The case of sustainable clothing

How degrowth shapes the way I think about economic activities
by Amerissa Giannouli

Since I became familiar with degrowth I have been looking at things more critically. Especially after joining the online master on Degrowth: Ecology, Economics and Policy, I find myself defending the need for transforming a green growth obsessed economy into a degrowth one.

Recently, I started working on a project about sustainable fashion focusing on clothing, good practices and youth entrepreneurship. I was sure that presumably sustainable fast fashion practices from big companies such as Zara and H&M would not be on my list of good practices. Although they might use more eco-friendly materials and advocate for these in marketing campaigns, there is still much more to do to address the issue of sustainability and social justice, including fair wages and working conditions throughout their supply chains. Besides, we have to question their identity as a fast fashion industry and the over consumption patterns they reproduce, not just their practices. The concept of “greening” the fashion industry bothers me. At the same time, it is difficult to think of clothing practices that are ecologically and socially responsible without being taken over by greenwashing marketing schemes and without disregarding the underlying power structures and socio-ecological problems.

As I was struggling with defining what sustainable clothing designs, businesses and economic activities could look like, I identified four key issues that I felt I had to reflect upon. To my surprise, these arguments can also easily be applied to other economic activities affected by green technological reformist solutions. Although I recognize that degrowth is not a certain theory but more of a pluralistic critical frame calling for socio-ecological transformations, here is what I managed to put together regarding the economic activities related to clothing inspired by degrowth.

Materials & energy use: Respecting the ecological limits

The first argument has to do with the decreasing use of materials and energy throughout the supply chain of a business when it comes to mainstream sustainable clothing techniques. I have seen clothing businesses, especially the big international ones, being proud of recycling materials and promoting a circular economy. However, there are two things that I have learned so far. The first one is that when I keep the idea that I can use less energy or less materials to produce the same things, I might tend to fall into the trap of producing and consuming more (Jevons paradox). The second one has to do with the Second Law of Thermodynamics which implies that although we do recycle materials, some quantity and quality of these materials and energy is unavoidably lost (Entropy Law). And of course, the process of recycling itself demands energy. Such an argument might not be that relevant for practices that support the actual reduction in consumption and production of excessive clothing such as clothes swapping, repairing, sharing, and other forms of voluntary simplicity. Indeed, there are also actions revolving around ecological materials, materials that can be easily disposed of and absorbed by the earth systems. Upcycling and similar innovative design techniques can be very creative and less harmful to the environment. So, a circular economy could contribute to less material and energy use but it probably cannot do magic.

Social & environmental justice: Decolonizing fashion

Yes, recycling, upcycling, repairing, reducing, could be part of the solution for fast fashion industry and ecological concerns. But, is it only a matter of materials and energy? What about social concerns or – to put it in a better way – what about socio-ecological concerns? What about traditional local practices that are lost due to technological efficiency? What about extraction of resources and exploitation of people and communities in different parts of the world, even the ones that are close to us and we are able to see and witness? What about the clothing materials that could be natural materials but maybe force monoculture production (e.g. cotton) in certain places? What about clothing businesses wastes? What happens with these wastes? If we want to promote changes, we need to think about questions of “how” and “where” something is produced and consumed. What kind of effects does this economic activity and process create to the communities and the ecologies of a place. Who is making what? What are the conditions of this production? What is the level of dependency to certain practices and nature? What are the underline relations connected with clothing production that might not be visible to a consumer that could live far from where the actual production takes place? What about toxic and misleading marketing that reproduces stereotypes, injustices, and cultural appropriation?

When you go deeper into such issues, you can discover the ugly truth of producing textiles and garments, especially in the fast fashion industry, including gender violence, child labor, non-transparent, exploitative and unhealthy working conditions. Indicatively, from January to May 2018, the Asia Floor Wage Alliance and Global Labor Justice researchers documented gender based violence reported by female garment workers in 5 countries; Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka. Moreover, 70% (or 112 million children) of all child laborers are in agriculture while cotton production is an agricultural activity that is directly linked to clothing production. Switching into cotton fabrics without reducing the excessive production of clothing and without addressing major socio-ecological issues cannot be considered sustainable. In fact, “UNICEF estimates that more than 100 million children are affected in the garment and footwear supply chain globally – as workers, children of working parents, and community members near farms and factories”. And these are things that have been documented. However, the score on the level of transparency is still extremely low (24%) for the 250 of the world’s largest fashion brands and retailers that hold a large part of fashion economic activity worldwide. All these might make us think again connecting financial economic successes to well-being.

Economic democracy & community empowerment: Towards autonomy

These questions also take us to how decision making on socio-economic organization in a community takes place. Does this socio-economic organization depend on market “signals” and the “invisible hand” that promises to connect demand and supply to a perfect equilibrium? I believe it is common knowledge that depending on market signals can be misleading, especially since socio-ecological effects, as described before, might not be captured in the costs of the production and the price of a fashion item (externalities). Then, what if some of these ecological and social externalities can be internalized? It could work to a certain extent but there are difficulties in capturing them and ethical considerations in the case of economic valuation techniques. For example, what about the people that cannot register their preferences and speak or even be recognized on how they are being affected by certain production and consumption practices as mentioned before? As I see it, these issues touch upon democratic participation and important decisions on how, what, where, why to produce, invest, distribute, consume and dispose might be better taken through participatory and democratic processes both for the communities that consumption and production takes place, despite how far they might be from each other.

It might make more sense for a small community to decide locally on how and what kind of fashion products and businesses are “needed” or “should” exist inside their “territory”, and in a more globalized world this can be very difficult. But we do set numbers and specific objectives we wish to achieve even at national, European, and international levels. There are lots of economic instruments and policies out there. What I am trying to argue here is that instead of relying only on the markets and experts to set these numbers and objectives for such policies and instruments, we can also give voice to those those that are being affected by (the less visible ones) or affect the clothing supply chain, as well as take the ecological constraints more seriously. The participatory mechanisms are there. The democratic space is missing.

I cannot help but think about the big building in the place that I am living. What if we could imagine a different use of this building for the fashion sector? What if the community has been invited at some point to share thoughts, visions and needs? What if community considerations were taken into account when that space was “available” to take its new identity? We cannot be sure what the new identity of this building could have been. We cannot be sure if it would have been an ecologically responsible or socially just structure. But at least, it could have been a bit more participatory and democratic than before.

Resilience and community engagement: Strengthening the commons

Given the previous analysis, an ecologically responsible and socially just clothing activity could take the form of voluntary simplicity actions, solidarity initiatives, social innovations and social businesses with ecological and ethical considerations, as well as be deliberated through democratic processes. But I feel that there could be something more. Apart from making sure that individual clothing actions or clothing businesses are sustainable, in a broader sense of the term, there is the potential of collective actions to transform the perceptions we have about economic clothing activities in general.

If I may continue with the building example, I could try to imagine a new place where people of the community could have access to tools and materials in order to make or repair their own clothes and similar items. There could be educational programs for providing essential skills on how to do this, speak about social and environmental justice considerations in the fashion sector and even have courses on social entrepreneurship. People could also sell their creations or local creators could also join and sell their clothing products. Clothing swaps could also take place in the form of regular festivities, trying to engage with people that might not even have an interest in clothing or fashion. Maybe the initiative could generate surplus and allocate it to other activities which could be aligned with a community or an environmental cause.

That was my ideal story of the building connecting it with clothing considerations. I use the word “story” intentionally because our lives follow and respond to stories and narratives. Some of them are quite powerful in a sense that can block, reinforce or liberate our imagination. In the society I am living and interacting with, the underlying narrative is that people need to study more, work more, and do more in order to be considered successful. Those that do not follow this path might be considered ‘less of a citizen’, especially when they are not contributing directly to the economic growth machine. Activities that people might perform daily, often in their homes, do not matter as they do not count in GDP terms. However, these are activities and processes that socially and substantially reproduce life. Just like my grandma used to sew and create clothes in order to sell them, dress herself, dress her family and share some pieces with the community, sustainable fashion practices could welcome diversity that is not dependent mainly on market “signals” and technological innovations to become ecologically and socially responsible.

As I like to say: do not see these arguments as distinct from each other. They are interrelated, connected with and affected by each other. What I tried to demonstrate here is that a socio-ecological and economic transformation (or simply, a socio-ecological if we think about economy as part of the social sphere) is more complex than using eco-friendly materials or making individual life changes. It can be overwhelming to think about every aspect of our lives more holistically or systemically. However, trying to respond to such critical questions could open up possibilities and worlds of action that we might have never thought about, even if some of them are already there.