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The Rise of Slow Fashion Crusaders

Fashion brands want you to stop shopping. Wait, what?

"Buy less, buy better!"

As the backlash against fast fashion and its irresponsible, wasteful ways swells, a new batch of retailers are increasingly set on telling consumers that they're not like that. That they care about production methods. That they want to help artisans transform their crafts into businesses. That they don't want you to buy a ton of shit.

Some have gone so far as to take out full-page advertisements declaring their mission. Zady, the New York-based e-commerce startup that sells thoughtful fashion from brands including Steven Alan, Armor Lux and Sundry, said recently in a paid placement in the Wall Street Journal, "Fast Fashion is Fast Food...Process Matters. Quality Matters. Honesty Matters." On the one-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse, where more than 1,000 workers died while manufacturing clothes for multiple global retailers, San Francisco-based Everlane, the maker of affordable basics produced with "total transparency," asked the readers of the New York Times, "What do you know about your clothes?" On its website, Everlane set up a page where one can contribute to the The Rana Plaza Donors Trust Fund, which helps support the victims and its families. The retailer also pledged to match the first $10,000 in donations.

There were plenty of other well-intentioned declarations made by retailers around the Rana Plaza anniversary. Bib + Tuck, the online clothing swap site,  wrote about it on its blog. And just a month earlier, American Apparel released its controversial "Made in Bangladesh" ad. San Francisco-based retailer Cuyana encourages shoppers to "buy fewer things." The Ventura, California-based Patagonia, which arguably heralded in this flavor of marketing, is currently running a campaign centered around the "responsible economy." But Zady and Everlane's efforts surely garnered the most press coverage, thanks to a full-page ad's grandiose feeling. (I don't know how much Zady actually paid for its space in the Wall Street Journal, but the paper's media kit says that a rack rate for a full-page, black-and-white, non-contract ad in the national edition is $261,287.46.) It was, in both cases, the kind of statement that can create real impact.

It was also, to be sure, a calculated strategy. And while I don't for a second question either of these company's well-meaning intentions -- I've been covering both closely since their inceptions --  I do wonder if marketing altruism is the right approach for any retailer. It's a sophisticated version of a Miracle on 34th Street maneuver -- a tactic where the retailer puts itself last in order to better serve its customer. 

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However, we can't forget something: these brands need you to buy stuff, and a lot of it, to survive. Everlane has raised $1.1 million in funding. Zady, $1.4 million. Cuyana, $2.6 million. Which means they've promised their investors a multiple-times return. The only way they're going to get there? By selling more goods.

The retailers mentioned often like to compare themselves to the food industry, suggesting that the slow fashion movement is where the slow food movement was 10 years ago. In a way, it's a valid match-up. But in others, it's not. For one, food is directly related to health and survival. We need to be clothed, but we don't need fashion. A true correlating argument would be, "Stop buying stuff altogether! You have more than enough." Which is definitely not something that a fashion business should -- or can be -- saying.

Sometimes a less crusade-y, quieter approach can be equally -- if not more so -- effective. Recently, the writer and activist Amy DuFault contributed a great piece to the Guardian about fashion companies making small but smart changes on the path to sustainability.  She mentioned Keen, the Portland, Oregon-based shoe company that is working slowly to bring its manufacturing to Portland. Keen has also created smaller shoe boxes that are held together without toxic glue. "We don't want customers to react to our sustainability initiative; rather, we want them to be inspired by it," Chris Enlow, corporate social responsibility manager at Keen, told DuFault. "Sustainability is all about participation and constant change." 

These companies, declarations aside, are all making good products in an ethical, inspiring way. And isn't a great product the best form of marketing? I challenge them to show, not tell. 

Image: Courtesy of Zady