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End Fast Fashion

Our bread’s organic, our water bottle’s recycled and BPA-free—but that dress? That painfully adorable, on-trend dress we practically stole from Zara at double or triple markdown? Pull back that hem, and you’ll find there’s a real problem with it. Our addiction to cheap, impulse-purchased fast fashion is leaving us unsatisfied, destroying our environment and tragically devaluing our labor force.

According to Elizabeth Cline, author of “Overdressed,” Americans now throw away 12.7 million tons, or 68 pounds of textiles per person, annually—an estimated 1.6 million tons of which could otherwise be recycled or reused. And keep in mind that all that fabric being produced then requires 145 million tons of coal and somewhere between 1.5 trillion and 2 trillion gallons of water. One single, solitary T-shirt requires 700 gallons of water to create.

Which is to say nothing of the human rights violations that come hand-in-hand with creating a surplus of outsourced, unrealistically priced items. Professor Richard Locke, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management, explains, “When workers don’t take enough breaks…accidents can happen. Rapidly changing orders adds to the pressure.” Already this year, more than 1,000 labor workers were killed in a garment-factory fire that produced Inditex goods (Inditex manufacturers Zara clothing, among others). A plethora of big-name brands continue to outsource their apparel manufacturing to Bangladesh factories, from Walmart to the Gap to Sears. And with increased competition between like retailers for our hard-earned cash, there’s increased incentive to ignore unmanageable, unsustainable and inhumane labor practices if it means output will continue apace.

Though the cost isn’t just the environment, or even just human rights (which should be enough of an impetus for change…but we digress)—it’s the drain on every single industry involved in the fast-fashion food chain. It’s a domino cascade that leaves us with a wholly unrealistic, entirely unsustainable perception of clothing, thanks to a system that places zero value on the people and commodities that go into making it. Says Cline, “We are buying new consumer products based on rapid changes in fashion that are engineered by corporations. This requires being dissatisfied with things we just bought and being seduced by the idea of instant gratification and novelty. It’s like we’re turning into children.”

Lizzie Dunlap, founder of Leaflet.com—a site dedicated to a green and sustainable lifestyle—agrees: “The scariest thing about fast fashion is that on some level it reinforces the idea that clothing should and could be just as disposable as a shopping bag.” Instead of buying clothing that’s built to last, we pride ourselves in the next best deal, and as a result, end up with a wardrobe that’s “inexpensive, easy and constructed to deteriorate sooner rather than later,” as the majority of shoppers “continue to choose quantity over quality.”

The Return to Slow Fashion

Since the 2009 publication of Michael Pollan’s watershed work “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” the awareness and acceptance of slow, sustainably sourced food has grown considerably. But there remains a disconnect when this same logic is transposed to the clothes we wear every day. Dunlap argues: “Part of the reason the slow food movement has taken off so quickly is because we immediately recognize that that’s the better alternative for our bodies and health. With slow fashion, the benefits are less obvious.”

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Farm to table production is not limited to food Graham Hill, founder of TreeHugger and LifeEdited, goes even deeper, saying, “The slow food movement doesn’t feel very sacrificial. It feels like it’s almost a luxury, it’s a positive thing.” Slow fashion, on the other hand, “is perceived as being ‘less,’ and we’re not into less, in general.”

In reality, slow fashion is more. In fact, it’s a complete approach to retail that respects the environment, human capital, the longevity of a product and the end consumer, at every level. It’s also beautiful and timeless. As the sumptuous, luxe designs of Small Trades, Alice D. and Rogue Territory attest, it’s about a complete wardrobe that you can be proud of—one that will last long enough to pass down to future generations.

There are other perks as well, according to Hill: “If we could think a little long term, in terms of our finances, and realize less is better in terms of our clothing, it may actually be the smartest thing to do financially as well…with less to wash and less to store.”

The good news is: This won’t entail a massive change, just a few adjustments. Suggests Cline: “Buy things you love and are going to wear. Don’t buy things that are going to fall apart,” and “stop shopping so much and value what you already own.”

Marci Zaroff, producer of the documentary on sustainable fashion “Beauty & Beast,” proclaims a slow fashion movement is afoot. “There’s a different level of awareness around being a conscious consumer. And they’re looking around for other product categories that resonate…they’re looking for things that make them look good as well as feel good…across the board there’s a lot more awareness-shifting business paradigms all over the place.”

This is ultimately about more than just the environment, or just human rights, or just style. It’s about living a life that is true and honest to all of our other principles and beliefs. As Zaroff says, “This is a lifestyle choice. Once you start to think about what you’re buying and using and wearing and eating, you don’t go backwards—you want to keep going forward.”

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