The environmental and ethical costs of fast fashion – that is, big brands mass-producing disposable clothing at low prices in response to the latest catwalk trends – are well documented. Cheaper clothes are often made possible through the systematic exploitation of workers and lead to excessive textile waste, more greenhouse gas emissions and other forms of pollution.
In contrast, slow fashion considers all aspects of the supply chain: where a garment is made, what it is made of, who made it, its re-wear and resale value. The movement aims to create clothes that last, physically and stylistically, while compensating workers fairly and reducing environmental impact as much as possible.
Slow fashion is obviously the best bet, but when shopping it’s often difficult to distinguish between ‘slow’ and ‘fast’, not to mention the huge array of clothing that exists between these two fuzzy poles. Brands are also likely to describe themselves using terms like “sustainable” and “ethical.” These words feel good but have no concrete definitions (legal or otherwise), which ultimately makes them hollow and unreliable unless certified by a third party.
The important thing is to do what you can, because anything is better than nothing. It’s like David Attenborough said in A life on our planet“If we all had a largely plant-based diet, we would only need half the land we use today.” This does not mean that everyone has to completely give up meat. The same goes for clothes. Here are six ways to identify and break away from fast fashion.
“The biggest myth about slow fashion is that it’s hard to produce here in Australia,” says Emma Cutri, co-owner of Melbourne womenswear label Sister Studios.
Cutri and her business partner Alice McIntosh hire small Ethical Clothing Australia accredited manufacturers in the city to produce their pieces. “Local manufacturing is really important to us,” she says. “We like to be involved in the whole process, working closely with talented craftsmen.”
Brands like Sister Studios keep shore-based manufacturing afloat and its workers employed. By supporting these brands, you are doing the same. The alternative is the big global brands, many of which rely on operating practices and supply chains so large and convoluted that they cannot be effectively audited.
Invest in the best quality you can afford
As with any product, quality parts pay off over time. Think of it this way: you can buy a $300 sweater made locally, from high-quality wool, and wear it for 10+ years (or pass it on to a new owner). Or you can buy a $100 jumper that develops holes after a year or two. A decade into this cycle, you’ll have spent $500 on sweaters that have a shorter shelf life than a can of tomatoes, and you’ll likely have sent several to the landfill.
When you put it that way, spending more money now is actually spending less money in the long run. You’ll also benefit from clothes that look and feel better than their cheaper counterparts.
If you’re still intimidated by those initial price tags, take Cutri’s advice: “Start small; save up and buy a good piece or two that you can wear all season – and the season after.
Implement the two Cs: capsule and circular
“Capsule” and “circular” are two of the biggest buzzwords these days. If you find yourself buying things only to wear them a few times before they go out of style, go for the first of the two.
A capsule wardrobe, as the name suggests, is a small selection of timeless, high-quality pieces that are likely to buck trends – with an emphasis on “selection”, as the purpose of this wardrobe is to be as minimal as possible. Think of a smart blazer, a pair of jeans, a pair of sneakers and so on. Mix and match these simple basics with the occasional statement piece to create hundreds of potential outfits.
If you’re someone who likes to keep up with current trends but also wants to be sustainable, opt for a circular wardrobe, which could include pre-loved clothes. Bec Anderson, one of the minds behind the sustainable clothing initiative Swop, says a circular wardrobe is “when you buy clothes with the intention of using them for as long as possible, then reusing them when you no longer wish to use them”.
With stores in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, Swop provides a platform for high quality clothing to flow sustainably, from wardrobe to wardrobe.
“We’re all for capsule wardrobes, but there are some absolute gems on the pre-loved market that can make your sustainable fashion choices fun and individual,” Anderson says.
Buy consciously, not thoughtlessly
Shopping for fast fashion brands is usually a foolish exercise. Costs are low, so you don’t have to worry about breaking the bank, and the pieces are usually on-trend, meaning you buy them on sight.
Slow fashion calls for a change of attitude. Ask yourself three questions before buying anything. One: How much wear will I get out of it? (“I use the ’30 wear test’; if I don’t think I’ll wear it at least 30 times, I won’t buy it,” Anderson says.) Two: Do I already have something like this ? If the answer is yes, reconsider. And three: is there anything else I would rather spend this money on right now? If the answer is yes, seriously, reconsider.
Do your research
The onus is on brands to be transparent about how they make their pieces. It is your responsibility to find and use this information. Consider the composition of each piece, favoring wool, recycled cotton, recycled polyester (rPET), organic hemp and organic linen, then check if the manufacturer is accredited by the ECA, GOTS or another body independent and reputable.
“ECA focuses on the rights of textile, garment and footwear workers,” says Amanda Bresnan, ECA National Director. “To be ECA accredited, a company’s manufacturing operations are audited; this ensures that workers are paid appropriately, receive all their legal rights and work in safe conditions.
Knowing who made a garment, and under what conditions, bridges the gap between consumers and manufacturers. Another great resource is Good On You, a website and app that assesses brands’ ethical and sustainable practices using easy-to-understand terms.
Use social media wisely
When it comes to fast fashion, social media plays a huge and often hidden role in the endless cycle of overconsumption and waste. The endless stream of ads, sponsored posts, and outfits of the day subtly reinforce the idea that we need more. Being aware of this program goes some way to thwarting it.
On the other hand, social media is also home to many popular campaigns and communities aimed at kicking off fast fashion. Instagram Reels and Tiktok are full of helpful videos on how to repair, maintain and reuse clothes, and remain one of the best ways to discover new slow fashion brands as they emerge.
All in all, this is a pretty standard breaking guide: raise your standards, think long-term, and please avoid stalking their Instagram. When you’re ready to return, here are some brands and platforms to swipe right on:
• Afends is a streetwear and surfwear brand from Byron Bay that champions hemp as a superior alternative to cotton and works with Retraced to help customers track the journey of their apparel.
• Arnsdorf is B Corp certified, which means it meets the highest verified standards of social and environmental performance, transparency and accountability.
• Bianca Spender’s stunning evening dresses and other pieces are certified by Ethical Clothing Australia.
• Clothing The Gaps is a Victorian-owned, majority-owned, Victorian-owned and operated social enterprise that also recently achieved B Corp certification.
• Depop is a leading app in the second-hand fashion movement.
• Ethical Clothing Australia is an invaluable resource for finding ethical labels, with the help of helpful filters such as ‘denim’, ‘babies and children’, ‘vegan’ and ‘indigenous’.
• FME Apparel produces clothing in thoughtful small runs with a strong emphasis on high quality organic fabrics.
• Goodbyes is a second-hand shopping destination in Melbourne, Canberra and Hobart.
• Good On You is a website and app that assesses brands’ ethical and sustainable practices using easy-to-understand terms.
• Good Studios in Adelaide works primarily with hemp (rather than cotton) for its simple, everyday pieces and is accredited by Ethical Clothing Australia.
• Jillian Boustred’s comfortable and loose-fitting skirts, dresses, pants and tops are made in Australia from at least 90% natural fibres, with no single-use plastics used in manufacturing or delivery.
• Maggie Marilyn is a New Zealand-based brand that makes stylish shirts, knitwear and more for men and women. Like Arnsdorf, it is B Corp certified.
• Nico is a Brisbane-based underwear brand that uses GOTS-certified fabrics and is notably transparent about its manufacturing process in India.
• Nobody Denim promotes brand transparency by listing all of its suppliers and how each contributes to the planet.
• Outland Denim provides training and safe and fair employment for Cambodian victims of human trafficking, slavery and other forms of abuse and exploitation. Each year, it shares a detailed report on its own operations, from staff demographics to environmental impact.
• Rntr rents out designer clothes for people to wear for a while before returning. It’s a good way to be “trendy” without buying or contributing to waste.
• Sister Studios engages small ECA-accredited manufacturers in Melbourne to produce its pieces.
• Swop Clothing Exchange is where you can buy, sell and swap second-hand clothing, closing the fashion loop.
• The Common Good Company uses 60% recycled cotton and 40% recycled polyester in its clothing.
• The Social Outfit is a registered social enterprise and charity that educates, employs and trains refugees and new migrants in Sydney.