It’s impossible for the fashion industry to continue growing, according to Mother Earth. And it is not just the earth that will suffer if we continue like this, society bears it as well. A huge number of people are unfortunately being exploited for the 'trendy' outfits hanging in the shops.

It is time to slow down economic growth and put positive impact ahead. Many sustainable entrepreneurs are already on the right path, but full transformation requires support and strength.

What is degrowth?

Economic growth is not always positive, even though the word "growth" makes it sound that way from our cultural background. To keep operating within the limits of our planet would require a decrease in growth. In other words, "Degrowth". And in this movement, countering overproduction and overconsumption play an important role, "less and better" is the key. Moving to more sustainable textile fibres is secondary, according to the Earth Logic plan (Fletcher, K. and Tham, M. (2019). Earth Logic Fashion Action Research Plan. London: The JJ Charitable Trust.). The same plan suggests that we need to "outgrow growth"- a real culture shift thus.

To accomplish Earth Logic's plan, 6 holistic starting points have been identified for the progressive transformation of the fashion sector in which "less" has a core focus. Among other things, Degrowth is a counter-reaction to: the reduced availability of energy resources, the climate crisis, and its social consequences. Moreover, it questions capitalist values and behaviour.

Iana Nesterova, in the Journal of Cleaner Production, proposes a framework with three elements to establish a degrowth economy and society: environment, people and a departure from the imperative of profit maximization.

Photo on the left: The nine planetary boundaries defined by the Stockholm Resilience Centre, source: Steffen et al. 2015

How will we implement degrowth in the fashion sector?

For fashion to "degrow", it simply needs to be produced less and bought less. The transition from fast fashion to slow fashion is crucial to achieve this. You will read more about this soon in a new COSH! blog.

Brands need a slow business model to move from growth logic to earth logic. Uninterrupted economic growth has been a top priority for fashion companies for too long. It is no longer beneficial to produce huge volumes every year and sell them at too low a price. According to David R. Bower, "There is no business on a dying planet.". Therefore, we need to move to a mindset where continuous business (circular) is worth more than growing take-make-waste business (linear).

Lifespan extension

One remedy for the degrowth of fashion is to improve quality, so that consumers can use clothes for longer and prolong their lifespan. In theory, this would mean they would need to buy less clothing and the brand would need to produce less.

"By reusing clothes or putting them back on the sales circuit, several people and companies can make money without having to produce anything from scratch." According to Niki de Schryver, CEO of COSH!

Other ways to slow down the fast fashion world include implementing warranty periods including repairs, taking products back to re-market and swapping, reselling or renting products. Numerous initiatives are emerging to extend the lifespan of clothes.

Economic system

All that being said, degrowth actually refers to the entire economic system and redefining success against overconsumption and economic profit, or revenue growth. This is a challenge. The Earth Logic plan (Fletcher, K. and Tham, M. (2019). Earth Logic Fashion Action Research Plan. London: The JJ Charitable Trust, p.14) notes that:

"The scale and speed of the changes required mean that systemic efforts are needed. In the fashion context, this means looking not only at the environmental impact of a fashion product and its production processes. We also need to look at the psychology behind fashion use, our economic, financial and trading systems, how we shape local and global infrastructures around clothing, and how we build meaningful lives and livelihoods. Looking at fashion beyond the logic of economic growth shifts power from multinationals to organizations, communities and citizens."

As more and more clothes are sold, more are also produced and more raw materials are needed, which are ultimately wasted when the clothes are discarded. In the future, fewer and fewer resources will be available due to climate change and awareness. This will partly force us to degrowth.

This is how to degrow your fashion business

Degrowth is currently an economic theory, and not yet the current state of affairs. Prioritizing planet over industry is necessary to keep the planet alive, and affects all sides of the fashion business. From design, to production, sales and responsibility over the end-of-life phase. The business model is going through a full transformation in the process.

1. Go slow and timeless

At COSH! we know that it is not easy for (sustainable) entrepreneurs to intentionally reduce sales. Sustainable retailers are already committed to slow fashion, quality collections.

2. Resale: sell timeless pieces second-hand

They can therefore set an important example for other fashion businesses by also offering resale. This means that their own customers, can offer goods purchased in the shop, back to the shop for resale.

3. Cherish repairs

It is important to focus on the whole life cycle of clothes, to communicate the story to customers and ensure that garments are cherished.

To contribute to degrowth, a first step could be, for example, to partner up with tailors.

4. Have a dialogue with customers on cost per wear

Last but not least, advise customers to make a worthwhile purchase and avoid mispurchases. Sometimes that even means advising them not to buy the product if the client feels unsure of it because they don’t know if it fits their style, for example. If you go in dialogue on the cost per wear, you can guide them to investment pieces that they’ll wear over and over again, decreasing the cost per wear.

Is the world ready for degrowth?

More and more people are discovering and starting initiatives that support the degrowth model. That's already good news! Because the question is whether the world will ever be ready for degrowth. Or rather the people of the world, as we know the earth itself is begging for it. Degrowth is not called post-growth without a reason. It will hopefully soon be the new normal for the future of the earth and the new generations.

George Monbiot in The Guardian: "We have argued that nobody wins the human race. We have sought to explain that what mainstream economists call progress is what ecologists call planetary ruin. We have contended that infinite growth on a finite planet is a recipe for catastrophe."

Another pressing concern is the effect of degrowth on the people who make our clothes, Ecocult argues. "84% of Bangladesh's exports come from garment production in the country. This degrowth would certainly lead to job losses and disruption for millions of garment workers." So this is important to consider.

This Ecocult article mentions Susan Paulson, professor at the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Florida and co-author of The Case for Degrowth. Paulson argues that a degrowth economy could actually put power back in the hands of countries dependent on the international fashion industry, allowing them to sustain their economies in a way that benefits their citizens.

Niki de Schryver, with platform COSH! wants to focus on influencing people to purchase more sustainable and quality clothing. "So that people continue to spend the same budget, but on fewer clothes that they are going to wear for longer. If these clothes are made fairly, either locally or in countries like Bangladesh, then new fair jobs will take their place and fast fashion jobs where people are exploited will fade."

The concept of degrowth, as you may notice, is still evolving and generates debate. According to Lucy Siegle in the foreword of Earth Logic, this change can generate loss, difficulty, friction, conflict and dilemmas. But the important thing is to "stay with the trouble" and work towards a solution even when it’s hard, instead of working around it.