At the root of the issue is a belief that decarbonisation can come about significantly enough on the one hand that we can keep pushing more volume on the other.
That isn’t unique to fashion. The ability to decouple economic or GDP growth from ecological impact is a topic of keen global debate and has led to what’s known as the post-growth or degrowth movement within economic theory.
This counters the so-called ‘green growth’ argument, which believes new technologies and efficiencies will enable us to reduce global emissions to hit those Paris Agreement goals. Instead, it contests net reduction can’t occur when business keeps expanding at such pace, calling for a fundamental rethink on levels of consumption and production.
“The speed at which resource and emission efficiencies have to improve if we are to meet carbon targets are at best heroic, if the economy is growing relentlessly,” writes economist Tim Jackson, professor at the University of Surrey, in his book, Prosperity Without Growth.
He says the only option then is to question growth itself. “Efficiency cannot outrun scale,” he told me, suggesting fashion has to think about producing less.
But talking about that to fashion is an anathema. “It’s the ultimate elephant in the room,” says Faith Robinson, a fashion consultant and the creator of the @post_growth Instagram account. “These brands deal in volume. It’s irrelevant to introduce scaling down to a business that defines success by scaling up. [They] aren’t interested in being smaller.”
One luxury business I spoke to, despite pushing extremely hard on the sustainability agenda, said they’d never had a conversation internally about rethinking growth; and that the intention right now amid the COVID-19 pandemic is rather focused on how to get back to it as soon as possible.
As per Jackson in his book: “Questioning growth is deemed to be the act of lunatics, idealists and revolutionaries. But question it we must.”
The challenge here is that this conversation brings into question the very capitalist system we live by. Fashion, like all consumer categories, is part of a construct anchored in growth and driven by shareholder primacy. Could we ever consider any other way?
For many, there’s no choice but to. “Is it reasonable to ask the industry to produce less in order to survive?” asks Céline Semaan, founder of Slow Factory. “For us to be able to continue this existence here on this planet and provide value to future generations, we have to adapt to the situation. We can’t pretend it’s not happening. What’s unreasonable is to continue this exploitation of our resources.”
“There is no business to be done on a dead planet,” adds Kate Fletcher, professor at the Centre for Sustainable Fashion, explaining that infinite growth within a finite system is fundamentally flawed. Every year, we are consuming the earth’s natural resources 1.75 times faster than it can regenerate them, according to the Global Footprint Network.
Complementing degrowth and post-growth theory, Fletcher is proposing we expunge growth logic, and instead consider ‘Earth Logic’; an action plan she authored with Mathilda Tham, professor at Linnaeus University, Sweden. This is a systemic reworking that puts the earth first. It recommends various routes to doing so, ranging from localism to governance, and notably, reducing production and consumption.
As Sally Uren, CEO of Forum for the Future, explains: “We’re currently operating in a model that needs growth at any cost. It’s a classic systemic challenge. If we’re going to shift from the extractive growth model - then the goals of the system need to change.”