During the long weeks of lockdown, New Zealanders were torn away from their usual shopping environments. All Westfield shopping centres were deserted, sitting silent and empty like some post-apocalyptic, post-capitalist dream. Mall rats were forced to order from online marketplaces to fulfil their programmed need to refresh their closets. The consequence of all that online purchasing was seen a few weeks later, with a major backlog of packages delaying deliveries all over the country. Not the fastest fashion after all.
The phrase ‘fast fashion’ refers to the particular type of commercial business strategy that currently dominates our fashion market. It adequately describes many of the mainstream fashion chains we see in NZ, which are low-price, low quality and ‘fashion forward.’ Traditionally, the fashion cycle was dictated by seasonal shows that occurred twice or four times a year (think Autumn/Winter and Spring/Summer). The implementation of the fast fashion strategy in the late 1990s disrupted this industry-wide norm, with new stock and trends released almost every week. Retailers began to outsource garment production to countries with minimal regulation over factory working conditions, utilising cheap labour (and in some cases child labour) and poor quality fabrics to churn out massive amounts of clothing. This method of production allows big fashion brands to keep prices low and product fresh, while exploiting the people and environment of production. Factory workers are stuck in sweatshops, non-sustainable materials drain enormous amounts of water and harmful dyes are expelled into the environment of workers, poisoning the world around them. The need to grow genetically modified cotton has pulled land away from farmers, causing suicides. GM cotton requires more pesticides to grow, which has resulted in environmental damage and birth defects (for some Punjab people). These horrific consequences of exploitative production are then hidden from the common consumer, behind relentless guerrilla advertising on Instagram. White women beam on beaches in the Bahamas, thanking Glassons for SUCH an amazing trip. Influencers are quick to endorse the sale of blood-stain crop tops after seeing blue ass water and drinking a few cocktail coconuts. Use ASHLEY20 for 20 percent off!
The exploitation woven into the fabric of this business model was exposed in 2013. In the Savar Upazila of Dhaka District, Bangladesh, an eight-story commercial building collapsed in what is considered the deadliest structural failure in modern human history. It is also considered the deadliest garment-factory disaster in history. The day before the horrific collapse, the building was evacuated after a local TV Channel recorded footage of significant cracks in the walls of the building, which was originally designed for shops and officers (architects stressed the risk of utilising the space for factory work, due to the weight and vibration of heavy machinery). The owner of the building ignored these warnings, threatening to withhold a month’s pay from workers if they did not come in, and the building collapsed the following day at 8:57am, during the morning rush hour. The bottom floor was the only one left intact. 2,500 were rescued from the wreckage alive and the search for the dead halted at 1134 people. Brands that were produced inside this factory included Prada, Gucci, Versace, Primark and Walmart. The incident is commonly referred to as an accident, but that suggestion is entirely misleading. This tragedy was not accident, it was murder by capital. The safety of these ‘workers’ (this is a very generous term, it’s more appropriate to call them slave labourers for the pitiful wages they were paid) was completely ignored for the sake of profit in fast fashion production.
The harms of fast fashion aren’t only visible in the means of production. The cheap price and low quality of these types of clothes mean they are treated disposably, often thrown out after a few uses. People are buying clothes in much higher volumes than ever before and keeping them for a significantly smaller amount of time. In 1980, Americans were buying about 12 items of clothing a year. Today that figure has risen to 68 new pieces. Once fashionistas are done with these clothes, and turn to the Marie Kondo method (does this specific pair of plaid pants spark joy?), they are dropped off at thrift shops. Charity work, right? We’re doing good things. No – it turns out that many of these clothes are sent directly to the dump. In the most upsetting cases, they are sent overseas to sit in dumps in places like Haiti and Kenya. It’s not just these wasted clothes that damage our environment. Synthetic fabrics used for fast fashion clothing, such as polyester, nylon and acrylic, are sending tiny fibres out to sea to join our already expansive microplastic collection. The damage, it turns out, is never ending. So, why do we still buy fast fashion? If there is so much evidence detailing the destructive nature of this process, how do these companies convince us to keep buying?
Instagram influencers have enrolled extremely effective ‘murketing’ techniques (murky marketing techniques), where the line between paid advertisements, brand loyalty and regular content is increasingly blurred. Young women often build careers for themselves, advocating for self-love, #girlboss feminism, semi-liberal politics and shopping. Sponsorships allow them to live off their social media, but they often have to offer up their bodies as coat hangers for fashion brands that seem to gel with their public image. By merging an attractive personality with ‘the cutest clothes!’ influencers are able to associate a certain lifestyle with a brand, selling products with affiliate links. This comes in tandem with targeted ads, where social media platforms track your emails to recommend brands you’re subscribed to. To combat the actual information about fast fashion, many fashion brands have engaged in ‘greenwashing’; employing one or two ‘sustainable’ strategies, such as taking back old clothes (H&M) or donating proceeds to charities (Cotton On), running self-reflexive ad campaigns about the need to do better (Reformation), or using buzzwords like ‘sustainable,’ ‘green’ and ‘friendly,’ while refusing to actually disclose production processes. Some stores have even changed their brands names, such as Reclaimed Vintage (available from fast fashion giant ASOS) which manufactures completely new clothes under a misleading title. Generally, brands that engage in greenwashing attempt to portray their clothes as sustainable, making the consumer feel like they’re actually helping the environment through their purchases. The cycle begins all over again when influencers align themselves with greenwashed brands, pleasing their followers for restoring the environment.
As this kind of information has become more and more accessible in the public sphere, and people refuse to fall for the greenwashing of brand images, there has been a upsurge in the interest of slow or conscious fashion. The True Cost, a documentary about fast fashion, has been cited as a major catalyst for the popularisation of slow fashion. It explores the exploitation and pollution of the industry, and became fast fashion’s Blackfish. The slow fashion movement works against fast fashion, encouraging consumers to think more deeply about their closet. Slow fashion asks important questions about the clothes we buy, looking at the places they come from, the people who make them, the fabrics they’re made of and the places they go after use. Generally, slow fashion discourages buying online (unless you can offset the miles of an item from a truly sustainable brand), asks consumers to wear their clothes for longer and encourages thrifting locally instead of making new purchases. Thrifting is an aspect of slow fashion that has gained quite a bit of momentum in the last few years, with flocks of young women sharing their favourite thrift purchases on Instagram and YouTube. Kids that were once bullied for wearing second hand clothes were suddenly pushed aside for Levi 501s and vintage graphic tees. I’d like to highlight that the onus of conscious and slow fashion is mainly put on young women. This may stem from the way women have been fashioned into the most avid consumers of fashion through advertising and the concreting of gender roles. However, many are driving the slow fashion movement, one scrunchie at a time.
The thrift scene in New Zealand took a big hit in 2017, when John Campbell went after Save Mart. Checkpoint reported that workers in New Lynn were barred from wearing gloves, despite their repeated contact with unsanitary items (including blood stained clothing, used vibrators, nappies and dead rats). The workers were also seeking higher wages. After these reports, and while WorkSafe were investigating the claims, 10 union workers were made redundant. Following these incidents, Jacinda Ardern wore a jacket from SaveMart to a red carpet, but it was clarified “she had not set foot in the shops” since the investigation by WorkSafe.
Despite this upsetting example, Auckland has a pretty great thrifting scene, with some great independent stores scattered across the city (with some AKL uni student faves listed below!). If thrifting isn’t your thing, there are a few options for buying second-hand or new online that aren’t destructive to the environment. You can also make really minor adjustments; wear your clothes for longer, buy higher quality items (with less plastic fabrics), make alterations and fix clothes instead of throwing them out, or buy NZ-made brands. While your contribution to slow fashion helps, changing the dominant model of fashion isn’t just up to consumers. Real change will come with government regulation and corporate restructuring. This comes much slower, but by raising the issue with politicians and companies, you’re holding them to account. Buying locally also shows where people are spending money, and encourages more product flow of that kind.
In short, slow fashion is about lessening your contribution to fashion pollution. As an individual, your consumption does have a big impact, which you can help to reduce with some really small compromises. Avoid picking up that Glassons gingham dress or Hallensteins graphic tee, and you’ll be saving a whole lot of labour, water and waste. Make it a process that you slowly improve upon, disrupt the exploitative industry, and then enjoy a more sustainable wardrobe.