Because we live on a planet with finite resources, the growth of industries based on continuous extraction — fast fashion included — must have limits too. And for too long, the fashion industry has refused to acknowledge that its speed of production cannot continue indefinitely.
This is exactly the thinking that is at the core of theories of degrowth — a concept that has become a hot topic in the fashion industry. Degrowth advocates believe that the multiple crises we are experiencing globally — including ecological breakdown, inequality, and injustice — are linked to the capitalist economic imperative to grow at all costs.
Degrowth reminds us of our Earthly limits. But instead of these inevitable limits making us feel there is a limit to our collective prosperity, it can encourage us to embrace the idea that we are capable of thriving with less. In fact limits often breed creativity.
The truth is, if you are a slow fashion advocate who is challenging fashion’s status quo, you’ve probably been advocating for degrowth fashion all along. Perhaps you used different words, but degrowth in its purest form is a reimagining of the fashion industry with greater social and ecological justice at its core.
What Is Degrowth?
Jason Hickel, economic anthropologist and author of Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save The World, defines degrowth as, “a planned reduction of energy and resource use designed to bring to bring the economy back into balance with the living world in a way that reduces inequality and improves human wellbeing.”
Essentially, degrowth rejects mainstream economics that centers on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as the primary measure of a country’s prosperity. GDP growth measures the monetary value of everything that country produces and consumes in a year and it’s the primary economic goal of most countries.
What’s Missing From GDP?
GDP growth does not ask: At what costs is this growth occurring? It doesn’t account for the cost of unsustainably extracting natural resources or the human cost of underpaid — or unpaid — workers that contributed to this growth.
It also doesn’t acknowledge that some countries grow their GDP at the expense of others. If we look at the example of fashion, we see that natural resources and labor are often extracted from countries in the Global South that fuel greater consumption and GDP growth in the Global North. The reality is that global power dynamics still operate along colonial lines.
One of the most important things to note about GDP-centric economies is that GDP is not a measure of wellbeing. A single GDP figure is not a reflection of wealth inequality, quality of life, wellbeing, care, or non-monetary fulfillment.
So while GDP asks us to define prosperity by rates of exponential economic growth, degrowth logic encourages us to rethink what holistic prosperity truly means.
This shift in how we perceive prosperity has recently been described as the embracing of “sufficiency”.
Sufficiency describes a focus on wellbeing rather than monetary outcomes. It advocates for equity and fairness for people and the planet, having enough for a healthy and meaningful life while avoiding excess, and a collective sense of commitment and responsibility.
Other terms used to describe ideas of degrowth include“Post-growth”, “Donut Economics”, and “the Wellbeing Economy”. At the heart of all of these terms is a desire to move away from an economic model that thrives off extraction and move towards a more care-filled, thoughtful, community-centered, and liberatory economy.
Why Do We Need Degrowth in Fashion?
“Fashion is not based on human wellbeing and ecology, but GDP growth,” says Sara Arnold of Fashion Act Now. “This growth requires extraction. Fashion is a process of planned obsolescence for the sake of capital accumulation.”
Just as GDP growth has failed to ensure the wellbeing and prosperity of people and the planet, overproduction for the pursuit of profits has not improved the lives of most people in fashion supply chains. These profits also don’t account for all of the environmental costs involved in production.
“Considering we have already produced enough clothing and textiles for decades to come, perhaps even generations, it’s clear that our continued production of clothing is to uphold our economic system,” adds Arnold.
This is exactly why degrowth fashion has become such a topic of conversation among those who see the fault lines and failures of our current fashion industry. Degrowth provides a transformative economic logic that restores sustainability and a sense of justice in the fashion space.
What Does Degrowth Fashion Look Like In Practice?
As with any kind of systemic change in the fashion industry, degrowth fashion requires multiple pathways of changemaking. It involves everything from the way we relate to our own wardrobes to widespread political and economic shifts.
The idea of well-being economies applies to the fashion industry too and can begin in our own closets.
The report ‘Wellbeing Wardrobe: A wellbeing economy for the fashion and textile sector’ shares a blueprint for a fashion future that prioritizes human and environmental wellbeing over the endless consumption of fast fashion. This is a goal that has long been at the heart of the slow fashion movement.
On an individual level, this means confronting overconsumption, loving our clothes and making them last, and restyling and rewearing as much as possible.
Protecting The Livelihoods Of Workers And Creating Circular Economies
A wellbeing wardrobe also addresses low garment makers wages and supports measures for workers who might lose their jobs during a transition to a more sustainable industry. Focusing on creating resilient and thriving circular economies is one way to curb job losses during the shift to degrowth fashion.
“Degrowth cannot be about simply stopping production processes,” says Simone Cipriani of the Ethical Fashion Initiative. Instead, degrowth is about “reorienting production so the exponential extraction of natural resources and overproduction is stopped, while enabling the creation of new jobs in the circular economy and embracing new business models. Degrowth means escaping the linear business model.”
Embracing Alternative Fashion Business Models
Degrowth fashion focuses on rethinking mainstream economics. In practice, degrowth means reframing the goals of fashion and embracing alternative fashion business models that operate within planetary boundaries and seek solutions for managing demand while reducing production and consumption volumes.
These include co-operatives, social enterprises, waste-led design, service-based business models, permanent collections, and made-to-order business models.
Creating Localized Fashion Ecosystems
Small fashion businesses and localized fashion systems are already showing us what degrowth looks like in practice. Many small fashion businesses that prioritize local production are more in tune with the needs and contexts of the communities they work in, allowing them to act with more care and consideration for their contexts.
“In my work, I see the growth of local ecosystems of production and consumption in the places where we work. While there are still a large number of imports, more and more I am seeing fashion that is produced in African countries being consumed in African countries too,” says Cipriani.
Focussing On Stakeholder Value Instead Of Shareholder Value
A business’s value is traditionally measured by its cash flow and investor returns. This is known as shareholder value.
“Shareholder value is a financial concept which implies that the business model has to reflect growing cash flow which reflects in a growing value of the shares and stocks,” explains Cipriani, “But this does not take into consideration the negative value produced by a company in society.”
For example, an unethical or polluting company can still be profitable for shareholders while creating an overall negative value for the community and environment.
Stakeholder value, on the other hand, acknowledges that businesses are embedded in social and natural systems, not separate from them.
“Stakeholder value is a concept that tries to take a holistic approach to value creation that does look at financial sustainability, but also tries to take into account possible negative impacts on society as a whole. It sees workers, consumers, communities, and natural systems as important stakeholders,” says Cipriani.
What Does Degrowth Mean In A Global South Context?
When the topic of degrowth comes up, the question of what this means for low-income countries in the Global South often follows. This is because many of these countries still need to increase resource and energy use to meet human needs.
And while high-income countries in the Global North are the primary drivers of global ecological breakdown, the worst consequences of this fall on countries in the Global South.
This is where degrowth logic needs to be clarified. Degrowth advocates are not proposing that such countries should adopt degrowth strategies. In fact, they suggest quite the opposite.
In a recent paper, Jason Hickel explains, “In reality, proponents of degrowth are clear that it is specifically high-income countries that need to degrow, not the rest of the world. Again, because degrowth is focused on reducing excess resource and energy use, it does not apply to economies that are not characterized by excess resource and energy use.”
One of the fundamental pillars of degrowth is that it not only calls for reducing the extraction of resources but also for distributing those resources more equitably.
Wealth redistribution is key because of the patterns of colonization present in our fashion system that actively extracts labor and natural resources from countries in the Global South.
For example, let’s consider the waste colonialism of the global secondhand trade that has exported masses of textile waste to several countries in the Global South. This influx of discarded clothing has stifled local textile production and economies, in addition to causing a host of different ecological and social ills.
Or take garment production hubs as an example, where garment workers are paid so little that they’re trapped in cycles of poverty and cannot create sustainable livelihoods for themselves and their families.
Sandra Niessen terms these places “fashion sacrifice zones” because there are certain communities and natural systems that are deemed disposable for the sake of growth.
So degrowth primarily calls for high-income nations to scale down their consumerist economies to sustainable levels in a way that is profoundly liberatory for countries that bear the brunt of consumerist extraction.
As Jason Hickel puts it in his paper, The anti-colonial politics of degrowth, degrowth “is a demand for decolonization. Southern countries should be free to organize their resources and labor around meeting human needs rather than around servicing Northern growth.”
On the flip side, many artisan communities and indigenous textile heritages in the Global South are thriving examples of what it means to create in harmony with nature and embrace the expansive power of textile cultures.
Degrowth Is About Culture Too
While degrowth is most often portrayed as an economic concept, it has cultural dimensions too. Economies and societies don’t exist separately from people — there are cultural practices that influence economic systems.
Growth logic promotes a limited view of fashion. It teaches us that fashion is primarily accessed through a shopping mall and that fashion is inseparable from commerce.
We urgently need a counter-culture where we are stewards of the earth and advocates of justice who live within our means and understand the interconnectedness of our actions.
Post-growth logic pushes us to acknowledge and revive other forms of fashion activity. This approach reminds us that fashion is more about creativity than commerce.
Is Degrowth Denouncing All Growth?
Perhaps one of the reasons why it is so difficult to come to terms with the word “degrowth” is because it seems so antithetical to our innate human desire to grow and evolve.
We aspire to personal growth, we watch ourselves and those around us growing up, we expand our minds and thoughts through education, and we grow our careers. Growth and the aspiration to grow are a part of our everyday life.
Even beyond the personal, we see collective growth when more people can access education, be included in healthcare systems, or when progressive laws are passed that improve people’s quality of life. These are all healthy types of growth.
While degrowth can be misunderstood to refer to all growth, it’s only referring to economic growth, particularly the consistent compounding growth we see in modern capitalism. This growth relies on the constant accumulation and expansion of capital that inevitably depends on exploitation and expansion. This is the kind of growth that is being denounced.
The “de” in degrowth is not only about less, but about approaching wellbeing in non-economic terms, and the collective understanding that we can redefine prosperity and that a good life doesn’t rely on the accumulating of more material objects — clothing included.
Degrowth is not about scarcity and denying ourselves the aspirations to develop and evolve. Rather it’s about fostering solidarity towards a better life for everyone.
Have We Been Advocating For Post-Growth All Along?
The essence of degrowth is the notion of learning to live well with less, which happens to be a very similar essence to the slow fashion movement that advocates for a world beyond overconsumption and exploitation.
If you’re a slow fashion enthusiast who believes that we should be working towards a fashion industry that operates within ecological limits, recognizes and takes measures to curb overproduction, prioritizes circularity, and deeply values the craftspeople and workers within its supply chain, then the answer to this question is: yes.
Perhaps you haven’t been using the word “degrowth” to describe your thoughts and perspectives. But regardless of the terminology we use, we cannot deny we need a new blueprint for fashion. Words are powerful for capturing new ideas, but actions are what count.
A post-growth fashion system will come to fruition when decisions that are made within the industry are not solely made with the intention of exponential profit margins. Instead, a post-growth future puts ethics and care at the center of decisions.
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About the Author
Stella Hertantyo is a slow fashion and slow living enthusiast based in Cape Town, South Africa. Stella finds solace in words as a medium for sharing ideas and encouraging a cultural shift that welcomes systems change and deepens our collective connection to the world around us. She is passionate about encouraging an approach to sustainability, and social and environmental justice, that is inclusive, intersectional, accessible, and fun.
Stella holds a B.A. Multimedia Journalism from the University of Cape Town, and a PGDip in Sustainable Development from the Sustainability Institute. She currently works as a writer, editor, and social media manager. When she is not in front of her laptop, a dip in the ocean, or a walk in the mountains, are the two things that bring her the most peace.