The environmental and ethical costs of fast fashion – i.e. big brands mass-producing low-cost throwaway clothing in response to the latest runway trends – are well documented. Cheaper garments are often made possible due to the systematic exploitation of workers, and lead to excessive textile waste, more greenhouse gas emissions and other forms of pollution.

In contrast, slow fashion takes into consideration all aspects of the supply chain: where a garment is made, what it’s made of, who made it, its re-wear and resale value. The movement aims to create clothes that last, physically and stylistically, while paying workers fairly and reducing environmental impact as much as possible.

Slow fashion is obviously the better choice, but when you’re shopping it’s often hard to tell what’s “slow” and “fast”, never mind the enormous spectrum of garments that exist between these two fuzzy poles. Brands are also liable to describe themselves using terms like “sustainable” and “ethical”. These words feel good but have no concrete definitions (legally or otherwise) making them ultimately hollow and unreliable unless certified by a third party.

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The important thing is doing what you can, because anything is better than nothing. It’s like David Attenborough said in A Life on Our Planet: “If we all had a largely plant-based diet, we would need only half the land we use at the moment.” That’s not to say that everyone needs to give up meat completely. The same goes for clothes. Here are six ways you can identify and break up with fast fashion.

Support local
“The biggest myth about slow fashion is that it’s difficult to produce here in Australia,” says Emma Cutri, co-owner of the Melbourne womenswear label Sister Studios.

Cutri and her business partner Alice McIntosh engage small Ethical Clothing Australia-accredited manufacturers in the city to produce their pieces. “Manufacturing locally is really important to us,” she says. “We love being involved in the whole process, working closely and hands-on with talented craftspeople.”

Brands like Sister Studios keep onshore manufacturing afloat and its workers employed. By supporting these brands, you’re in turn doing the same. The alternative is big global brands, many of which rely on exploitative practices and supply chains so large and convoluted they can’t be audited effectively.

Invest in the best quality you can afford
As with any product, quality pieces pay off over time. Think of it this way: you can buy a $300 jumper made locally, from high-grade wool, and wear it for 10-plus years (or pass it on to a new owner). Or you can buy a $100 jumper that develops holes after a year or two. A decade into this cycle you’ll have spent $500 on jumpers that have a shorter shelf life than a can of tomatoes, and likely sent several of them to landfill.

When you frame it like this, spending more money now is actually spending less money in the long run. You’ll also benefit from clothing that looks and feels better than its cheaper counterparts.

If you’re still intimidated about those initial price tags, take Cutri’s advice: “Start small; save up and buy one or two good pieces that you can wear all season long – and the season after that.”

Implement the two Cs: capsule and circular
“Capsule” and “circular” are two of the biggest buzzwords in fashion today. If you find yourself buying things only to wear them a handful of times before they go out of style, opt for the first of the two.

A capsule wardrobe, like its name suggests, is a small-ish selection of timeless, high-quality pieces that are likely to withstand trends – with the emphasis on “selection”, as the purpose of this wardrobe is to be as minimal as possible. Think one smart blazer, one pair of jeans, one pair of sneakers and so on. Mix and match these simple basics with the occasional statement piece to create hundreds of potential outfits.

If you’re someone who likes to keep up with current trends but also wants to be sustainable, then opt for a circular wardrobe, which could include pre-loved clothes. Bec Anderson, one of the minds behind sustainable clothing initiative Swop, says a circular wardrobe is “when you purchase garments with the intention of using them for as long as possible, and then repurposing them when you no longer wish to use them”.

With stores in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, Swop provides a platform for high quality garments to circulate sustainably, from one wardrobe to the next.

“We’re all for capsule wardrobes, but there are some absolute gems to be found in the pre-loved market that can make your sustainable fashion choices fun and individual,” Anderson says.

Shop mindfully, not mindlessly
Shopping from fast fashion labels is usually a mindless exercise. The costs are low, so you don’t have to worry about breaking the bank, and the pieces are usually on-trend, which means you buy them on sight.

Slow fashion calls for a shift in attitude. Ask yourself three questions before buying anything. One: how many wears will I get out of this? (“I use the ‘30 wears test’; if I don’t think I’ll wear it 30 times at a minimum, I won’t buy it,” Anderson says.) Two: do I have something like this already? If the answer is yes, reconsider. And three: is there something else I’d rather spend this money on right now? If the answer is yes, seriously, reconsider.

Do your research
The onus is on brands to be transparent about how they manufacture their pieces. The onus is on you to seek out and use that information. Consider what each piece is made of, favouring wool, recycled cotton, recycled polyester (rPET), organic hemp and organic linen, then check if the manufacturer is accredited by ECA, GOTS or another independent, reputable body.

“The ECA focuses on the rights of textile, clothing and footwear workers,” says Amanda Bresnan, ECA’s national manager. “To be ECA accredited, a business’s manufacturing operations are audited; this ensures workers are being paid appropriately, receiving all their legal entitlements and working in safe conditions.”

Knowing who has made a garment, and in what conditions, closes the gap between consumers and manufacturers. Another great resource is Good On You, a website and app that rates brands’ ethical and sustainable practices using easy-to-understand terms.

Use social media wisely
When it comes to fast fashion, social media plays a huge and often covert role in the endless cycle of over-consumption and waste. The endless stream of ads, sponsored posts and outfits of the day subtly reinforce the idea that we need more stuff. Being aware of this agenda goes some way to counteracting it.

On the other hand, social media are also home to numerous grassroots campaigns and communities aiming to kick fast fashion. Instagram Reels and Tiktok are filled with helpful videos on how to repair, maintain and repurpose clothing, and remain one of the best ways to discover new slow fashion labels as they emerge.

All in all, this is a pretty standard break-up guide: raise your standards, think long-term and please, avoid stalking their Instagram. When you’re ready to get back out there, here are some brands and platforms to swipe right on:

Afends is a Byron Bay street and surfwear label championing hemp as a superior alternative to cotton, and working with Retraced to help customers track the journey of their garments.
Arnsdorf is B Corp certified, meaning it meets the highest verified standards of social and environmental performance, transparency, and accountability.
Bianca Spender’s stunning evening gowns and other pieces are certified by Ethical Clothing Australia.
Clothing The Gaps is a Victorian Aboriginal led and controlled, and majority Aboriginal-owned social enterprise, which recently achieved B Corp certification too.
Depop is an app leading the second-hand fashion movement.
Ethical Clothing Australia is an invaluable resource for finding ethical labels, with help from useful filters like “denim”, “babies and children”, “vegan” and “Indigenous”.
FME Apparel produces garments in small, thoughtful runs with a strong emphasis on high quality and organic fabrics.
Goodbyes is a second-hand shopping destination in Melbourne, Adelaide, Canberra and Hobart.
Good On You is a website and app that rates brands’ ethical and sustainable practices using easy-to-understand terms.
Good Studios in Adelaide works primarily with hemp (rather than cotton) for its easy, everyday pieces and is accredited by Ethical Clothing Australia.
Jillian Boustred’s comfy, loose-fitting skirts, dresses, trousers and tops are made in Australia from at least 90 per cent natural fibres, with no single-use plastics used during manufacturing or delivery.
Maggie Marilyn is an New Zealand-based label making elegant shirting, knits and more for men and women. Like Arnsdorf, it’s B Corp certified.
Nico is a Brisbane-based underwear label that uses GOTS-certified fabrics and is notably transparent about its manufacturing process in India.
Nobody Denim promotes brand transparency by listing all its suppliers and how each contributes to the planet.
Outland Denim provides training and secure, fair employment to Cambodian victims of human trafficking, slavery and other forms of abuse and exploitation. Each year it shares an extensive report on its own operations, from staff demographics to environmental impact.
Rntr rents out designer garments for people to wear for a period of time before returning. It’s a good way to be “on trend” without purchasing and contributing to waste.
Sister Studios engages small ECA-accredited manufacturers in Melbourne to produce its pieces.
Swop Clothing Exchange is where you can buy, sell and trade pre-loved clothing, closing the fashion loop.
The Common Good Company uses 60 per cent recycled cotton and 40 per cent recycled polyester in its garments.
The Social Outfit is a registered social enterprise and charity that trains and employs and training refugees and new migrants in Sydney.