consumerism wealth

A fashion for degrowth

In my book, 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 utterly obvious to me, and yet is a question that doesn’t seem to have occurred to a lot of politicians and economists. 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.”

So 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.

  • See Aja Barber’s book Consumed for more on this kind of thing.


  1. I wonder how natural fibres and synthetic ones compare in terms of environmental pollution. Cotton and wool, though biodegradable and kind to our skin, do consume a lot of soil, water, and in most cases, pesticides and fertilizers. But synthetic fibres, ugh! last forever!

  2. Love this perspective! It’s true that growth can’t be blanketly good or bad, and we need to consider the specifics. I completely agree that the fashion industry needs some degrowth, and the personal consumption habits you mentioned are a great start. I also think improving transparency and implementing rules to clamp down on greenwash are important industry changes.

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