Slow down and scale back: Degrowth in the fashion industry

By Lauren Rees

2 years ago

The concept of degrowth stems from ambitions to balance economics with planetary boundaries. The planetary boundaries concept presents a set of 9 boundaries that we must exist within for humanity to continue to develop and thrive for generations to come. These vital thresholds, such as climate change, biodiversity and the nitrogen cycle, are already being approached or have been crossed (1).

If we continue to push these boundaries, we increase the risk of generating irreversible environmental changes. Degrowth is the solution to this problem; fundamentally, it means reducing both how much we consume and how much we produce. 

A concern that often comes up when discussing degrowth is that it causes job losses, but Earth Logic’s Matilda Tham argues that degrowth is not a recession, it’s a planned reduction. Put simply, degrowth is a planned and democratic reduction of production and consumption in rich countries to reduce environmental pressures and inequalities, while improving well-being(2). This means that legislation and having infrastructure in place are key to its success.

In her book, Consumed, Aja Barber says that degrowth is a matter of long-term survival for businesses. This is especially true for large companies reliant on extractive practices, fossil fuels and cheap labour. It’s clear that rich countries must balance their economies with planetary boundaries: the survival of many people around the world already depends on it.



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GDP Growth

One of the movement’s key calls is for wealthy countries to stop focusing on GDP (gross domestic product) growth as a primary objective, and instead organise their economies around supporting human wellbeing and reducing inequality. 

Consumption is a necessary requirement for continuous GDP growth, but research has shown that once a certain GDP threshold, or level of wellbeing, has been met people gain little from consuming more stuff. 

GDP cannot be separated from material footprint, and this includes energy. This means we cannot roll out renewable energy fast enough to meet the objectives of the Paris Agreement – to keep warming below 2°C – if we continue growing our economy.

On the other hand, some have criticised degrowth for placing too much emphasis on economic growth, when the real key is not reducing growth, but promoting growth which helps the environment. 



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How does this relate to fashion?

In fashion, degrowth starts with a rejection of the fast fashion business model. That would mean separating the production of cheap garments from profitability, producing fewer garments that we keep for longer, and repairing clothes instead of throwing them away.

It is well known that the fashion industry is incredibly wasteful. It is estimated to be producing more than 100 billion garments a year, and destroying our planet to do so. The Fashion Transparency Index 2021 found that only 14% of major fashion brands publish the quantity of products they produce. This lack of disclosure masks the true picture of fashion’s overproduction problem, making it harder to tackle effectively. Even more concerning is the fact that most of these products will be sent to landfill or incineration within just five years of being purchased. Yet global demand is expected to grow. 


Fossil Fuel Fashion

Much of our clothing relies heavily on petrochemical products that come from the same oil and gas companies that are driving greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, fashion accounts for up to 10% of global carbon dioxide output, yet the Fashion Transparency Index 2021 found that only 25% of major fashion brands publish targets to reduce the use of textiles derived from virgin fossil fuels.

Fashion also accounts for a fifth of the 300 million tons of plastic produced globally each year (3). If you look in your wardrobe, you’ll see that polyester, a form of plastic derived from oil, is everywhere, even overtaking cotton as the backbone of textile production. The popularity of polyester is down to its strong yet lightweight qualities and how easily it can be dyed; however, garments made from polyester and other synthetic fibres are a major source of microplastic pollution, which is especially harmful to marine life. 

Between overproduction, fossil fuel textiles and poor waste management, it is clear that the fashion industry needs to radically change, reducing its resource use and waste to exist within planetary boundaries.


What might degrowth look like in the fashion industry?

The concept of degrowth can seem radical or hard to define, but in practice it can be fairly simple. To start with, big fashion brands could slow down their production, pay their workers a living wage and still remain financially afloat. Their profits could be spread out throughout the entire supply chain, supporting clean energy, pollution reduction and fair wages. By reducing the production volume of new physical clothing, a balanced degrowth strategy could even allow garment workers to make less but earn more. 

Designers could pave the way for this new industry by producing smaller collections of seasonless garments that have been designed for longevity, and invest in circular technology to end wasteful production models. Repair services and responsible take-back schemes could also increase the lifespan of our clothes to keep demand for new products down. For established fashion houses, designers could couple vintage items with garments from emerging designers to ease the pressure on the brand to produce new products and give new life to their archive of clothing.

These solutions are just a selection of the many ways degrowth could transform the fashion industry. We are beginning to see a shift towards a fairer, more responsible industry but there is still a long way to go. Despite the building momentum for alternative business models, the Fashion Transparency Index 2021 found that only 14% of major fashion brands are offering new business models that slow consumption. To encourage participation, legislation could offer incentives for reduced working hours, and tax incentives for those producing less greenhouse gas emissions.



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How can consumers participate in degrowth?

For consumers, degrowth focuses on extending clothing lifecycles. Reducing clothing waste and slowing down consumption starts the shift towards a green economy; one that values people and the planet over profit.

If you want to bring degrowth into your wardrobe, shop second hand or vintage. Question yourself before you buy anything. Slow down your consumption rate. Re-wear and repair your clothes to get as much wear out of them as possible. Increasing garment lifetimes is one of the most effective means of reducing their environmental footprint and slowing down consumption.

Our Loved Clothes Last movement advocates caring for and mending your clothes, to ensure they last a long time. Create a meaningful relationship with your wardrobe by shopping mindfully. Learn how to properly care for your clothes, and repairing and re-using old clothes that need a bit more love. We have a whole collection of resources to help you on our Loved Clothes Last Pinterest board


Take Action

Demand brands pay their workers a living wage: Our Good Clothes Fair Pay campaign is launching on 19th July, sign up to our newsletter to be notified when you can add your name.

Ask brands #WhatsInMyClothes to encourage them to think about the impact of their supply chain. 

Write to your MP and tell them to actively degrow our economy to fit back within planetary boundaries.


Further Reading:

Is degrowth the future that fashion has been looking for?

Degrowth: The future of fashion

What exactly is degrowth, and how can it make the fashion industry more sustainable?

The fashion industry’s impact on our planet

What is regenerative fashion?

Degrowth Economy: The climate solution no one is talking about


Feature image: Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash