Fashion sustainability and the problem with degrowth

06 November 2020

Dr Patsy Perry on the need for an industry-wide shift to a slower and smaller fashion system



by Dr Patsy Perry, Reader in Fashion Marketing at Manchester Fashion Institute

Originally posted on Use.Today.

Achieving net zero emissions by 2050 is necessary to combat the catastrophic climate-related risks of global warming and maintain temperature rise to within 1.5°C of pre-industrial levels, as per the Paris Agreement.

Given scientists’ warnings that human economic activity has overshot most planetary boundaries, it’s imperative we acknowledge that the trajectory of ever-increasing production and consumption is not sustainable.

With business as usual, carbon emissions will continue to rise, notwithstanding various initiatives to improve sustainability as these are outpaced by increasing production and consumption.

Consumerism

Mainstream culture celebrates and equates success with wealth, but the richer you are, the more ecological damage you do through your lifestyle and consumption decisions.

As a result of economic development, the middle class is forecast to increase by 2030, with associated increase in demand for consumer goods.

The fashion industry is bound up in consumerism with revenue growth based on rapid product obsolescence and ever-increasing throughput of new resources to satisfy consumer demand.

Consumer demand

The success of our economy is based on expansion, which improves more people’s lives, but the more we grow the economy, the greater the pressure on the environment.

 ‘Less unsustainable’ initiatives are clearly insufficient to repair the environmental consequences of human progress and leave future generations in better shape.

There is no techno-fix that will solve fashion’s sustainability challenges given a business-as-usual scenario and the idea that sustainability can be achieved within our current economic growth logic is a fiction.

With business as usual, carbon emissions will continue to rise, notwithstanding various initiatives to improve sustainability as these are outpaced by increasing production and consumption.

We need to address the growth paradigm and make an industry-wide shift to a slower and smaller fashion system to support efforts to meet net zero targets, which requires a redefinition of our existing profit and growth culture towards prosperity without growth.  

Degrowth

Degrowth means a planned economic contraction with reduced production volume. In the fashion industry, increasing garment lifetimes (through repair and re-use) is one of the most effective means of reducing their environmental footprint and slowing down consumption of new clothing.

Circular fashion means less production of new garments, but what about the impact on the millions of people, mostly women in lesser developed countries, who make our clothing?

The trade-off between meeting environmental goals and supporting some of the world’s most vulnerable workers has never been more apparent as what we saw during the COVID-19 pandemic when stores and factories shuttered and garment workers lost out on their meagre wages as big brands refused to pay suppliers for orders that had already been produced.

Livelihoods

Despite the fashion industry’s significant carbon footprint, it also supports the livelihoods of millions of people around the world, especially women in developing countries.

Degrowth is a complex challenge, with many cultural, psychological and social factors that require consideration – if the degrowth leads to the reduction of manufacturing in developing countries, there would be social and economic problems for countries that depend on their textile and garment manufacturing industry.

Very few, if any, fashion or textile companies’ business strategies are based on reducing growth, as this is perhaps the most inherent challenge of all, requiring a complete redefinition of consumer behaviour, business model and strategy.

Investors

Institutional investors are recognising that ESG (environmental, social and governance) factors influence risk and return, but overall, ESG remains a sideshow and investors want returns, making it hard for business founders not to deliver on revenue growth targets.

There has been an increase in new ESG funds coming from the desired foundations, but they remain in the minority of investment houses, and the dominant narrative for business success is focused on sales and revenue growth.

Very few, if any, fashion or textile companies’ business strategies are based on reducing growth, as this is perhaps the most inherent challenge of all, requiring a complete redefinition of consumer behaviour, business model and strategy.


Currently there is no real alternative to achieving economic growth without increasing consumption and production, even more so as the world’s economy grapples with the consequences of COVID-19.

Sustainability has taken a back seat to business survival; the pandemic presents enormous obstacles and will have long-term effects on companies and their ecosystems. Industry needs the revenue that comes from selling more items, and people need jobs. Governments encourage consumption (and therefore production) as a way out of the crisis and to generate the necessary taxation to service the debt incurred from furlough and stimulus packages.

So, the question remains – can we and should we produce and consume less? How can we reconcile economic objectives with ecological breakdown, especially in this COVID-19 crisis situation?  

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