This article was originally published in The Interline’s first Sustainability Report. To read other opinion pieces, exclusive editorials, and detailed profiles and interviews with key vendors, download the full Sustainability Report 2023 completely free of charge and ungated.
- The economic engine of fashion is anchored in growth, and success has become synonymous with volume, variety, and a race to the bottom on price and quality. The environmental impact of this model is profound, but, by definition, mitigating that impact means challenging the industry’s commercial model.
- Essentialism, the philosophy of focusing purchasing practices on items with the most meaning, is the core tenet of the brand LESTRANGE, and that company’s success stands as a lighthouse for the idea that degrowth can be economically viable.
- An industry-wide transition to degrowth, however, will require a re-evaluation of not just brands’ bottom lines, but consumer demand, individual behaviour, and the architecture of the entire value chain. To galvanise this effort, regulations with a deeper and wider scope will be essential.
Is degrowth feasible, or is it fundamentally incompatible with the idea of a successful, profitable fashion industry?
At LESTRANGE, our ethos and mission focus on promoting the concept of essentialism: the philosophy of prioritising the things that are important. This approach fundamentally changes our relationship with what we make and what we consume. It encourages us to reduce what we don’t value in our lives and amplify what we do. Often, this results in an increase in joy, and a lifestyle that values fewer but more meaningful possessions.
In a product-driven industry like fashion, “meaningful” has different definitions, but the most common attributes it corresponds to would be quality, durability, flexibility, functionality, aesthetic appeal and environmental responsibility. The elements that separate things with lasting value from those whose value is transient.
In putting that philosophy into practice, our core mission is to change consumer behaviour, because the current evidence suggests that most fashion consumption is driven by factors other than those categories of meaning – like affordability, accessibility, fleeting trends, celebrity culture, and the instant gratification of impulse purchases. And over time these patterns have contributed to an industry that emphasises volume, variety and price over meaning.
In light of the targets set by the fashion industry itself, and by the governments determined to regulate it, there is a strong mandate to reverse this trend quickly. For instance, there’s a goal to reduce fashion’s overall footprint by 50% by 2030. This ladders into the Paris Agreement’s broader objectives and the IPCC’s recommendation to cut global emissions by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 and reach net-zero by 2050, in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Yet, currently, it seems we might actually increase our footprint. According to the Global Fashion Agenda, over the same time frame we, as an industry, could increase production volume by as much as 80%. If we’re producing about 100 billion units now, that could mean an output of 180 billion units by the end of the decade.
And it’s here where the philosophy of essentialism dovetails with a word that many industries find uncomfortable to talk about: degrowth. Because so much of fashion’s upward economic trajectory has been fuelled by the creation and consumption of products that exist to fuel an expectation of volume and variety. But for the industry to start to meaningfully reckon with its environmental impact, both volume and variety will inevitably need to give way to smaller collections of products that last longer, that are more modular, that perform better, and that reach a higher bar of quality and meaning.
Companies like Gucci and Stella McCartney are frontrunners leading fashion’s sustainability efforts. They’ve reported a decoupling of growth from their environmental footprint, meaning they’ve been able to grow their top line while reducing their per capita impact. However, as these businesses expand and reach more people, their total impact might still rise simply because the “per capita” calculus is extended to more and more consumers.
It’s crucial to view this from a comprehensive lens. While increasing production under the banner of environmentally-conscious brands like Gucci and Stella McCartney could be deemed more favourable than similar expansions by less environmentally conscious brands, the bigger question looms large: Is it sufficient?
Central to reimagining a sustainable model of fashion is a nuanced perspective: It’s not about criticising these brands for pursuing profit. Yet, while they’re making industry leading efforts, one can’t help but question if it will get us to where we need in the time we have. These leaders – and others – have disproportionate responsibility in setting the pace of trend cycles and establishing the mindset that the rest of the industry tends to follow. Reducing per capita impact to achieve “green growth” is laudable, but the industry’s true sustainability might require them to also reconsider how they influence consumption patterns and pace.
That’s how we envision our role at LESTRANGE. We aim to influence as many people as possible with our philosophy of buying less and buying better. In the process, we aspire to grow, to become a market leader, and to be a recognised name globally. We’ve already expanded to Europe and the USA and have opened our first international store in Amsterdam. Our ambition is for significant growth on top of what we’ve already achieved. But our reason for being is to achieve this at the same time as prioritising meaning ahead of volume, and improving our own influence without anchoring ourselves to a perpetual cycle of making more.
However, it’s crucial to note, as we have been saying, that the fashion industry as a whole needs to prioritise reducing outputs. Meeting our climate targets seems improbable any other way.
And when we talk about scaling back output in fashion, we’re discussing degrowth again. So let’s delve into a brief explainer: degrowth is about the planned downsizing of economic activity to reduce production output. This isn’t about contraction in the form of a recession, where brands and consumers are mutually forced to make and buy less due to economic factors affecting both parties. It’s about intentional downsizing in order to keep the planet from overshooting the safe operating limits for humanity.
At a nation level, downsizing would invariably lead to a reduction in GDP. However, there’s significant momentum questioning the continued reliance on GDP as the primary measure of progress. For instance, the OECD has developed the “Better Life Index” to gauge national well-being beyond just economic metrics. Whilst we don’t have time in this opinion piece to fully explore the reasons behind this movement, it’s evident that GDP doesn’t capture key indicators like happiness and well-being – crucial metrics for a thriving society. Scaling back economic output does not have to mean scaling back standards of living.
But a challenge arises in the fashion industry because the cost of buying and making products is incredibly low, and, as a consequence, success in fashion is balanced on a knife-edge of thin margins and high forecasting risks that are amortised across vast production runs and constant newness. In a globalised economy with fierce competition for cheap labour, coordinating an industry standard to set limits on costs through self regulation seems daunting enough to feel practically impossible for many organisations.
So is degrowth actually feasible? It’s talked about a lot at fashion industry events, or ignored at the same events as the elephant in the room. But it’s challenging to believe that a planned downsizing of economic activity will happen voluntarily in an industry this cutthroat, or that it won’t have repercussions if it does happen.
Perhaps the unsettling truth is that if we, as a society, aim to exist within planetary boundaries, it’s almost a given that we must reduce material consumption, which means that fewer brands will be able to continue to exist. While we can aspire to decouple our impact from growth, evidence suggests that, at a macro level, this decoupling might not occur quickly enough to meet the 1.5% Celsius climate targets. Jason Hickel – who writes extensively and passionately about degrowth and the solutions to global inequality – has conducted extensive research into this, questioning the validity of the “green growth” theory many advocate for, and arguing that many, if not most, industries will need to undergo much more radical reform in order to safeguard a liveable future.
The challenge, though, is that selling the idea of degrowth is difficult – and not just to brands and their stakeholders. It requires people to compromise, to forego things they desire. It runs counter to so much of what we’ve been taught about how we gauge personal success and individual fulfilment. “Green growth” on the other hand offers a surface-level-logical, viable, and easily marketable strategy to both the economic and political communities. It doesn’t demand significant change; rather, it suggests investing existing capitalist efforts into more sustainable areas to decouple environmental impact from economic growth.
Debate on both sides of the aisle rages on, and there’s little hope of settling it in this opinion piece, or in this report, but the instant feeling is that fashion has already enjoyed an extended period of relatively unfettered growth and self-regulation, during which the industry could have invested in blunting the impact of that growth. .That investment, by and large, has not come.
With that context in mind, and with the urgency of climate change and humanitarian action bearing down on us, degrowth seems like the approach more likely to deliver the needed result.]
This is where the concept of “essentialism” comes in, acting as a sort of Trojan horse. By packaging the desired outcome in an appealing manner, it suggests a more effortless, joyous, and enhanced way of life. A life with fewer, long-lasting, quality items becomes an attractive proposition on a personal level because it frees people up from wanting – needing – more. And this, we believe, is what’s needed to gain traction for degrowth on a broader scale.
Our aim is to champion the idea of adopting ‘essentialism’ as a philosophy of consumption for the entire fashion industry, and we hope our efforts toward marketing this concept – and talking openly about the economics and some of the uncertainties of it here – might influence the larger community.
However, it might not be realistic to expect these ideas to be adopted on a large scale. It’s not that we’ve lost faith in people, quite the contrary, it’s just that fashion’s long legacy of self-governance does not provide much encouragement.
This leads us to question what kind of policies could be implemented to promote the right type of behaviour, and who they would target.
There are policies that could manage the impact of planned downsizing of output and even incentivise such behaviour on the consumer side. As fashion regulation becomes more stringent with greenwashing and starts focusing on the material footprint of products – with mandatory disclosure and reporting – there is also a need to consider how we could provide policy to promote sustainable (i.e. reduced) consumption more seriously through consumer engagement.
Building on the new legislative platforms, like the French approach to overconsumption, and EPR (extended producer responsibility) regulations that are being introduced globally, specifically targeting the fashion industry, one could target garment labelling, for example suggesting the minimum number of times a garment should be worn to maximise usability. One could explore digital interventions, such as implementing suggestions on e-commerce platforms to limit the number of garments purchased at checkout, pushing consumers to be more discerning about their choices. This is something we’re exploring at LESTRANGE and are working on a project together with Vaayu that will allow our customer to see, in real time, how changes to the use-phase of their purchases could affect the overall impact of their wardrobe.
But light touch approaches would be superficial. Perhaps we need to learn from other industries, like tobacco and alcohol, which have had negative societal impacts, and where behaviour change has been heavily steered by specific policy strategies. These products are heavily taxed, which influences consumption patterns. They also have strict regulations on advertising. Considering the environmental degradation caused by the fashion industry, and the effect that climate change is already having on lives and livelihoods in both production and consumption markets, it seems logical to approach its regulation in a similar manner.
This might sound alarmist, but when we consider the scale of the problem (and fashion’s contribution to it) it feels appropriate.
And as fashion brands, we should welcome a discussion about a more rigorous regulatory framework that aims to slow down industry consumption rates. For instance, setting a baseline cost, imposing taxes on undervalued products, or considering a base labour wage. Imported goods from outside regional selling areas could have a labour levy, which would inevitably increase the cost of these goods to the consumer, but such taxes could then be redirected to the labour regions, possibly counteracting a reduction in output by anchoring production and consumption in a rebalancing of global equality. This could alter the economics, especially in the fast fashion segment, affecting the volume of products available, but the net benefits to people and planet could be profound.
Of course, any such policy will face scepticism and widespread resistance, especially when trying to regulate a market many believe doesn’t directly affect “human” health, therefore should remain less restricted. First-hand experience at both LESTRANGE and The Interline has demonstrated that most fashion brands do not welcome external regulation, even if some are adapting to it today.
And when we look beyond the objection-on-principle of regulating imports and imposing taxes, we reach an extremely thorny set of economic situations that challenge how we think about commercial success. How do you, for example, stipulate taxation just because someone has achieved greater economies of scale and can reduce their prices? Why should they be taxed in such a way that their economies of scale don’t benefit them? These are questions that cut right to the fundamentals and the foundations of business in general, not just the fashion business. I understand these arguments, but I also know – as the majority of us do – that there’s a bigger battle being fought. We have science-based targets, and facts indicate that if we don’t take drastic system-level action, we won’t achieve them, and everyone (but disproportionately the people who make our clothes) will suffer. To think otherwise is delusional. Marginal and iterative sustainability initiatives will simply not address the problem. We need transformation on a far bigger scale.
Here at LESTRANGE, we will continue to advocate for the idea that consuming less is a pathway to a better life and a more harmonious coexistence with the planet. We also believe we can build a fashion industry that operates within those confines, if we change our collective relationship with meaning and value.
We aim for circularity, and we work to minimise the impact of our products at every stage of their lifecycle. We just launched our entire trouser range in a fully fibre sourced regenerative fabric. Our product impact calculations suggest that up to 16% of a product’s carbon footprint exists in the customer use and end of life phase, so we believe that having several initiatives in place, from our take-back and resell program to our “lifecare” services can help to reduce this, and of course reduce the need for customers to buy more product.
We’ve even launched a pioneering washing technology that revives the colour in old fabrics, seeking to extend the lifespan of garments. While we strive to prolong the life, and effectively manage the end-of-life, for garments, as much of the industry does, circularity alone is not the panacea many would hope, given the time we have – and we firmly believe the true solution is degrowth.
To achieve this, we must see significant progress in policies that support, regulate, and incentivise the right behaviours to meet our ambitious targets and to overcome corporations’ and consumers’ inclination to perpetuate growth at all costs. Because sooner, not later, those costs will become prohibitive for people and the planet to pay.