Grocery stores, restaurants and coffee shops have wholeheartedly embraced the slow food movement, with phrases such as "certified organic," "fair-trade" and "all-natural" plastered across product packaging and menus. While each of these designations means something specific, in the eyes of many along the supply chain including the end user, they all can deliver a similar message of high quality.
The slow fashion movement is following a comparable path forward, with brands promoting long-lasting materials and educating consumers around end-of-life uses for garments, such as recycling or upcycling. Still, slow fashion has seemingly been progressing less quickly than its food counterpart and it's up to the apparel industry — and all segments of the supply chain — to accelerate its pace of change.
Slow food: Origin and adoption
Today, the movement is spearheaded by Slow Food International, a grassroots organization with thousands of members in over 160 countries. It envisions a world in which all people can access and enjoy food that is good for consumers, producers and the planet through three interconnected principles: good (quality, flavorsome and healthy), clean (environmentally friendly) and fair (accessible prices for consumers and fair conditions and pay for producers).
Although organic products may not solely represent the movement, they can be an indicator of consumer adoption of the movement's food principles — and data shows that consumers have embraced them. According to Pew Research Center, Americans' appetite for organic foods has grown steadily over the past few decades. In fact, retail sales of organic foods more than doubled from 1994 to 2014, with a steady uptick of about 10 percent annual growth over the past several years. This could be partially due to the accessibility of these products by national chains such as Whole Foods that have brought high-quality food products to the mainstream.
Innovation in Stakeholder Engagement, Education and Collaboration
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Through organizations such as Slow Food International, the industry has worked to bring ethically produced, good food to consumers and to educate them on the slow food movement — a model that slow fashion can emulate.
Slow fashion: Origin and adoption
The integrity of the supply chain is also important to the slow fashion movement, as it affects the entire lifecycle of the piece — from where the fiber comes from and how it's produced, to who is developing the fabric and end-garment, and how it's worn and recycled.
Like slow food, slow fashion isn't just a nice-to-have — the need for this change is paramount, given the industry's impact, including on the environment: The United States generates an average of 25 billion pounds of textiles per year, the equivalent of 82 pounds per resident. Of that, only 15 percent get recycled or donated, while the other 85 percent goes to landfills.
As critical as the slow fashion movement is, it has a long way to go to catch up to slow food. From a consumer perspective, adoption is not mainstream just yet. Trends are fleeting, and the rise of fast-fashion has promoted a throw-away culture. Further, sustainable apparel shoppers only account for about 1 in 10 global consumers.1
Although it can foster a solution, the fashion industry is still part of the problem — only one-third has taken action on environmental or social performance. Moreover, the recent second edition of the Pulse of the Fashion Industry report released by the Global Fashion Agenda and The Boston Consulting Group rated fashion's sustainability ‘pulse' at just 38 out of 100.
Action needed to advance slow fashion
In order to accelerate the pace in which the slow fashion movement is brought to the mainstream and embraced by consumers, industry professionals must consider the materials sourced, the labeling of end products, the narrative around sustainable apparel, and accessibility to consumers.
Before a garment is produced, designers and manufacturers decide what material will be sourced to create the piece. This starts the chain of sustainability throughout the product's lifestyle. In an effort to increase mainstream awareness for sustainability and decrease the garment's impact on the environment, designers and manufacturers should consider sourcing sustainable materials and utilizing industry resources, such as the Sustainable Apparel Coalition's Higg Index. The Higg Index offers a suite of tools that helps brands, retailers and facilities measure their company or product's sustainability — a powerful solution for businesses looking to understand the true impact of their products on the environment.
Other organizations, such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, are bringing industry leaders together through initiatives such as " Make Fashion Circular," which encourages collaboration to ensure clothes are made from renewable materials, new business models increase their use of these materials and old clothes are upcycled. Similarly, the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute provides criteria and guidelines for designers and manufacturers to improve the sustainability of their products.
Labels are an effective education tool for consumers to recognize and understand the products that they're purchasing, from the labels in the garments to hang tags on them. Collectively, industry players need to come together to identify and market important labels to help educate consumers at the point of purchase.
The farm-to-table narrative of slow food has been imperative to educating consumers and advancing the movement. As more people have learned about their connection with the food they consume, many more are still uneducated about where their clothes come from. Organizations such as Fashion Revolution have made great strides in storytelling through campaigns that directly ask consumers about the origins of their closets. During Fashion Revolution Week, the organization challenges consumers to ask, "Who made my clothes?" to shed a light on the rights of garment workers.
As an industry, more needs to be done to advance the sustainability narrative. Fashion brands along the supply chain must come together to share a compelling story and argument for sustainable fashion in order to create a more emotional connection for consumers to the clothes they purchase and wear every single day.
Retailers such as Whole Foods have helped make the slow food movement accessible to a mainstream consumer audience; this same accessibility is crucial to the advancement of slow fashion. While many brands are already doing their part to make sustainable clothes accessible, the industry as a whole needs to elevate its commitment to advancing the principles of slow fashion. More importantly, it must show clear action in offering consumers more durable, ethical and accessible apparel; and to address performance, use, durability and the social and environmental impact of the materials while doing so. Only then will sustainable apparel truly be adopted en masse by the global consumer market.