I recently stood on the cyber sidelines of an online effort called #slowfashionoctober. Though I lacked the Instagram savvy and time that other participants had, I felt the movement was an admirable one.

Here's a short definition I found at study-ny.com, a website for Tara St James, a designer who sells clothing made according to "slow fashion" values:

'Slow fashion is the movement of designing, creating and buying garments for quality and longevity.' - Study NY website

"Slow fashion is the movement of designing, creating and buying garments for quality and longevity. Slow fashion encourages slower production schedules, fair wages, lower carbon footprints and (ideally) zero waste."

I've thought about this for a long time. Our society is on a fast fashion treadmill. Inexpensive, disposable clothing is churned out by overworked, underpaid people, often in sub-par conditions. It's produced at a very low cost so we can buy it seasonally at a big box store.

The system isn't a good one. It produces a lot of waste. (How many people mend those clothes when they rip?) Many times the corporations who make this clothing choose to produce it in countries that lack strong environmental laws. Textile production can pollute: Cotton, for instance, is usually grown with a lot of pesticides. Spinning and weaving factories may not be run in ways that cut down on energy or air pollution. Excess dye can be dumped into a water supply … and these are just a few examples.

Used clothing shipped overseas

We're so used to this fast fashion system in the developed world that it's commonplace to give away clothing that no longer feels fashionable or to throw out something that becomes torn rather than fix it. Most clothing we give away to a charity doesn't necessarily outfit someone local who is in need. This clothing overproduction is at such a high pitch that bushels of clothing are shipped to the developing world (whether or not it's wanted there), North American textile recycling facilities or landfills. 

The clothing we discard might end up on someone else's back in sub-Saharan Africa or South America, but that also seriously affects their local textile industry. Local factories can't compete with cheap castoffs and have to halt production, putting people out of work.

So, how can we become more thoughtful consumers? Many things I read online made it feel as though slow fashion was beyond my reach. For those short on money or time, it felt like an exclusive club. Some people sewed nearly all their clothing, researching the labour practices of the factories where their lingerie elastic was produced or purchasing only artisan yarns produced exclusively in their own countries. While some of this seemed admirable, it also smacked of privilege. These were educated people with time and money, as well as the wherewithal to track down the most virtuously produced materials.

What can we do?

Not all of us can manage this sort of lifestyle change. What are basic things we can do?

1) Purchase less. We're bombarded by advertising urging us to buy more. Choosing to use less, wear it more often and wash it and care for it instead of discarding it can make a difference.

Karibu thrift store

Thrift stores can also provide inexpensive, good-quality clothing that's kind to the environment. (Lakshine Sathiyanathan/CBC)

2) Consider buying second-hand or contributing to the hand-me-down economy. Many of us pass kids' clothing from one family to the next or shop at thrift stores. This cuts down on waste and saves both money and time.

3) Make do and mend. Fixing your clothes when they rip should not be a mysterious lost art. All of us should be able to pick up a needle and thread or use an iron-on patch when necessary. Replacing a button should be a required life skill! This isn't gender-specific; my father, brothers and husband can mend because their families thought it was important. You can, too. If there's no one from your family to teach you, check out a YouTube tutorial.

4) Recycle and reuse. When those jeans can't be mended again, consider making them into cut-off shorts. When something can't be repaired, put it in the rag bag and explore the myriad ways you can make it into something new. Quilts, rugs, stuffing, cleaning supplies — our ancestors knew the value of every fabric scrap. See how you can find that value again … and avoid dumping in a landfill.

5) Give away clothing to those who can truly use it. Find a charity or thrift store or a friend who can use what you give them. Also, be honest: figure out if your discards can be reused. Don't give dirty, ripped clothing away; wash and mend it first.    

6) When you need something, buy the best you can afford. Well-made products last longer.  Consult your values in regards to your clothing purchases — do you want to support locally made goods? Things produced with fair labour? Clothing factories that do not negatively affect the environment? Use your purchases and your dollars to promote your values.

Embrace old values

While the #slowfashionoctober Instagram feed seemed like a slick new advertising campaign, it embraced old values. Before textiles were mass-produced, it was rare to own more than two outfits — one for every day, and one for special occasions. Everyone participated in spinning, knitting, weaving and sewing clothing for their families. They knew the value of what they wore and how much work it took. We live in a time when we don't have to struggle so much to clothe ourselves. However, our ignorance about its origins means we may be buried in unnecessary textile waste produced by unknown strangers who suffered to make it.

Perhaps using less (and thinking more about it) might save us money and time in the long run. It helps the environment, too. Choosing to value slow fashion is a worthy long-term goal … and it's well worth our while to find ways to include everyone in the effort. I can't afford a completely local, handmade wardrobe — but maybe we can all mend, make and repurpose our way toward less waste in the meanwhile.     


Joanne Seiff's book, Knit Green, explores ethical and ecological choices for knitters — and for everyone who wears clothing. She's a freelancer who writes, designs and teaches in Winnipeg.