Mend, craft or make do with less: How you can embrace 'slow fashion' year-round

The demise of Forever 21 in Canada has once again brought "slow fashion" into the spotlight. What seemed like a grassroots fashion movement in the past has morphed, Joanne Seiff says, and what follows is unclear — but it could make a big difference in terms of our environment, our wardrobes and our bank accounts.

Alternatives to cheap 'fast fashion' can be good for the environment, your wardrobe and your bank balance

Fashion retailer Forever 21 announced last month that it will close all of its Canadian stores, along with 168 in the U.S., as the chain undergoes bankruptcy proceedings. That's brought a renewed focus on the problems with 'fast fashion,' says Joanne Seiff — and an opportunity to explore more sustainable approaches to what we wear. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

With the demise of Forever 21 in Canada due to bankruptcy, attention has turned to the rise and fall of fast, "throwaway" fashion — and to locally made products and fair trade employment practices as alternatives.

However, what seemed like a grassroots fashion movement in the past has morphed, and what follows is unclear — but it could make a big difference in terms of our environment, our wardrobes, and our bank accounts.

The last few years, there were small-scale bloggers, popular in their own spheres, who focused on things like Slow Fashion October (#slowfashionoctober or #slowfashionmovement on Instagram) and on local initiatives. 

However, many of those bloggers have grown tired of leading what was essentially a massive social media event that preached to the choir every October.

Some people have evolved to embrace a slow fashion initiative all the time. Others have thrown up their hands and wondered what difference it all makes, given the massive pollution of the fashion industry in general. 

Fast fashion takes a terrible toll on the environment.

Conventionally grown cotton requires large amounts of fertilizers and pollutes the water. The energy required to grow cotton or to create oil-based "high performance" synthetics, is substantial. Rayon production uses chemicals and other fibres require a lot of water. 

A Bangladeshi firefighter douses the inside of the Rana Plaza garment factory in April 2013. The building's collapse killed 1,130 people and seriously injured 2,520 others, bringing attention to sweatshop conditions in the fashion industry. (Khurshed Rinku/Associated Press)

Most fabric is produced in places with few environmental protections in place. The chemicals and textile fibres can end up in the water, air and soil — and remain long after the person has worn and discarded the trendy clothing produced.

Further, as tragedies in Bangladesh and elsewhere remind us, there are people working in sweatshop conditions, risking their lives, to make that "cute" little item that you might only wear once.

Well, what changes can we make?

Buy 2nd-hand (or make it by hand)

First, it's a good opportunity to take a hard look at our clothing, and how we use it. Does your clothing take up a closet (or three)? Is it comprised of mostly natural fibres? When it rips, can you mend it or take it to be mended so as to prolong its life? 

There are many steps we can take to preserve our clothing and save just what we need to use.

When it is time to buy something, it's a good chance to consider a thrift store or consignment shop as a way to reuse something second-hand. If something new is really in order, take the opportunity to support a reputable business that makes clothing out of organic fibres that are made to last. 

Buying fewer items that are higher quality is also a way to protect the environment. It isn't always easier on the bank account, but it comes out even — or you might be ahead — if you buy less, buy second-hand, and then buy from reputable local businesses.

Making your own clothing is often a more environmentally friendly approach than buying new, Joanne Seiff says. (Laura Meader/CBC)

Another decision you can make, if you have the time and the skills, is to make more of your own clothing. I recently taught a class about how to make yarns using recycled fabrics. While my class attendance wasn't huge, every student there was concerned about the environment and what ended up in the landfill. They came committed to make a difference. 

Whether it's knitting, crochet, sewing or weaving, we can take back some of these industrialized processes to make them more environmentally friendly.

Although I am a knitwear designer and write knitting patterns, I'm not much of a sewist. However, a friend of mine sews a great deal. My last sewing lesson was probably at age 12, but this friend convinced me that yes, I could follow a pattern.

My recent commitment to change was to purchase natural fibre fabrics and blends, set up my sewing machine, and figure it out. It's good to learn new things. It's even better to skip the driving, the shopping and the frustration, and make something that fits properly (and that I needed!) the first time. 

We're hitting a point of no return when it comes to our consumption.

Our recycling programs are backed up because countries like China no longer want our leftovers. We need to figure out ways to reduce usage, produce things closer to home, and then process our leftovers. 

This October, we can all take a moment to look down at our outfits and see how they reflect our values. Yes, we need to vote so politicians can effect change, and we need to raise our voices so they are heard. 

However, if we care about the Earth, we can also focus on what we wear and how we wear it by using things a little longer, mending them more, disposing of them responsibly — and making do with less.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Joanne Seiff is the author of several books, including Knit Green, about textile sustainability. She works in Winnipeg as a freelance writer.