Fast Fashion vs Slow Fashion: What’s the Difference?

Written by • Last Updated November 17, 2020

Deciding to be more sustainable impacts every area of our lives, including our spending habits. For me, learning more about fast fashion vs slow fashion was a game changer in how I shop.

Fast fashion is a term that’s been making the rounds in sustainability circles and beyond for some time now. The general consensus is that it’s bad, but what exactly is the alternative?

Luckily, slow fashion is an emerging trend. This means you don’t have to give up your style in order to be more sustainable–you just have to shop smarter.

As a recovering Stitch Fix addict, I know it can be hard not to get wrapped up in the endless desire to own the newest, trendiest clothes. But like most people, I couldn’t actually afford the top range designer lines.

Instead, I wound up settling for cheap versions that mimicked these fashions, yet had no staying power. Six months later, I was not only stocking up on new fashions, but my old clothes were also in poor shape.

This is fast fashion, and it’s a hard cycle to break.

In more recent years, I’ve learned to totally Marie Kondo my life and stop shopping for clothes I simply don’t need. I love fashion, but having too many clothes that I rarely wear is the opposite of joy. It’s stressful – for me, and for the environment.

Learning more about slow fashion vs. fast fashion supply chain practices can actually help you declutter your life, and live more sustainably.

6 blouses hanging on rack, displaying fast fashion vs slow fashion

Fast Fashion Definition

In order to examine the differences of fast fashion vs slow fashion, we first need to define what they are. But there isn’t really a set definition for fast fashion or slow fashion. Instead, it’s important to understand the problematic cycles they do – or don’t – perpetuate.

Fast fashion is the endless succession of watching designs walk down the runway on models at Fashion Week, only for slightly altered replicas to appear one or two weeks later in every single clothing store across the world.

In short, fast fashion is often cheaply produced knock offs that are constantly changing and evolving just enough to keep us buying more. As anyone who follows fashion trends knows, what’s in one week, can be out the next.

But with fast fashion, it isn’t just about changing styles–the quality often suffers, too. This means even if you’re more than happy with the current style, you’ll still be forced to replace it a few months later when it’s quite literally falling apart.

Because of this constant cycle, fast fashion is not only unsustainable, but often unethical.

Why is Fast Fashion Bad?

The never-ending manufacturing processes of fast fashion vs. traditional create a strain on the environment, as do many of the materials used to make fast fashion garments.

The vast majority of fast fashion is made using man-made materials such as acrylic, polyester, or nylon. Because the goal of fast fashion is to produce items quickly and cheaply, most of these man-made products are not recyclable, or otherwise sustainable.

However that’s just the tip of the iceberg, as most man-made materials produce microfiber plastics waste. These then drain out through the wash and pollute the environment, including our water sources. While this is concerning enough, when you consider the toxins used to create man-made materials, it becomes downright terrifying.

After all, I don’t imagine any of us are keen on eating our sweaters, particularly if they’ve been sprayed with chemicals that could make us sick.

Unfortunately, the environmental impact is only one of the downsides to fast fashion vs slow fashion. Cutting costs and corners for consumers means cutting production costs, and the reality is that these costs aren’t just being made in the materials, but in the labor as well.

We’ve all heard horror stories about factories in Asia where the workers are forced to work inhumanely long days as slave labor. This is the harsh reality of fast fashion vs. traditional supply chains. The demand created by fast fashion enables companies to enforce longer hours on their already overstretched workforce, but without increasing their pay.

And this doesn’t just negatively affect labor workers abroad. Because more and more fast fashion companies are opting for cheap labor in countries throughout Asia and South America, this means factories and the jobs that come with them are moving abroad as well.

Hands working black fabric through sewing machine

Slow Fashion Definition

By now you’re probably wondering what’s the difference between fast fashion and slow fashion? Like fast fashion, there isn’t really a definitive slow fashion definition. In many ways it is more of a lifestyle and a mindset.

Slow fashion is everything fast fashion is not: environmentally sustainable, socially conscious, and designed to last. Companies committed to a slow fashion vs. fast fashion supply chain are more likely to pay fair wages, source their materials ethically and sustainably and care more about the quality of their products.

Why is Slow Fashion Better?

In the long term, this means that by supporting slow fashion you are engaging in low impact living, which can make a big difference in the planet’s future health. Using slow fashion over fast fashion supply chains, you can help reduce–and even reverse–environmental damage and while supporting local communities.

The bottom line: slow fashion is a sustainable approach to what you wear, how much you buy, and where you shop.

Even setting aside the fact that slow fashion companies tend to use more environmentally friendly materials like organic cotton and Tencel, their products last longer and create less waste. This is already a win for the environment. That they also use ethically and sustainably sourced man-made materials, and many of them are constantly innovating with natural materials is just the cherry on top.

Slow fashion is a win for human rights, too. Companies that care more about where their products come from, care about the people making them. While many slow fashion companies do still use factories in Asian countries, their wages are higher, and the conditions are not hazardous.

However, there is one main criticism when discussing what’s the difference between fast fashion and slow fashion, and that’s cost. It’s true that slow fashion products tend to be more expensive because of how they’re made. While you’ll save on slow fashion in the long run since the clothes are durable and timeless, the cost can be prohibitive.

The silver lining is that as more and more people become aware of the realities of fast fashion vs slow fashion and make the switch, these costs will taper off and go down over time.

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