A fashion for degrowth

Politicians are reliably and passionately in favour of economic growth, whichever party they come from. Few in politics dare to whisper its name, but there are more radical economists and activists who call instead for ‘degrowth’. To my mind, it doesn’t make much sense to be pro or anti growth. That’s like being for or against activity, or motion. These are broad and abstract things, and we need more information before we can form an opinion. Growth of what exactly? For whom? And at what cost?

I’m not the only one to think so. “We may reasonably ask not just growth for what, but growth of what,” as Robert and Edward Skidelsky write in their book How Much is Enough? “We want leisure to grow and pollution to decline.” The madness of considering all growth to be positive seems obvious to me, and yet is an opinion that goes more or less unchallenged in the halls of power. And so things continue to grow, well beyond the point at which they are useful and possibly well beyond.

The fashion industry is a case in point. Over the last two decades, clothing prices have declined and so people in wealthy countries buy more clothes – about 40% more across the EU. We don’t necessarily need them – research for Oxfam (which runs secondhand clothes shops) estimated that most people wear about 44% of their wardrobe regularly. There are on average 57 items in British closets that have not been worn in the last year, an average of 16 items worn only once, and 11 new and as yet unworn.

Despite this apparent surplus, all growth is considered good and so the fashion industry has every intention of selling more clothes to us. Every item of clothing needs resources, water, and human labour, all of which are going to waste if they are to hang unneeded in overcrowded wardrobes. And this is no small matter. The carbon footprint of the fashion industry is now so large that Chris Goodall warns us that “without major changes, clothing alone will stop the world moving to net zero.”

This is an industry that holds human lives cheap and considers nature disposable. The fashion world needs some degrowth.

The Hot or Cool think tank recently did some analysis into this, and suggested five personal consumption habits that would help:

  • Buy fewer clothes
  • Keep what you have for longer
  • Reduce washing and drying
  • Buy secondhand
  • Dispose of used clothing responsibly

These are personal actions, and wider changes are needed too. Some of those changes could support the above, such as raising expectations around secondhand clothing. Every once in a while I see a really good secondhand shop that is getting this right, but often shopping for used clothes is a bit of a lottery. Why are all charity shops mixed, for example? Why not put books in one, household stuff in another and clothes in another? I was interested to learn of the UK’s first charity shop department store that opened recently not far from where I live, and I may pay it a visit and see how they are doing things differently.

Other improvements would target the industry. There’s a need for greater transparency, as most consumers don’t know anything about the clothes that they’re buying. Mandatory footprint labelling is one possibility. Rules are needed to clamp down on greenwash, and to raise the wages and rights of workers. Some things are just going to have to be banned – like burning unsold stock, or exporting secondhand clothing, most of which gets dumped on developing countries. Tax incentives could encourage recyclable materials and circular economy business models.

The ultimate end goal is not a world without fashion, or where everyone is somehow magically content with a handful of increasingly threadbare hand-me-downs. Success is a thriving and creative fashion industry that meets our needs for clothing and for expression, without exploiting either people or the planet along the way. And that is not something that we grow towards. It’s something we shrink towards.

2 Replies to “A fashion for degrowth”

  1. There’s a new Barnado’s Superstore in York; I tried it out for World Book Day dress up clothes for my 9 year old and trousers for my growing toddler. It felt much brighter and more modern than most charity shops, and having plenty of space and stock was helpful. I prefer ebay for most second-hand clothes shopping though – it’s so helpful being able to search for what you want. My younger, trendier friends use Vinted!
    Here’s a piece I was reading recently about charity shops from a fundraiser’s perspective. https://sofii.org/article/lessons-from-a-charity-shop


  2. I think charity shops are mixed because we ‘the suppliers’ find it easy to take all our surplus clutter to one shop rather than bagging it separately and taking it to different shops. That said, when I was clearing my book shelves of theological books after completing an MA I did take them to the Oxfam book store on Bloomsbury because it is a specialist second hand book shop.


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