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Is it Time for the Fashion Industry to Shrink?
COVID-19 has pulled back the curtain on the $1.5 trillion dollar global fashion industry – turns out, glamour has left the building and is out on the streets…in bags.
Not only did mega companies like H&M, Primark and GAP cancel existing orders after COVID-19 hit, impacting many of the world’s 40 million garment workers (85% women, BTW) but now they’re swimming in the billions of garments meant for last spring and summer retail.
Given that around 100 billion garments are produced every year and Spring/Summer is the biggest retail season - and that retail in the US fell by 89% in April alone - we could be talking upwards of 20 billion garments looking for a home right now.
Which begs the bigger question: why are we producing so much clothing anyway? What possible logic is there behind making 100 billion garments a year…for 7.8 billion people, year after year? The same, more or less, 7.8 billion people who have more than enough clothes already?
Many of these unsold clothes and disposable fashion purchases end up in landfill, releasing methane (more potent than CO2) into our environment and accelerating global warming. The HuffPost put the number at 26 billion pounds of clothing — from consumers and corporations — going into landfill every year.
Good360, a US-based nonprofit that collects excess merchandise and distributes it to charities, said it expects more than $660 million in donations of brand new, unsold clothing for 2020 - double what it received in 2019. While donating much of this unsold stock might sound like the obvious solution, up until recently many fashion companies have quietly destroyed unsold goods for years rather than sell them at a discount or donate. True story: many brands would rather destroy their inventory than have just anyone wear it for free…or offend their actual customers who paid full price.
Would you believe that in 2018, Burberry Group PLC disclosed that it burned $37.3 million of its own stock? This past June, France moved to set regulations against destroying unsold inventory (with the 27 countries in the EU bloc expected to follow) and thanks to enraged customers and environmentalists, Burberry agreed to stop this practice.
This is just one recent example of how YOUR voice as a consumer makes a huge impact on how companies make decisions that affect our communities and planet!
When asked ‘What should the fashion industry change post-COVID-19?’ Céline Semaan of Slow Factory Foundation said:
“Everything. From the fast-paced fashion calendar to the overproduction of goods that encourage (and depend on) overconsumption to sustain its broken economic model; to the exploitation of land, labor, and exotic animals, to the way it capitalizes on…social movements for profit-driven initiatives. Everything.”
So, as lovers of fashion, it’s time to ask those hard questions: should the fashion industry still set its sights on growth? What should fashion brands be doing to face up to the fact that as over-producers, we are ultimately driving the gross level of over-consumption, depletion of natural resources, and pollution arising from our current paradigm? Should we say enough is enough and actively seek to reduce the volume of our industry?
Welcome to an old idea that is new to most of us growing up in a consumption-driven world: DEGROWTH.
What does ‘degrowth’ mean and why would fashion businesses ever support it?
“Degrowth is an idea that critiques growth at all costs, causing human exploitation and environmental destruction. The degrowth movement advocates for societies that prioritize social and ecological well-being instead of corporate profits, over-production and excess consumption. Degrowth means transforming societies to ensure environmental justice and a good life for all within planetary boundaries.” – Degrowth.info
Degrowth works backward from the available planetary resources to extrapolate feasible production volumes. This would take the place of the current false seasonal model that leads to overproduction and attempts to drive demand through constant new and undervalued products.
Eva Kruse, CEO of Global Fashion Agenda, asks: “What is the perfect size of the fashion industry in volume, considering planetary boundaries?” Kruse points out that the industry can maintain profitability and a high volume of transactions (and therefore earnings) without “just producing new products.” She points to rental and resale business models that are driving economic growth without the need for constant new products.
J.B. MacKinnon of The New Yorker looked into high-successful Patagonia’s anti-growth corporate approach: “There’s bad growth, and then there’s good growth. An expanding economy driven by ever greater individual consumption of ever more disposable products is bad. In a more sustainable future, people will buy fewer things at higher prices, technological innovation will reduce the impact of those products’ manufacture, and the goods themselves will be made to last and then be recycled at the end of their useful lives. The new economy must grow out from beneath the old one.”
What can brands wanting to maintain profitability and stakeholder support do to reign in the unrealistic expectations of constant growth?
This article from the Harvard Business Review sums up some great action points:
- Brands can pursue degrowth-adapted product design, involving the creation of products that have longer lifespans, are modular, or are locally produced. Fairphone, a social enterprise, eschews the built-in obsolescence of larger mobile device manufacturers and produces repairable phones that dramatically extend their longevity.
- Second, firms can engage in value-chain repositioning, where they exit from certain stages of the value chain. As an example, the vehicle manufacturer Local Motors created a proof-of-concept recyclable vehicle crafted with 50 individual parts printed onsite, compared with the roughly 25,000 parts required for a traditional vehicle.
- Third, brands can lead through degrowth-oriented standard setting. This entails creation of a standard for the rest of the industry to follow. The apparel company Patagonia — that explicitly follows an “antigrowth” strategy— is the poster child for this philosophy, offering a worn-wear store and providing free repairs for not only their own products, but also for those of other garment manufacturers. In a similar vein, the automobile company Tesla released all its patents in 2014, seeking to catalyze the diffusion of electric vehicles.
We hope you’ll join Loop as consumers and global citizens to increasingly drive degrowth by changing our consumption patterns. Loop – and we feel all fashion brands - should seriously think about degrowth as an opportunity. Instead of selling more, let’s aim for higher quality, and grow in a way that gives all of us better options for a sustainable life.
“If there is a green lining, it may be that we jointly have an opportunity to reset fashion. We have to rethink and rebuild the business and not try to go back to business-as-usual. If we fail to utilize this opportunity for change, we are going to see a crisis much bigger than coronavirus.” - Eva Kruse, CEO, Global Fashion Agenda