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From Field to Frock: The Promise of Slow Fashion

Jul. 14, 2016

From Field to Frock: The Promise of Slow Fashion

Food, clothing, and shelter. These ancient yet basic human needs are now delivered via huge, swift and centralized systems. Their success to do so is staggering, but at what costs? This is where Slow comes in. What are the hidden costs to deliver reliably cheap food, clothing and shelter? Are they really so cheap, so efficient, so desirable if we take the long view?

Together with the call to defend the Slow Food, there is a growing voice of designers, labor advocates and consumers who call to defend the Slow Fashion. We are delighted to share with you these new voices. The quandary from field to frock raises so many questions familiar to us who work in food: How do we bring greater transparency to the industrial system that clothes us? Can it be reformed? Where are the strategic interventions in this global textile supply chain? Is there a viable value chain that keeps cotton, leather, wool, and other materials closer to home? Excitedly, we envision an appealing nexus between Slow Meat and Slow Fashion; another with the Ark of Taste; and finally some necessary soul searching about price points, the affordability of the clothing that gives us dignity and the expression of individuality in an age of mass production.

In November 2016 at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, there will be a Slow Fashion symposium featuring some of the voices included herein. 


Rebecca Burgess

RB2

SFUSA: Are we ready for slow fashion?

RB: If we use the term slow to talk about moving away from having new designs sewn up every week by “fast fashion” brands and then disseminated and consumed at a rate that takes seasonal dispensation to new heights, then yes, I do think that many people do not want to create that much clutter or allow for that kind of time sink. Some highly successful people now wear a “uniform” to focus their creativity and decision-making on their lives and work, versus spending that time making empty consumption choices. What will the transition out of fast fashion look like? If we internalize costs and take full responsibility for material culture, we will be making qualitative over quantitative decisions. This means paying more for organically or regeneratively farmed fibers supporting supply chains powered by renewable energy, and treating workers fairly.

SFUSA: What are the biggest challenges you see businesses face?

RB: The biggest challenge from my experience is that larger clothing businesses are not integrated in a triple bottom line (social, environmental, and financial) approach. The monetary bottom line remains the gatekeeper for determining how the vast majority of garment production processes take place.

SFUSA: How do you see them combating that problem?

RB: The companies would have to reorganize and create frameworks that acknowledge an integrated labor, environment, and profit bottomline. To do this sensitively, they’d also need to become familiar with the realities of their supply chains, starting with a deeper exposure to agriculture. Spending time on farms and ranches consistently and receiving education about soil health— the implications of organic vs. non-organic agriculture—all of this would be a starting place. The brands need to educate their consumers on real issues within the supply chain and elevate the decision-making process for wearers, allowing them to see the good and not so good parts of how their clothing is made. The truth is going to come out at some point; you might as well be at the forefront of the transparency movement.

"The monetary bottom line remains the gatekeeper for determining how the vast majority of garment production processes take place."

SFUSA: The food movement has a price point problem, where "slow" food is sometimes deemed "too expensive." How do you handle this problem in the clothing business?

RB: Locally grown clothing prices are high because we’ve centralized manufacturing and we’ve invested our clothing dollars in large brands who do not, by in large, invest in or own supply chains. Locally farmed clothing prices are 100% dependent on the affordability and accessibility of fiber processing, and at this time, these accessible processing systems generally do not exist. We’ve allowed brands to define manufacturing and fiber farming practices by giving them our consumer dollars without question.

How to shift this paradigm? There are many ways, including and, most important, by purchasing directly from the maker (like purchasing directly from the food farmer). You can buy one garment per year from a farm or ranch that you know and have visited. You can become familiar with agricultural processes and clothing systems and begin to consume in a way that is simpatico with your values. Businesses depend on demand. It is our time now to develop a conscious and large demand for decentralized, humanely farmed fiber systems.

RB1

RECOMMENDED READING:

Alabama Chanin

AC1

SFUSA: Are we ready for slow fashion?

AC: I believe that fashion design has been building toward a slow fashion movement over the years, slowly but deliberately. We’ve come a long way, but there is a longer way to go. I always say that I believe the food industry is about twenty years ahead of the fashion industry in terms of embracing slow and sustainable production.

SFUSA: What's the biggest problem you encounter in your business?

AC: Absolutely, cost—on several levels. There is the cost of materials, cost of manufacturing, and cost of product. But each of these things can impact the others. It costs more to make products in a way that is good, clean, and fair. However, the prices of our source material – organic cotton – will continue to decrease as more and more people understand the importance of voting with our dollars. It’s truly basic supply and demand economics: the more people who support sustainable designers, the more the required materials and processes will be made available. As those processes are made more mainstream, they will become more affordable. We have to take a slow-and-steady-wins-the-race sort of view.

SFUSA: What's your strategy for addressing that problem?

AC: We’ve developed what I’d call the “bloody forehead approach”: just keep beating against the immovable barrier and eventually, inch-by-inch, it begins to move.

"I always say that I believe the food industry is about twenty years ahead of the fashion industry in terms of embracing slow and sustainable production."

SFUSA:The food movement has a price point problem, where "slow" food is sometimes deemed "too expensive." How do you handle this problem in the clothing business?

AC: We are all “hoeing in the same row” in this conversation—although I feel like there are designers, chefs, and companies of all genres who’ve been able to come up with great products that are accessible. Near my home, we have local farmers who are growing great produce that costs the same or less than the upscale grocery store version. I see our food markets expanding every year and I’m looking forward to a time when the fashion industry follows suit. I believe we are already on our way.

RECOMMENDED READING:

Jussara Lee

JL1

SFUSA: Are we ready for slow fashion?

JL: We are ready for slow fashion; in fact, it is long overdue. Everywhere I look, I see ugly, cheap looking clothes—a lot of them. Clothes that lack connectedness, soul, integrity. Clothes that are generic and expendable. Clothes that don't hold value. This surplus of poorly manufactured goods is the result of our economy of scale, fruits of an “over efficient” mass production system that doesn't account for the true cost of producing them. We face depletion of natural resources, abusive treatment of workers, and pollution. Once we are better informed and exposed to the true facts of how cheap clothes are made, consumers will opt out of fast fashion and resort to alternatives that bring back a sense of connectedness and belonging.

SFUSA: What's the biggest problem you encounter in your business?

JL: The biggest challenge is to thrive as a business without subscribing to the rules of radical capitalism and its economy of scale. In order to grow and be profitable, most companies shift their production overseas to take advantage of unrealistically low wages, inhumane work conditions, and the plundering of nature. The fashion industry is shored up by big players in the press and marketing, textile, and manufacturing industries. As a small business, you get overshadowed by the magnitude of these hefty companies. Factories don't want to take your orders because the quantities aren't big enough. Textile companies don't want to produce your fabric because you don't reach the minimums imposed by them. The press doesn't care about promoting or publicizing your ideas because you aren't a potential advertiser.

"The biggest challenge is to thrive as a business without subscribing to the rules of radical capitalism and its economy of scale."

SFUSA: What's your strategy for addressing that problem?

JL: It takes time to make something truly beautiful. To me, a product needs to encompass all the attributes I find essential to justify its introduction into our overstuffed world. I make wholesome clothes that embody connection with all that surrounds us, the universe. Hence, I invest copious amounts of time and resources into creating them sustainably. Enough people respond positively, embracing and supporting our efforts so that we can not only exist but thrive. I also shun the idea of traditional growth and expansion because by keeping the company small, I can concentrate my resources and illustrate my point of view in the best possible way. The message is simple but goes against the values of a consumer society: less is better, quality is essential, and true beauty is intrinsically tied with nature.

SFUSA: The food movement has a price point problem, where "slow" food is sometimes deemed "too expensive." How do you handle this problem in the clothing business?

JL: I used to think that one positive element of fast fashion was the democratization of clothes, but I came to realize that accessibility breeds waste and overconsumption. Along with hefty budgets for marketing and advertising, the fast fashion industry sprawled in its outreach. As a result, people compulsively buy things they don’t need, because they are cheap. When we take into account the impact of the production and disposal of cheap clothes, we realize that what is considered cheap is actually costing us through our noses. Only then will we start caring about the longevity of the clothes and be interested in how they are made, the provenance of their materials, the composition of their textiles. Then we will mend them as needed instead of readily tossing them in the garbage bin. Expensive will actually translate into inexpensive, once you factor in the time saved from compulsive shopping and the longevity and endurance of the clothing.

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