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Forget fast fashion: How did we get here and how do we stop it?

Emily Evans, founder of ethical and sustainable clothing brand Zola Amour, on why we should all turn our backs on fast fashion.

So, we all know it, fast fashion is sh**… It is built on exploitation at every stage, of every person (including us, the customers) and of the planet.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. In this article, I’m going to explore the history of fashion in order to understand how we got to this stage, to help to understand what we can do to change this for future generations…

The history of fashion

Fashion hasn’t always been like this. Before the industrial revolution in the 18th century, people would get their clothes made for them by hand. They would go to their tailor, who would take their measurements and hand-make the patterns to fit each individual perfectly. The tailor would know and order fabric directly from the fabric merchant, who would personally know the farmer, spinner and weaver.

Basically, at the time the clothing industry was built on smaller cottage industry businesses. Everyone knew the hands involved and were grateful for their skilled work, appreciating the value and only ordering clothing when they needed it.

Victorian workhouse

Then ‘BOOM’ the industrial revolution happens. This began to fragment clothing manufacturing – making the workers anonymous and unseen. Farming began to be increasingly done on an industrial scale.

Fabrics were spun and woven by machines operated by children or cheap labour. Clothing began to be standardised and stitched using workhouses – exploiting homeless people, debtors and orphans to manufacture.

History of fabric manufacturing

Although the technique of manufacturing clothing dramatically changed during the industrial revolution, the fabrics largely stayed the same, Still made of natural fabrics, grown and dyed without chemicals, with a few more luxury fabrics (such as imported silk) being introduced and becoming ‘mainstream’.

It was not until the 20th century that it began to change dramatically with the invention of nylon in 1935 – being introduced to the market in the form of hosiery in the 1940s.

Since then the fabric industry has continued to change quickly and dramatically. Increasingly synthetic fabrics such as polyester and nylon (made from oil using the same technique used to make plastic) have grown in popularity and are now found in 65 per cent of clothing. This is largely due to the fact that they are cheap and easy to produce and dramatically cut down the cost of natural fabrics when blended.

Sewing machine

Cue fast fashion

Throughout the 70s clothing began to become increasingly cheap and accessible and by the 80s everyone wanted to have the latest trend. Manufacturers began directly copying ‘catwalk looks’ (fashion week began in 1983) dumbing them down and making them quickly and out of cheap synthetic fabrics and blends.

Quick, cheap and ‘fast’ fashion began to increase in popularity as shopping centres popped up and the competition began to grow. As a result of the competition, companies began to drive prices down, cutting costs on manufacturing and moving production overseas. This fragmented the clothing industry even more, pushing for profits over quality and losing sight (literally) of the hands actually making the clothing.

We’ve seen a steep development of the industry and in the past 20 years, companies have increasingly moved their production overseas in a bid to continually drive the prices down. As this has happened they have chosen to use cheaper fabrics and to produce clothing quicker and in higher volumes than ever before. Presently 90 per cent of all clothing production is made overseas.

Fashion and pollution

So how is this all bad? Well, on the surface it seems great, right? Wrong! Although clothes have become increasingly cheap meaning that we are able to purchase more. It is at a cost. As prices have been driven down, so has the quality, with manufacturers forced to cut corners to keep the price down.

The fashion industry is now considered to be one of the highest polluting industries in the world and is one of the top contenders for contributing to climate change.

“The fashion industry was responsible for 1.7 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2015, according to the Pulse of the Fashion Industry Report (which is only slightly less than the total contribution of Russia)” – Source, Common Objective.

Not only is it highly polluting, but, as an industry, it is built on abuse and manipulation.

Farmers and workers are being paid poverty wages so that we can satisfy our need for mountains of cheap, poorly-made clothing. We are constantly being bombarded by marketing images of skinny models and influencers wearing the latest styles, styles that change on a weekly, sometimes daily basis.

With the increased use of social media, we are made to feel bad for not wearing the latest styles and keeping up with appearances. The pressure to look the part forces us to shop more and spend more, often on items that are impulse bought and worn once (sometimes not even worn at all), all of which is actually making us poorer and leading to an increase in anxiety and depression. This forms the basis of a vicious cycle.

So how do we change this?

Well, as history suggests, there is a better way. It’s time to slow down, to respect nature, as well as all hands involved in the making of our garments and ourselves. I’m going to use our business model at Zola Amour as an example, purely because it’s the one that I know best.

We don’t develop seasonally and only create ‘key pieces’ and items that will span the seasons, remaining timeless and able to be worn for many years to come. We reflect the longevity of the designs with the quality of the garments and only use the highest quality fabrics that have been grown organically and fairly, without exploitation.

My mum and I also make each and every piece to order meaning that we never overproduce, keeping our waste to an absolute minimum. Of course, this means that the garments recommended retail price (RRP) is higher than what we have been accustomed to on the high street, but it is a fair price, one that reflects the respect of each person responsible for the production of our clothes.

The correct price for a garment that we know our customers will have and cherish for years. The true cost of which will be much less than that of a garment bought and worn once, after being worn and loved for years. I think the question in our minds shouldn’t be, ’but why does it cost so much’ with regards to ‘slow’, ‘organic’ clothing companies. Rather ‘but why is it so cheap?’ when analysing products in well-known high street stores.

To find out more about Zola Amour, visit:

Charlotte Harding
Charlotte Harding
Charlotte is a journalist and the co-founder of The Women's Work Collective.


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