Why does fashion love this radical anti-capitalist concept?

This article is part of a series that examines Responsible fashionand innovative efforts to solve problems facing the fashion industry.

Recently, a word has come up again and again in conversations about fashion and climate change: degrowth.

What does it mean? Jason Hickel, an economic anthropologist and proponent of the movement, has written that degrowth “is a planned reduction in energy and resource use designed to bring the economy back into balance with the living world in a way that reduces inequality and improves human well-being.”

At first glance, it seems like an awkward fit. Fashion is rooted in constant consumption and extraction of the earth’s resources, but degrowth is an anti-capitalist movement that challenges the long-held notion that more is always better.

Concept, invented in 1972 by French political theorist André Gorz, is becoming more common as consumers become more aware of catastrophic levels of global warming.

Degrowth appears on bookshelves in Tokyo, where Kohei Saito, the philosopher, has published “Capital in the Anthropocene,” a popular book on the subject. In the debating rooms of London, How to Academy presents events such as “The pursuit of growth is a disaster for our country and our planet.” and digrowth is also popping up on TikTok through whimsically edited explanations that appeal to Gen Z.

Degrowth discussions are not limited to the fashion industry. Still, it appears to be a particular challenge there, as global consumption of clothing is expected to increase by 63 percent by 2030, from 62 million tons to 102 million tons, according to a study by the Boston Consulting Group (Equivalent to more than 500 billion additional T-shirts.)

Degrowth may be particularly resonant now because evidence suggests it is climate change accelerates emissions from textile manufacturing are expected to increase by 60 percent by 2030, according to UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

At the same time, unpredictable weather patterns and dwindling resources affecting supply chains, including cotton fields in Pakistan and the Amazon rainforest, making the procurement and production of materials more difficult. And so far, many of the fashion companies’ goals for pollution reduction and better working standards or investments in new green technologies and systems have had little effect.

No household business is in the process of renewing business models to adapt to the hard degrowth machines yet. But decades after Patagonia unveiled its infamous “Don’t Buy This Jacket” holiday ad campaign, some are tentatively exploring how to incorporate the concept into their business.

Almost every effort involved circularity — meaningful approaches to ensure that products are continuously recycled, regenerated and reused. IN Septemberthe British department store Selfridges announced that it wanted almost half of all customer transactions to be based on resale, repair, rental or refill by 2030. New brands such as Early Majority, founded by a former Patagonia executive, are being touted as evolving brands because they encourage consumers to buy items only once. And Ralph Lauren examines what “financial growth through degrowth of resources” might look like.

“We have seen our economy improve even though we are producing fewer units compared to five years ago,” Halide Alagöz, head of product and sustainability at Ralph Lauren, told COP26 conference delegates last year.

The company would not elaborate when contacted by The New York Times in October. But essentially degrowth is used here to mean supply chain optimization; improved efficiency by using raw materials to make more products that actually sell – meaning less wasted product and higher profits.

Like the term “sustainability,” which means different things to different people, degrowth is used in a variety of ways—and this leads to major disagreements about what it is and what it entails. Some say the breadth of definitions makes it vulnerable to greenwashing: the practice of companies making misleading claims about their environmental credentials deceive customers.

“Part of the problem is that nobody knows the terms,” ​​they said Daniel Susskindeconomist and research professor at King’s College London and Oxford University.

Economists who believe degrowth is the answer are adamant, he said, that the only way to reduce carbon emissions is less growth. But he said a mindset solely focused on shrinking the fashion economy would be a mistake.

“I think that to be credible, the focus should be on different growth, better forms of growth and how to incentivize it,” Mr. Susskind said. “An accelerator or brake mindset is just not realistic here. Helping people find a safe path towards more responsible business practices and sourcing is.”

The American designer Eileen Fisher, considered the godmother of the Western slow fashion movement, has spent four decades preoccupied with the idea of ​​how to buy less, consume less and produce less while still running a profitable brand. She, too, is wary of the term “degrowth”.

“We’re not saying ‘degrowth’ here – we’re talking about good growth and how to grow the good things about our business while weeding out the bad things,” she said. (She decided not to take her company public 20 years ago after investment analysts told her she didn’t have an “aggressive” enough growth plan, she said.)

“Healthy growth means fair wages and being mindful of the earth’s dwindling natural resources,” said Ms. Fisher said.

Her solution is to sell timeless designs made from durable, ethically sourced fabrics that can be easily repaired and recycled. She also started Renew, a buyback program, in 2009 where customers could return clothes they no longer wanted to be resold, donated or remade into new designs.

Others believe that true growth will come from consumers, not brands that produce demand. Buying less is the easiest way for consumers to reduce their impact on the planet because it bypasses all the headaches and contradictions that come with trying to shop sustainably, said Alec Leach, a former fashion editor and author of the book “The world is burning, but we still buy shoes.”

“I’m quite skeptical that any companies will give us growth – that’s something we’ll have to take on ourselves,” Mr. Leach said. “Brands can offer resale opportunities, but they still want to work with influencers, push advertising campaigns, organize international runway shows and ultimately produce the same, if not more, things.”

New legislation can have an impact. In the US and Europe, potential new regulations could improve supply chain due diligence and impose durability requirements designed to reduce waste

Many experts say conversations about growth in fashion must also consider the livelihoods of millions of garment workers. Fast fashion retailers rarely own the factories that make their clothes. The vast majority of clothing and footwear orders are outsourced to suppliers i the global south, where the cost of human labor is cheaper.

The economic fallout from the pandemic may have heightened some of these concerns, and degrowth advocates have suggested that efforts should start in rich countries. Mostafiz Uddin, a Bangladeshi garment factory owner with 2,000 employees, pointed out that any slowdown in orders – unless managed carefully – could have a disastrous impact on jobs.

“I often read about achieving net zero goals and I’m not against them,” Mr. Uddin said. But he also pointed out that workers could lose their jobs depending on how the degrowth effort is implemented.

With global economic recession, rising energy costs and geopolitical instability, Mr. Uddin has dealt with volatility recently, although it is not related to degrowth. His orders have slowed as the economy cools and he has reduced his employees’ hours.

“We have to be very careful and have a lot of clear and collective conversations between East and West to create a proper infrastructure,” he said.

While saving the planet is critical, he said, “we also have to consider people.”

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