in terms of a colour palette, silhouette, or aesthetic. If the piece you’re planning to buy reinforces or enhances your current or ideal look, it’s more likely that it’ll stay in your wardrobe for a long time.  

Additionally, consider the material of the fabric. This usually hides in the tags and labels attached to clothes in brick-and-mortar shops, or the description box of online clothing stores. Look for biodegradable fabrics like cotton and avoid synthetic fibres like nylon and acrylic, not just for the environment but also for your own comfort—most synthetic fabrics are forms of plastic, and no one wants to be wearing literal plastic on their skin on a sweltering hot 30°C day in Singapore.

Finally, I want to reiterate that the major contributors towards the fast fashion industry are capitalistic corporations profiting from ever-evolving trend cycles, and even among the remaining minority of consumers, most of them face constraints of cost, size, or simple lack of knowledge. But having a nihilist resolve that we’re all doomed under capitalism is easy. Trying to do better, on the other hand, is not. So why not challenge ourselves to do the latter?