A woman makes handprinted batik in Pamekasan, East Java. (Antara Photo/Saiful Bahri)

Slow Fashion Is the Answer, but Are We Too Slow on the Uptake?


MARCH 23, 2018

Jakarta. Going green and becoming more environmentally friendly is catching on everywhere, not least in the fashion world where "slow fashion" is quickly becoming a trend.

Slow fashion, a term sometimes used interchangeably with eco-fashion, started trending in Indonesia around five years ago, but only really took off in the last two years along with the rise of the new clean-eating, health-conscious middle class.

"It [slow fashion] is now considered as part of a healthy lifestyle. People have become more aware of environmental damage and want to do something about it," Jakarta-based fashion writer Sonny Muchlison told Jakarta Globe.

The term slow fashion refers to a movement that promotes the design, creation and purchase of high quality, sustainably garments. It encourages slower production processes, lower carbon footprint, zero waste and fair wages.

"Slow fashion not only promotes environmentally friendly practices but also places great importance on customers' health and on creating comfortable working conditions for workers," Sonny said.

Slow fashion encourages consumers to change their buying habits, to avoid buying products that can harm the environment or those living in it.

The movement has emerged as the antidote to fast fashion, which manufactures clothes and accessories at lightning speed and shortens the lifespan of clothing items.

Fast fashion includes ready-to-wear items whose sole reason to exist is to follow trends. They are produced in factories using industrial machines and colored with chemical dyes. Fast fashion is quick, inexpensive and does a great job to meet demands.

On the other hand, slow fashion emphasizes quality and tries to slow down production process and the consumption cycle.

Slow fashion, at least in theory, should improve the environmental sustainability of the  fashion industry and the health of its workers.

Unfortunately, the progress of the movement in Indonesia is, yes, slow.

Traditional Fashion = Slow Fashion

Sonny said it's ironic that artisans and manufacturers in Indonesia are abandoning traditional cloth-making processes in droves just as slow fashion is gaining acceptance in the rest of the world.

"We've actually practiced slow and eco-fashion since we first made batik in the 17th century," he said. "Making something like batik is complicated though, so you can see why people are giving up on it."

This complicated, time-consuming process is the main reason why traditional craftsmanship often doesn't pass muster in the fast-fashion world.

"Slow fashion can’t keep up with trends. Unlike fast fashion, that takes only a week to produce, slow fashion items may take five months or more to finish," Sonny said.

Another reason is, of course, money. Slow fashion products are costlier to make and thus more expensive on the retail floor, causing manufacturers to turn to fast fashion increase turnovers.

As long as demand for affordable fashion items keeps increasing, manufacturers will continue to look for cheaper ways to mass produce clothes and reduce costs.

Popular retail stores such as Zara, H&M, Pull&Bear and Forever21 are some of the biggest purveyors of fast fashion.

Even batik manufacturers are taking cues from them, substituting traditional batik-making tools with modern machines and natural dyes with chemical ones, causing pollution in major rivers in Java.

Fast Fashion's Waste

Indonesia's Maritime Affairs Coordinating Minister Luhut Pandjaitan recently said that Citarum River in West Java is now the world’s second most-polluted river. Most of the pollutants in the river come from factory waste, including from textile and garment factories.

The polluted river has been known to cause outbreaks of pneumonia, urinary tract infections and bloodstream infections among local people.

In response, some fashion brands have now embraced the modern version of slow fashion, encouraging producers and customers to do more to protect the environment and improving conditions in their factories or, sometimes, abandoning them altogether.

Slow fashion has become a strong enough trend that workshops, classes and discussions about it have been held during Jakarta Fashion Week and Indonesia Fashion Week – not known as bastions of ethically conscious fashion practices.

Indonesian designer Edward Hutabarat has led the local charge toward slow fashion, hiring local artisans and providing them with slow fashion training.

Senior designer Biyan Wanaatmadja also collaborates with local administrations in Sumba, East Nusa Tenggara, to help traditional weavers market their products.

Younger brands like Sejauh Mata Memandang by Chitra Subyakto, Fbudi by Felicia Budi and Kana by Sancaya Rini have also joined the slow fashion movement by employing local artisans and training them to become more independent.

"Slow fashion is still very much a niche market. But more people are becoming aware of the damage fast fashion can have on our environment, and consequently, our life. Slow fashion is the answer, we just need more people to believe in the idea," Sonny said.

The fashion writer is of the opinion that for slow fashion to thrive, the solution is simple: everyone needs to stop consuming fast fashion.

"We blame the government for our dirty rivers, for pollution, but we never admit that we also contribute to the destruction of the environment by consuming fast fashion," Sonny said.