Sustainable Fashion vs Fast Fashion – What Really Is the Difference?

There are many reasons why the term “sustainable” has been permeating the fashion industry lately. The big push for more awareness from within the trade is much needed. Not only is the garment industry one of the most polluting industries in the world, but it is also responsible for child labour, animal cruelty, modern slavery and an enormous amount of waste and pollution. But how is “sustainable” fashion really different from the villain that is said to be the culprit behind many of the industry's issues – fast fashion?

By Sascha Camilli: writer, speaker, activist, and vegan fashion expert. 

To really dig deep into the harm of fast fashion, we must first understand what the term really stands for. The term “fast fashion”, coined in the 1990s by the New York Times, seems to replicate the concept of “fast food” - food that is affordable, quickly cooked, and readily available. This idea centres on convenience and taste rather than ethics or health, which is why the term has bled into the fashion industry, as “fast fashion” – used to describe garments that are readily, conveniently, abundantly available, often at the cost of quality or ethical practices.

The production practices behind fast fashion are both its success factor and its downfall. The Good Trade describes fast fashion as “a design, manufacturing, and marketing method focused on rapidly producing high volumes of clothing. Fast fashion garment production leverages trend replication and low-quality materials in order to bring inexpensive styles to the end consumer.” It wasn't until the 90s that chains such as H&M, Zara, and Topshop hit the high street, challenging the idea that clothing was meant to be durable and new garments were released twice per year (spring/summer and autumn/winter). But the seed behind fast fashion was planted with the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s, when people started wearing clothing for style and taste rather than pure necessity. In the 1960s, “trends” became the concept they are today, with young people constantly purchasing new designs to keep up with changing fashions. To keep up with new trends and new demand for clothing, brands outsourced their production to lower-cost countries, which led to the fast-fashion industry as we know it today, where companies can sometimes release up to 50 collections per year into stores and online.

Today's fast fashion sees one garment worn as little as seven times before it's discarded, leading to an enormous amount of textile waste placing significant strain on our planet. This huge volume of production leads to a massive use of water and energy resources, which are both already in limited supply. But perhaps one of the most discussed issues with fast fashion is its continuous violation of human rights. The Rana Plaza disaster shook the world in 2013, when a garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed taking the lives of 1,134 people and injuring a further 2,500. This catastrophe has become synonymous with the damage caused by unsafe production and unregulated, undervalued labour that is pervasive within fast fashion.

The sustainable fashion movement was born as a reaction to pollution caused by the fashion industry – but even as far back as the 70s, when the punk scene introduced secondhand style, a sustainable mindset was already present. This was also the time when hippies rejected mass-produced clothing and chose locally produced, hand-made creations. In the status-chasing, logo-obsessed fashion world of the late 90s and early 00s, sustainable fashion was a fringe movement, seen as the niche domain of “eco warriors” and little to do with high fashion. The influence of Stella McCartney is often credited with changing that – as the world's first luxury fashion designer to refuse to send leather down the catwalk, McCartney subverted the fashion world's idea of quality and style, and opened the door for sustainability to be included in that definition. Decades after the launch of her eponymous brand, her signature design – the Falabella bag – is still going strong. Other pioneers of ethical fashion include designers Katherine Hamnett and Vivienne Westwood – both brands that are still active for sustainable fashion today.

It's 2022 and sustainable fashion is “in” - but what really sets it apart from traditional fashion, and even more so, fast fashion? Firstly, the antidote to fast fashion is said to be “slow fashion “ - a mentality which opposes overproduction and promotes durability and mindful consumption. Brands that champion this mindset are careful to ensure that their designs are made to last. “In my view, slow fashion must be at the heart of a sustainably minded brand,” says Jessica Kruger, founder of accessory brand LUXTRA London, which focuses on plant leathers. “At LUXTRA, we produce small batches (around 20-30 units per colour and style) and only a few times a year, so that we sell through pieces before producing more. I can't bear the idea of overproduction.”

Workers' rights are a key factor in sustainable fashion, and it goes hand in hand with environmental sustainability. The key to this, many brands believe, is re-discovering craftsmanship. Valuing artisanship is a factor that slow-fashion brands put high on their list of priorities. “My brand has a strong focus on thoughtful, durable designs and craftsmanship,” says Melina Bucher, founder of the vegan handbag brand with the same name. “We take our time to create new designs from scratch and our craftsmen need hours to handcraft each piece.” Quite a far cry from the frantic production of fast-fashion factories, where workers are pushed beyond their limits to keep churning out subpar products by the millions.

The style factor also counts, as slow-fashion brands refuse to be led by passing fads. Where fast fashion is a follower of fads, sustainable fashion aims for timeless: “Our designs are classic,” says Kruger. “I won't jump on trends because I know that people will tire of them and then they'll end up languishing in a wardrobe - or worse - end up in landfill.”

Ultimately, the slow-fashion movement is in agreement that for the fashion industry to truly be the best it can be, we need to move towards a future where sustainable fashion is Our mindset around clothing must shift and the throwaway mentality must be replaced by a more mindful approach with durability in mind. “If we all reflect on how much time and love goes into one single product, we start to value our clothes more - and this is were a more sustainable fashion world starts,” concludes Bucher. A reflection worth embarking on, indeed.

By Sascha Camilli

About Sascha

Sascha Camilli is a vegan fashion writer, speaker and activist. Her book Vegan Style is out now on Murdoch Books. For more about Sascha, you can read our interview with her. You can also follow her on Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn.

Cover image and second image by LUXTRA London. Third image by BOODY

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