Why Does Fashion Love This Radical Anticapitalist Concept?

This article is part of a series examining Responsible Fashion, and innovative efforts to address issues facing the fashion industry.

Lately, one word has cropped 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 of 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, it seems an awkward fit. Fashion is rooted in constant consumption and extraction of the earth’s resources, but degrowth is an anticapitalist movement that challenges the long-held view that more is always better.

The term, coined in 1972 by the French political theorist André Gorz, is becoming more common as consumers become more aware of catastrophic levels of global warming.

Degrowth is popping up on the bookshelves of Tokyo, where Kohei Saito, the philosopher, has published “Capital in the Anthropocene,” a popular book on the subject. In the debating parlors of London, the How to Academy is presenting events like “The Pursuit of Growth Is a Disaster for Our Country and Our Planet,” and degrowth shows up on TikTok too, through quirkily edited explanations that appeal to Gen Z.

Degrowth discussions aren’t limited to the fashion industry. Still, it seems a particular challenge there, given global apparel consumption is projected to rise by 63 percent by 2030, from 62 million tons to 102 million tons, according to research by the Boston Consulting Group (the equivalent of more than 500 billion additional T-shirts.)

Our Coverage of the COP27 Climate Summit

  • Biden’s Message: President Biden hailed the new U.S. climate law, stressing American leadership at a time when the country is facing broad criticism for being the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in history.
  • U.S.-China Talks: A frosty, monthslong pause in dialogue between China and the United States on climate issues has appeared to thaw ever so slightly at the summit.
  • Climate Aid: After decades of resistance, several European countries at COP27 announced funds to help poor nations recover from loss and damage caused by climate change. But the United States was silent.
  • The Host: The summit will allow debt-wracked Egypt to champion the climate needs of poorer nations. But it also puts the authoritarian country under scrutiny.

Degrowth may be especially resonant now because evidence suggests that as climate change accelerates, emissions from textile manufacturing are projected to skyrocket by 60 percent by 2030, according to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.

At the same time, unpredictable weather patterns and dwindling resources are affecting supply chains, including cotton fields in Pakistan and the Amazon rainforest, making sourcing and production of materials more difficult. And so far, many targets set by fashion companies for pollution reduction and better labor standards, or investment into new green technologies and systems, are having little effect.

No household-name companies are fully revamping business models to align with hard-line degrowthers just yet. But decades after Patagonia unveiled its infamous “Don’t Buy This Jacket” holiday ad campaign, some are tentatively exploring how the concept may be incorporated into their business.

Almost all efforts involve circularity — meaning approaches to ensure that products are continually recycled, reborn and reused. In September, the British department store Selfridges announced that it wanted almost half of all customer transactions to be based on resale, repair, rentals or refills by 2030. Fledgling brands like Early Majority, founded by a former Patagonia executive, are being touted as degrowth brands because they urge consumers to buy items only once. And Ralph Lauren is exploring what “financial growth through degrowth of resources” might look like.

“We have seen our financials getting better although we produce less units compared to five years ago,” Halide Alagöz, the chief product and sustainability officer at Ralph Lauren, told COP26 conference delegates last year.

The company wouldn’t elaborate when contacted by The New York Times in October. But essentially degrowth is used here to mean supply chain optimization; improved efficiency using raw materials to make more product that actually sells — 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 that leads to big disagreements about what it is and what it implies. Some say the breadth of definitions makes it vulnerable to greenwashing: the practice of companies making misleading claims about their environmental credentials to hoodwink customers.

“Part of the problem is that no one knows the terms,” said Daniel Susskind, an economist 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 mind-set focused purely on shrinking the fashion economy would be a mistake.

“I think to be credible the focus should be on different growth, better types of growth and how to incentivize that,” Mr. Susskind said. “An accelerator or brake mind-set is just not realistic here. Helping people find a secure route toward 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 don’t say ‘degrowth’ here — we talk about good growth and how to grow the good things about our business while weeding the bad stuff out,” she said. (She decided not to take her business 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,” Ms. Fisher said.

Her solution is to sell timeless designs made out of durable, ethically sourced fabrics that can easily be 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 made into new designs.

Others believe true degrowth will come from consumers, not brands that manufacture demand. Buying less is the easiest way for consumers to reduce their impact on the planet because it sidesteps all of the headaches and contradictions that come with trying to shop sustainably, said Alec Leach, a former fashion editor and the author of the book “The World Is On Fire but We Are Still Buying Shoes.”

“I’m pretty skeptical that any companies are going to give us degrowth — it is something we are going to have to take ourselves,” Mr. Leach said. “Brands might offer resale opportunities but they are still going to be working with influencers, pushing advertising campaigns, putting on international runway shows and ultimately producing the same if not more stuff.”

New legislation may have an impact. In the United States and Europe, potential new regulations could improve supply chain due diligence and mandate durability requirements designed to reduce waste

Many experts say that conversations about degrowth 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 garment and footwear orders are outsourced to suppliers in the Global South, where the cost of human labor is cheaper.

The economic fallout of the pandemic may have amplified 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 carefully managed — could have a catastrophic impact on jobs.

“I often read about reaching net zero targets, and I am not against them,” Mr. Uddin said. But, he also pointed out that workers could lose their jobs depending on how degrowth efforts are implemented.

With global economic recession, rising energy costs and geopolitical instability, Mr. Uddin has managed volatility recently, though not related to degrowth. His orders have slowed as the economy cools, and he reduced the hours of his employees.

“We must be very cautious and have many clear and collective conversations between East and West to create a proper infrastructure,” he said.

While saving the planet is critical, he said, “we need to factor in people too.”

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