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What Does Slow Fashion Need to be Successful?

Have you noticed how some “green” or “ethical” brands these days want to make you think you are helping the world or solving a big picture problem, like human rights or climate change? The sales pitch went from “this is a great product” to “buying this will make you feel good about yourself”.

As much as I applaud some of the efforts new brands are making to offer more transparency about their supply chain and underlying production methods, all of that is worthless if you don’t have a great product. We need to get real if we want garment production to evolve into a more sustainable process, where environmental and humanitarian values are not stored in a dark closet. The truth is that many of the labels that I stumble upon when looking for “ethical” or more sustainable options are not very aesthetically pleasing. And guess what: I am never going to buy something I don’t like just because it was made under certain conditions. That IS important, and it’s only becoming more important for consumers, especially those we have called “millennials”, where  I include myself, but it cannot be your main selling point.

Here is what, in my own view, will be needed if we want slow fashion to take over:

Slow fashion requirement #1: Product first,ethics later.

Making your primary selling point the process behind the manufacturing of the garment and not the quality, versatility, style and awesomeness of the product itself will ultimately hurt your business, as others start doing the same and you are left with a rather insipid product. Also, producing less than impressive products hurts the movement and anyone trying to make ethical fashion more stylish and “cool”, as it only reinforces the stereotypes about eco, sustainable and ethical being ugly. You can afford to leave aesthetics behind for certain products, but not for fashion; understanding your core consumer and her motivations is essential and, while there could be people that will buy something just because it has some certification seal, that is not how you create a loyal and satisfied consumer base.

Slow fashion requirement #2: Be transparent about your motivations.

I struggle to feel sympathy for those who seem to go out of their way to manufacture anything in third world countries and add an “ethnic” aspect to their products, proclaiming salvation for poor African women or Peruvian artisans. Behind most outsourcing decisions is the desire to reduce costs, a very legitimate business practice that somehow has been turned evil highlighting only the bad (yes, the bad is really bad too) and downplaying the good. So, we had to make it extra special, by screaming how much we are helping local artisans when really, the main goal is to reduce your costs. In most cases, the biggest part of the pie goes, not to the artisans, not to the developing country, but to the company owners. Because guess what: that is the reason they are in business: to make money. Also, it is not wrong to have a successful business, I would rather reward smart entrepreneurs that create something great I truly want , than to waste my money in some ugly earrings.

Slow fashion requirement #3: Quit your non-scientific earth agenda.

Certain people and even some “big” publications these days do not care for the facts, as long as they have their elevator pitch for why organic X or fair trade Y is going to save the world. Here is one statement that illustrates this trend: organic cotton uses less water. This is simply not true and there is nothing in the USDA or GOTS standards that supports this claim, yet organic garment people (usually with a vested interest in that market) are quick to make that statement with nothing but feelings to support it.

This article, posted on The Guardian quotes a fashion designer’s opinion about how traditionally grown cotton uses so much water, in contrast to its organic counterpart (fifth paragraph). Yes, I am sure her intentions are good, but not having the real facts only hurts what you are trying to accomplish.

Here is another non-scientific article that very casually simply states: “Organic cotton uses far less water too”… Because??? I actually contacted the writer to ask for his source on this claim. No answer so far.


 

Update (05/27/15): the author of the mentioned article (David Dietz, CEO of Modavanti) got back to me a few months ago and this is what he had to say (full email from December 14, 2014):

HeyYarina,

I am following up on your about.me question regarding whether organic cotton uses less water. Thanks for writing! The major difference is that organic farming practices use less water because farmers develop healthier soil. There are rules about crop rotations and water usage (ieconventional irrigation vs. rain water) as well as a host of other practices. Organic cotton farming is more about a system rather than simply eliminating the use of pesticides.
This is from the Textile Exchange “Organic cotton requires farmers to use a range of biological products (biomass, farmyard manure, cover crops) and techniques (composting, mulching, and crop rotation) to build soil organic matter (SOM) and ensure its water-holding capacity. When the soils under organic crops are high in SOM they perform much better than conventional soils in holding water, therefore they are usually better at withstanding drought or flooding, leading to better performance in the context of climate variability and change as well.”
http://textileexchange.org/blog/organic-cotton-harvests-water-well-cotton

I hope this helps and happy holidays!

The link mentioned is currently down, but you can check it our here. My first counter argument is that I will never take information from an organization with a clear conflict of interest in the topic i am researching (Textile Exchange promotes organic farming). Second, the article has an extreme lack of any data or quantifiable information to support any of its arguments, so it’s simply hard to just “believe”. I do appreciate his response and I think most people involved in this have the best intentions, but I’m not looking for good intentions, I am looking for the truth.


 

This other one mentions organic cotton uses 20% less water, for a specific case. I contacted the writer too, to request his source. No reply yet.

I have countless examples of this kind, but my objective is not really to expose all the media BS biased reporting, let’s face it: I would be writing all day.

As much as I would like these things to be true, you cannot spread information around without a solid base. But that is a contemporary media problem, not the authors of these isolated cases and I am not suggesting their claims aren’t true, I am just someone who believes in science and doesn’t accept anything that lacks appropriate theoretical foundation. Here are some articles that actually use data to support their thesis:

Update (05/27/15): extracts of each source were added)

Economic Efficiency in Organic Farming: Evidence From Cotton Farms in Viotia, Greece.

Organic farms produced only 73% of the yield of those of a conventional farm and 86% of the revenue (p. 40).

Choosing Organic Pesticides over Synthetic Pesticides May Not Effectively Mitigate Environmental Risk in Soybeans.

We completed laboratory assays to estimate the direct contact toxicity of these insecticides to several natural enemy species when applied at field rates. There were significant differences in mortality by treatment applied for all insect groups, but generally, the two currently registered insecticides were most toxic to natural enemies under laboratory conditions. The other four insecticides were much less toxic to the ladybeetle, though it was found that one of the organic insecticides,Beauveria bassiana, was slightly more toxic to adults, and one novel synthetic, flonicamid, was slightly more toxic to larvae than the remaining novel insecticides. The four novel pesticides all caused some mortality to the insidious flower bug, but the two organic insecticides had significantly higher toxicity than the two novel synthetic insecticides.

Mythbusting 101: Organic Farming > Conventional Agriculture.

But the real reason organic farming isn’t more green than conventional is that while it might be better for local environments on the small scale, organic farms produce far less food per unit land than conventional ones. Organic farms produce around 80% that what the same size conventional farm produces 16 (some studies place organic yields below 50% those of conventional farms!).

How land-inefficient is organic agriculture?

The average organic-to-conventional yield ratio from our meta-analysis is 0.75 (with a 95% confidence interval of 0.71 to 0.79); that is, overall, organic yields are 25% lower than conventional.

 

This is a more complete article on the topic of organic cotton.

I hope you can find reason in my points and I invite you to refute them if you think that I’m just an angry big eyebrow’d midget. Part of what I like to do in this blog is to showcase the good products I find, which I believe to meet my style, ethical and price requirements. As always, I accept suggestions and love to collaborate with independent labels that have something special to offer.

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  • Yes, it is a shame that there are all these people working so hard for a market that doesn’t exist. Design is in essence the first motivation for fashion (or at least good fashion) and it’s sand to see all this great work wasted in clothes nobody really wants.

  • elegantlyeco

    You’ve got some great & valid points in this article. It’s true a lot of slow fasion or eco fashion isn’t nice enough to wear for example in a corporate office. That’s been a difficulty for me since I do work in an office. I’ve had to compromise where half of my wardrobe is eco-friendly & the other half is more office-friendly. I’ll be so happy when someone starts making affordable eco-friendly clothes that I can wear to the office.