Our last article explained why we must really focus on total impact when talking about sustainability in Fashion. The current model of manufacturing increases climate change and leads to social exploitation. Reducing the impact of single pieces by substituting materials, processes, or achieving certification helps, but, most importantly, we need to reduce the total amount that we produce.
We also interviewed the author of the amazing book “The day the world stops shopping”, James B. MacKinnon. The title perfectly summarises the day we are waiting for. James is an independent journalist and author of 4 other books, and has analysed the issue of consumption from multiple perspectives, including anthropology and archaeology.
ECONOMICS BASICS TO UNDERSTAND THE CURRENT SITUATION
Let’s take a step back and give you some economic background. Capitalism being the most present economic model around the world, there is a constant need to produce more, and increase the speed of production, to keep being competitive. All companies have growth predictions. Why is this? Companies have to appeal to shareholders. Investors look for companies that have reliable growth rates, and therefore stock appreciation, meaning that they will make profits in the future when stocks are sold. If the company was to keep a constant profit, investors would receive a constant dividend, which is, however, less appealing.
This economic model has led to companies encouraging people to buy more and more: consumerism. It is defined as a social and economic order that encourages the acquisition of goods and services in ever-increasing amounts. In Fashion, it has resulted in Fast Fashion, therefore new collections coming out at a shockingly rapid rate, with extremely low prices, that push for mass volume consumption of clothes, made without any respect for the planet or people, with only profit in mind. The speed is shocking: SHEIN has added between 2,000 and 10,000 SKUs individual styles to its app each day! The giant H&M has plans to increase quarterly profit and hike investments, with the aim of doubling sales by 2030.
In short, in the current model, it seems like growth is crucial to the long-term survival of a business. In contrast, the concept of Degrowth seems to be the only solution to tackle Fashion’s impact, when looking at the total impact of companies.
James points out that there are a lot of restaurants, cafes, and family businesses that are very successful without growing. We would love to see more business leaders who start a business and don't intend it to grow every year, paying everyone fairly, and not thinking of growing profit endlessly.
WHAT IS DEGROWTH?
According to the Degrowth Movement, it is an idea that critiques the global capitalist system which pursues growth at all costs, and it means transforming societies to ensure environmental justice and a good life for all within planetary boundaries. The economic definition is the contraction in business sales or earnings.
One way to look at degrowth is that it is the opposite of overproduction, or even a very slow targeted growth that matches global population increase.
We would also like to add that degrowth is the decoupling of financial growth from unsustainable resource consumption, human exploitation, and harmful pollution. How can a company grow without producing more? In Fashion, examples include making profit from repair services or rental services, or turning materials found in landfill into useful products.
At a government and country level, it is the decoupling of GDP as a measure for socio-economic success. For example, the US has experienced a six-fold increase in GDP since the 1930, however, in parallel it has recorded a sharp rise in inequality, mortality rates, and political polarisation. Growth is not the solution.
ARE THERE ANY EXAMPLES?
We are so happy to be able to answer yes to this question.
The Swedish brand Asket started its journey with a yearly growth, however it is now developing a plan to reduce it. It didn’t release or publicise any new garments for three months, renewing its commitment to one permanent collection of seasonless garments, designed for longevity. They have replaced standardised sizing with their own extended size system, and don’t do wholesale, discounts or sales.
The US retailer Toward has decided to limit the amount of times consumers can buy from them to 12 per year, with the goal to limit consumption. Of course, it can easily be overridden by the customer if they really want to.
Several brands have started selling their own second hand clothes, realising that there was a huge opportunity to make profit on the same items more than once.
Levi’s Second-Hand website sells vintage classic 501s and one-off or previously owned styles. Patagonia sells used garments via Worn Wear, Gucci with its Vault website, and Eileen Fisher under the label Eileen Fisher Renew.
What we have not yet found is a brand clearly proving that it is reducing the amount of clothes that it will produce, and that these projects are not run alongside volume growth predictions. If you know of any examples, please comment!
Technology solutions such as Heuritech allow brands to have more accurate predictions on their market, and reduce overproduction, however they are still based on a system where consumers keep buying as much as they currently are.
HOW TO MEASURE CONSUMERISM IN LCAs
LCAs look at the impact of a specific garment, and, if you are interested, you can read a lot more about it in our series. Of course looking at the LCA at a company level can help to understand global production, but how can we go even deeper into reflecting the issue of consumerism in these calculations?
Quoting Eco Age: If a dress “costs” 12, whether that is US Dollars or an environmental measure, and it is worn once, the cost is 12 per wear. If another dress “costs” 1,200, and is worn 100 times, the cost/impact is also 12 per wear. The difference is that at the end of those ‘100 times’, in the first case there are 100 dresses to dispose of, and in the second, only one.
A great report by Eco Age has recently come out, which underlines two key issues with the way calculations are done. The first one, is that they end at the door of the shop, and don’t include use and end-of-life impacts. The second, is that instead of looking at the impact per garment, the industry should look at the impact per wear.
Interestingly, James, during his interview, has explained the exact same thing. It doesn’t make sense for the industry to be focused on getting greener, if it keeps producing more and more. If we changed the focus on reduction of consumption, the overall carbon impact would be reduced globally much more efficiently.
HOW CAN WE REDUCE CONSUMPTION?
James explains that a key issue in wearing clothes much more is that of durability: the concept that clothes should be of higher quality and last a much longer time. This way, the impact per wear will be much lower. Brands shouldn’t be allowed to play with impulsive behaviours of people to buy clothes that look great in the shop, but after two washes have to be thrown in the bin.
Additionally, even though second hand and vintage has become a trend in the younger generations, it still has a long way to go to beat the rate of shopping for new clothing. This market could be much more successful if there were more repair and tailoring shops.
We understand that this sounds extremely complicated, but, in fact, not so many years ago, this used to be the model everywhere. We can do it because it was done. Ask your parents or grandparents if you have the opportunity: they are incredible sources of information about a world that used to exist.
DOES DEGROWTH MEAN LESS JOBS?
This is a very provocative question, but it is the kind of conversation that we want to have.
The fashion industry generates 2% of global GDP, and employs more than 400 million people. It is difficult for us to measure it first hand, but we know for sure that making things with more sustainable materials, with attention to detail and durability, that are then sorted, cleaned, resold, tailored and repaired, will generate a lot of work.
James, what do you think? Absolutely, making things to a higher quality standard takes more work and labour. Reselling will create more jobs, and repair and maintenance will play a very big part in the change for a better world. In parallel, there should also be less difference between incomes and more distribution of wealth. I believe that inequality is a huge driver of consumption.
As you can see, degrowth cannot be achieved in a day, and many moving parts have to change to make degrowth feasible.
The bottom line is always the same: buy less, of better quality, and vintage if possible. Spend more time in nature and less time in shops!
James, do you have anything to add? I would like to celebrate the people that are willing to live simply on a liveable income and live a more meaningful life filled with less things. It will not make us miserable if we stop consuming!