2500 people. 3 months. No new clothes. 5 Takeaways From Slow Fashion Summer 2018

A summarization of the observations derived from the consumer awareness campaign which focused on the overconsumption culture propagated by fast-fashion.

You might have heard of crowdfunding, and perhaps not crowdacting. Introduced by the Dutch non-profit CollAction, crowdacting is a new concept that enables people to pledge their action instead of money towards a positive-impact-driven cause.

The team at CollAction took to their digital platform to counter fast fashion’s frenetic pace of use-and-throw culture by launching the Slow Fashion Summer (SFS) project. The proposition was simple. 2500 people. 3 months. No new clothes. With reactions ranging from intrigued to interested, 2625 people pledged to buy no new clothes. The campaign ended in September 2018 and is aiming for 10K signups for summer of 2019.

Slow Fashion Summer (SFS) project | Image Credit: CollAction

With billions of people buying into fashion, those numbers do not stand a chance for consideration. However, let SFS be seen as a social experiment conducted at the lab of consumer behaviour. This interesting endeavour challenges the general view that the customer has little or no role to play in reversing fashion’s adverse environmental and social impacts. And that the onus for change lies with the brands and retailers. Here are five observations, derived from the experiment, that offer food for thought for the industry at large.

(1) The Anti Over Consumption Narrative Offers Potential For Change

Fashion often gets compared with food in the sustainability discourse. Staying with that analogy, while it is wise to go slow with a weight loss plan than starve one’s way to eating disorders, asking people to stop buying clothes won’t help with problems of fast-fashion. For a 20-something who browses the Missguided app as much as social media and in the process, often shops on impulse, a laddered approach to mindful consumption stands a better chance at driving behaviour change. Ron Van Den Akker, Co-founder, CollAction say: “The SFS project is not anticonsumption but anti-over-consumption. We want to nudge people to slow down and become aware of how much clothes we actually buy, why we buy them and the alternative ways of consuming, whether buying second-hand or through subscription. Hopefully, a mindset change will also drive them to buy fashion brands that rate high on sustainability creds.”

Patagonia’s ‘Don’t buy this jacket’ ad ” Image Credit: Patagonia

Anti-consumption narratives have not been impactful. The most notable one is Patagonia’s ‘Don’t buy this jacket’ ad, released on Black Friday in 2011. Apparently, it had a reverse marketing effect as sales of that jacket shot up after consumers saw the ad in The New York Times. Another one is Buy Nothing Day, an international day of protest against consumerism, also held on Black Friday. Although the issue of quantum of reduction is complex and multi-dimensional, given that levels of consumption vary vastly in the West and other parts of the world, the way forward is through evolution and not a restriction.

(2) Recommerce Offers Guilt-Free Thrills Of Fast Fashion

“Do Not Panic! You can still buy secondhand”, exclaimed a fashion blogger who signed up for SFS. That allowance had made the 3-month challenge doable for her. Whether driven by a need or just a programmed reflex to buy, SFS participants turned to thrifting(buying secondhand) along with some mending and repurposing. Recommerce in the fashion space seems like the perfect bridge between the intention and action divide. Several studies have highlighted that millennials care about sustainability at large. However, when it comes to clothes shopping, they often fail to follow through with that philosophy. A study by LIM college in US in early 2018 highlighted that only 34% of the 18-37-year-olds surveyed, cared for sustainability while buying an apparel or accessory. 95% of them are driven by price and ease of purchase.

“Several studies have highlighted that millennials care about sustainability at large. However, when it comes to clothes shopping, they often fail to follow through withthat philosophy.”

Therefore, one can safely assume that second-hand clothes shopping allows young buyers to save the planet, one thrift at a time. And that the thrills of fast fashion, i.e. bargains and constant newness in the wardrobe are kept alive. Recognising the growth potential, an increasing number of online startups in this space, from Depop to the luxury focussed The RealReal, have gone all out to offer a convenient, desirable and trustworthy user experience. US-based consignment and thrift store, ThredUp reports that a whopping 70% of its customers have never thrift shopped before. Through the month of August 2018, ThredUp also ran a #nonewclothes challenge. Users of the site were urged to hashtag their fashionably coordinated secondhand #OOTDs (outfit of the day). The flip side to thrifting remains that it might still encourage over-consumption. The guilt of constantly buying is offset by giving the garment an extended life.

ALSO READ: Dutch Startup Lena Offers An Alternative To Fast Fashion

Even so, at this point in time, more people are thrifting than renting clothes. According to a report by the Ellen Mc Arthur Foundation, survey data from Germany, Poland, Sweden,and the US suggests that just over 40% of customers could ‘imagine using fashion rental’. Perhaps the thrifting model, closest to the existing behaviour of buying, finds most acceptance. But if more established fashion brands, whether high-street or luxury, enter the renting space, other models of sharing economy like renting and subscription can go mainstream.

(3) Females Are Leading The Sustainable Consumption Brigade

Though the exact breakup of gender mix is unavailable, females far outnumbered males with signups to this social experiment. That begs the question, do men not care about the issues in fashion? They probably do but do not care to or want to admit in public. Empirically speaking, the majority of fashion resale sites from Poshmark to Vestiaire Collective have men on-board buying and selling fashion. US-based Grailed is a community secondhand clothing marketplace that exclusively caters to men.

“Though the exact breakup of gender mix is unavailable, females far outnumbered males with signups to this social experiment. That begs the question, do men not care about the issues in fashion?”

A 2016 study, published in the Journal of Consumer Research offers an explanation about the gender gap in the public display of sustainable consumption behaviour. According to that research, there’s a prevalent stereotype that green consumers are more feminine and hence it argues that the green-feminine stereotype may motivate men to avoid green behaviours in order to preserve a macho image. Among the female participants, it is hard to tell whether SFS resonated with existing converts or that it managed to rope in first-timers on the path of conscious consumption. However, through the stories of lapses, struggles and success during the 3 months, they spoke about getting to know more about the resources that go into the making of a garment. And that they had willingly given in to the addiction of buying the next it-trend.

To increase engagement, SFS organisers plan to introduce gamification in the next round. Says 24-year-old blogger and conscious fashion enthusiast, Faye Francisco, “I used the SFS challenge to break my continuous cycle of shopping or thrifting and made an effort to fall in love with my closet. Next summer, I’d love to spread the word to more people and if that act unlocks some new features or rewards for me, it would be awesome.”

(4) Brands Must Take The Overproduction Monster Head-On

The conception of SFS was prompted by the high-volume-low-cost business model that drives the fast fashion end of the apparel market. A well-oiled marketing machinery keeps the shopper addicted to the ride on the consumption treadmill. By not caring about their contribution, the customer is complicit to the problems generated by the aforementioned model. SFS 18’ participants prevented the sale of 30k garments, a drop in the ocean for the 3 trillion dollar clothing industry. Conceptually though, a mega version of SFS could be something that a fashion brand’s nightmares are made of; a mountain of unsold stock, waiting to be burnt. Would that make for a sound business model where clothing production is followed by destruction? Says Dr Natascha Radclyffe Thomas, Course Leader-Fashion Marketing, London College of Fashion, “Businesses are talking about being sustainable but they still need to sell products for the turnover. We don’t have big businesses saying that we are not going to grow and stop producing. SFS is an interesting thought prompt. Some far-sighted brands might take it up in an authentic way by doing and offering something new while others could have a cynical view, dismissing the movement as a little swell of people having a conversation.”

“Some far-sighted brands might take it up in an authentic way by doing and offering something new while others could have a cynical view, dismissing the movement as a little swell of people having a conversation”

The alternate business models which support less and considered production are renting and leasing. Here the customers pay for access rather than ownership and use garments for a specified time period. Sustainability frontrunner brands like Mud Jeans, Houdini and Vigga are experimenting with such models. On the other hand, brand re-commerce initiatives, focussed on increasing clothes utilisation, include Worn Wear by Patagonia and Eileen Fisher Renew. While they may be trialling new projects behind the scenes, visibly at the shop floor level, the big brands like H&M and Zara are focussing on repair and clothes takeback schemes. An industry insider observes that by continuously offering new fast fashion items at such incredibly affordable prices and on a fortnightly basis, global brands may be contributing to blatant consumption. Subsequently, a question is asked: is the only way to change customer behaviour by producing fewer clothes or can fast fashion industry captains lead, by active demonstration in another way?

(5) Digital Disruptions In The Fast Fashion Cycle

Community-building with technology has ramifications in the fashion space as well. SFS launched on a slow note but gained traction on the back of support from sustainability-focused organisations like Fashion For Good, Fashion Revolution, Global Fashion Exchange and key influencers who invited their social media audiences to sign up. SFS ended with an online clothing swap and through e-word of mouth, several offline versions were organised in 7 cities including Amsterdam, London & Bangalore.

Image Credit: Fashion for Good

Even though the swaps were small-scale, they highlight the potential for change that wrests with digitally connected small communities to inspire fellow citizens. Also when people’s consumption practices get linked, they do not operate in isolation. Facebook communities across the world are offering their collective wisdom, tips and tricks to members to be wise with their shopping than fall for marketing manipulation if any. The signs of change are also visible on the grand platform that fuels fashion’s visual and physical consumption. Instagram. You might have spotted the new hashtags making their way into the fashion glossary. #secondhandfirst, #outfitrepeater #handmadeloves and #fastfashionsucks.

Image Credit: Save Your Wardrobe

Digital is also making it easy to embrace the 6Rs of sustainability. For those looking to reduce, reuse, refuse, rethink, repair and recycle, an app is available for most of the Rs. If the Stuffstr app helps you recycle, Save your Wardrobe is aiming to assist you with reducing and reusing the clothes you already own. Accessing them and acting, of course, remains an individual’s imperative. Meanwhile, the summer has ended. The enticing Fall collections will soon start flooding the inbox with product mailers about the clothes we ‘must-have’. The moot point is who can resist that temptation and ask the question do I really need that mini dress with buttons in check. Sceptics might dub SFS as a one-off Dutch initiative and a campaign that lacks measurability. The latter is true because unlike an energy saving pledge, SFS operates on trust, nudging people to keep up the promise beyond a mere signup.

The world’s biggest fashion activism movement, Fashion Revolution took 5 years to engage over 2 million consumers. SFS marks a starting point. At a time when plastic pollution is on everyone’s mind, can an awareness movement of this kind grow any quicker?

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Molshree is a fashion consultant and researcher based in London. With a background in fashion retail, she is currently focussing on projects that propel the sustainability agenda into the mainstream.