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A series of conversations about fashion's relationship to people, the planet and profit.

In 2004 the French activist Francois Schneider traveled through the South of France with his donkey Jujube. Labeling himself the "degrowth peddler" — a role he felt combined two crucial aspects: openness to people and consistency in action — he stopped along the way to talk to people about the political, economic, and social movement: degrowth. Beginning at the bottom of the Drôme Valley, as he reached Magny-Cours, 500 people had joined him. He envisaged traveling for a month — the almost one thousand mile journey lasted a year. He said at the time, "technical reports do not bring about change. I wanted to do something." 

The idea to degrow began to take shape in the late 1960s. In 1968, a group of elite academics, industrialists, and government officials calling themselves the Club of Rome gathered to discuss solutions to the world's problems. In 1972 they published their findings in a book called The Limits to Growth, which had a monumental impact on the environmental movement. 

The same year the social philosopher André Gorz asked: "Is the earth's balance, for which no-growth – or even degrowth – of material production is a necessary condition, compatible with the survival of the capitalist system?" This question is cited as the first time degrowth was used in this context. These thinkers all concluded the planet could not sustain the rates of population and economic growth — if we didn't slow down, society would collapse they warned. There was a lot of pushback and criticism to these ideas, but with hindsight, environmental historian David Worster wrote in 2016 that The Limits to Growth was "the book that cried wolf. The wolf was the planet's decline, and the wolf was real."
Image by Chris Maggio

Over the past year, degrowth has received a lot of renewed attention, concurrently with an awareness of the climate crisis's perils and the coronavirus pandemic. This week I spoke to ecological economist Giorgos Kallis to understand the principles of the ideology. Giorgos has written extensively on the subject with books such as Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era in 2014, In Defence of Degrowth in 2017 and most recently The Case for Degrowth published last year. 

The way Giorgos thinks we can achieve degrowth is through several initiatives. Firstly, through grassroots movements that support community economies, which emphasize value rather than profit. Secondly, through five political policies: green new deal investment into energy, transport, and agriculture, universal care income (like universal basic income but focusing on compensating the undervalued work of care and caretaking), reduction of the working week, support of community economies with legislation and public financing and an overhaul of the taxation system — to tax carbon, resources, wealth and maximum income (instead of work and labor). He argues that this would create a plausible scenario for community economies to expand, "the more time we put into these economies instead of the conventional market economies, the more a different sphere of community economies will expand against that of market economies," he said.

Fashion is an interesting case study for degrowth — we need clothes, but we don't need fashion. What would fashion look like if it was produced locally? How would community economies function within the space of fashion? If we championed value and not growth, would the fashion industry become obsolete? In Rachael Taylor's influential paper 'Invent Your Own Fashion Economy: Post-Growth Cultures' in Fashion Practice, she starts to reimagine fashion economies and approach some of these questions. It leaves you wondering if technology solutions and other green growth initiatives in fashion can be sustainable — if growth continues, so will ecocide and inequality. 

Shonagh Marshall: What is degrowth?

Giorgos Kallis: Degrowth isn't negative growth. The de part confronts, criticizes, and calls for alternatives to what we consider to be our times' dominant ideology. This ideology of economic growth has taken the role, almost, of religion in a secular era. Not only in the economy but us personally — each one of us, in our life and business, believe we should grow. Degrowth is a critique of this whole ideology. We call economic growth an ideology; we don't call it just a material economic process. So degrowth is a de to growth with a capital G, like the de of decolonization, a de in the active fight for liberation. 

This critique takes many dimensions. It points to the ecological disasters that this growth leads to and points to the very irrationality of the idea of compound growth. Saying the economy has to grow 3 percent every year sounds like a small amount. For example, if my employer increased my salary by 3 percent each year, that doesn't seem too much. But, 3 percent, year after year — compound growth — means that the economy doubles in 22 years, and then it's four times bigger in 48 years. This means that the global economy, which is huge as it is in terms of the money and resources it circulates, would be ten times bigger by the end of the century, and within two centuries would be like almost going to infinity. That's the power of compound growth. 

We criticize that and question if it were a rational idea, to begin with. All civilizations have sacrificed things to appease their gods, but we are being asked to offer more and more things to keep this crazy idea going. We have sacrificed our education and health infrastructures to keep growth going, we have commodified every corner of social relations, and we are destroying the natural environment beyond repair. 

Secondly, growth signals a faster pace — doing more and more things, faster and faster. Degrowth points out we have to do things slower, we have to go slow, we have to do less, we have to do things differently. It's not about expansion. Formally growth is defined as an increase in GDP. Degrowth is not an inversion in saying we have to decrease GDP — that's not the idea. We have to think about changing the process of accelerating expansion, and we have to do it drastically — especially in terms of how much energy and resources we use, how much we work, and how fast things are being done. Degrowth is a qualitative inversion of this process of acceleration, not a quantitative inversion of GDP growth.

Image by Chris Maggio

Shonagh: Lately, I've realized how hard-wired we are to celebrate growth, especially in North America. I read the news, and when they talk about stimulating the economy, immediately something my brain goes, Oh, that's great. 

Giorgos: Your feeling about economic growth is also my feeling. It's not unjustified; we live in societies designed for growth. They do better when there is growth than when there isn't. Forgetting the impacts and how this growth takes place — based on exploiting other areas or causing climate change — when there is growth, things generally tend to be a little bit better. The government has more money to spend; more new activities are happening. If you're looking for a job, it's a better moment than when there is a recession. We don't deny this reality, but the question is how can we construct a different reality for everyone? You are not mistaken to think that in the capitalist society we live in it's better to have growth. But the question is: given what we know about the impacts of this growth long-term, could we create something different, where we could also live well, without caring about whether there is growth or there's not growth? That's different from a recession, most people cannot live well in a recession; they lose their jobs and have to support parents who don't have health insurance, etc. With degrowth we are not denying this reality. One of the first people to write about degrowth Serge Latouche said, There is nothing worse than the lack of growth in a growth economy. So the challenge is to create a post-growth or a growth economy where lack of growth is not a problem. 

Shonagh: Can you define capitalism? Is that what you're pushing against with degrowth?

Giorgos: The way I understand capitalism is a system that is geared and organized around the needs of those who have money and are propelled to invest their money and make more money. This basic definition of capitalism stems back to the work of Marx, and I still find it useful. What distinguishes capitalism from other systems is that the system moves to the drumbeat of those who have money and want to invest it to make more money. That's something that is a distinctive feature of capitalism. It doesn't mean it didn't happen in previous civilizations, but then there were only a few merchants and profit making was a tiny part of the overall human activity. The whole society was not organized around profit making. Capitalist societies are organized around permitting profits to grow. 

There are of course different models and degrees of capitalism in different societies. Some are organized around profit making, but they also have mechanisms of redistribution or public services. Then there are other societies where profit takes priority over everything else. The growth logic of capitalism is linked to money's nature. Money doesn't have a clear limit. It's just a number, and in principle, it can increase and increase, increase and increase — that's problematic because the real world is not expanding without limits. Our needs tend to be limited. Like the number of shoes, you need to have, you can have many but you cannot have an infinite number of shoes. In physical goods, there is a limit, but money is the only thing that doesn't have a limit. This is potentially explosive.

Diptcyh by Chris Maggio

Shonagh: You mentioned recession earlier. How is degrowth different from a recession? 

Giorgos: A recession is the lack of growth or negative growth within a growth economy. Degrowth is a proposal or an imaginative way of thinking about how we organize differently. How could we build an economy that consumes and produces less, uses fewer resources and energy, and moves things slower and in shorter distances? How could we do that and still maintain a certain level of well-being? It's not about reducing the GDP and turning it negative. That is easy to do; you destroy things — you stop producing. But that's not what we would advocate; that would be crazy to call for that. Recession is part of growth economies; that's why a recession is always a slump. Then in the wake, there is a reorganization that tries to create growth again. We are arguing for an escape from this circle altogether.

Shonagh: Some advocate for green growth, which is particularly relevant to fashion. What is green growth? 

Giorgos: Green growth is the idea that you can continue to have GDP growth and at the same time reduce the environmental impacts. Not just reduce them in their absolute magnitude but reduce them to a level that they're sustainable. So if we think about climate change, scientists say, It is sustainable to stay within 1.5 degrees of temperature change. Green growth would be a case where GDP keeps increasing and carbon emissions decline to remain within this limit of 1.5 degrees. That's one basic definition. 

The other way you can see green growth is that by greening the economy, by producing windmills, or new, greener products, organic grocery stores, for example, can be a force of economic growth. That by greening, you create new economic activity, and this creates growth.

Shonagh: You have been critical of green growth. What do you find troublesome about it? 

Giorgos: I don't see a lot of evidence that it can work. One way or another, the more the economy produces, the more resources and energy are used. For example, the more extraction you have to do, the more fossil fuels you have to use, the more environments you've got to ruin. It's tough for me to think about any other way. This growth of the economy has been so material, and the only way we know — using energy to transform materials — that I can’t see how this system is suddenly going to become immaterial. 

Economists come with very elaborate arguments about how this could happen in the future. I'll spare you the details of why I think their way of thinking is wrong, but the stronger argument is that the empirical record entirely defeats it. We see a clear connection between the resources we use and how much the economy is growing. True, there's no reason we should be using fossil fuels; for example, we could transition to a cleaner energy source. That's true, and the economy could in theory keep growing. But my concern is the more the economy grows, the more it becomes challenging to make this transition. If you want us to reduce the use of fossil fuels, and you use 3 percent less fossil fuels each year compared to the size of the economy, but the economy grows 3 percent, you're not doing anything. The metaphor I use is that you're trying to run up an escalator that's accelerating downwards — you're always on the losing side. 

The other critique of green growth is that the windmills or organic grocery stores, in the current system, come on top of everything else. So it's not that you're reducing fossil fuel use when you build windmills — you just have more of both. A friend uses the example of almond milk. Studies show that plant-based milks haven't led to a substitution of cow's milk. We are drinking both more cow milk and more almond milk.  You can see a growth of green products is not reducing the impact.

Image by Chris Maggio

Shonagh: How do you envisage living within a degrowth framework? Would we grow our oats and make our milk?  

Giorgos: Yeah, making your milk may be fun, but this has limitations; we all have time limitations. How much of your food can you make? Instead, I would think about it as pooling human resources and procuring your food to the extent that you can source it locally. One example is here in Barcelona, there are networks of consumers that set up cooperatives, and then they find nearby farmers who bring the products to them. This covers the basic dietary needs of a family; locally sourced — locally sourced is super important. Meat is generally more environmentally damaging than vegetables. However, locally sourced meat is much less ecologically harmful than a vegetarian diet that is flown to you from all over the world — avocados from Chile, kiwi fruit from New Zealand — which you find increasingly in the supermarkets. So locally and community-sourced agriculture is something that would fit within the degrowth idea. Of course, once you do that, you realize that many products cannot be locally sourced because they follow complex supply chains. So there is an aspect of also trying to reduce your overall level of consumption or think more carefully about what you need and what might be superfluous. 

Shonagh: Do you suggest that the whole world move to a degrowth model? 

Giorgos: I don't think the global south has to endorse this mode of degrowth. I think it is a responsibility for the global north that has over-exploited the global south and right now is condemning the global south to a future of destruction through climate change. Climate change will impact us a lot, but it will affect people who already live in dire situations even more. People will have to migrate, and we won't let them migrate, or if we let them, they're going to be used as cheap labor. I think it's the responsibility and imperative for the global north to shift to a degrowth mode and share resources and wealth equitably. 

When talking about the global south, it depends of course because it's a very generalizing term. Which countries are we talking about? There are different levels of income. For a very low-income country, the important thing is to meet basic needs, so to meet this, sometimes growth is what needs to happen. Growth will happen or might happen, as systems and infrastructures required in these places are developed — such as health, infrastructure, and education. It also doesn't mean that these poorer parts of the world shouldn't industrialize. There is a need for a certain level of economic development but not in the West's mold. That philosophy that the West knows best and the rest have to copy where the West poses as charitable to help these nations become as good as we are, is a lie — we haven't been ‘good.’ We've developed on the backs of the rest of the world. We're condemning the whole world to a terrible future. There is nothing to copy or learn from the West.

Image by Chris Maggio

Shonagh: What do you think of degrowth being considered as a lifestyle?

Giorgos: I don't know if I would use the word lifestyle, but I would say that it demands a personal way of living that is different. It also requires a communal cooperation, a coming together of more than one person, because if you change your way of living alone, it doesn't make much of a big difference — even if you go to the most radical extremes. What happens is you're treated as fringe, so you don't influence people. However, if people consume less, consume differently, or are part of cooperative agriculture projects, then their way of living is an example for others; it is reproduced and becomes part of the everyday reality — that has meaning. 

There is another level; this has to be politically organized because if you just live differently with your group of friends and the political system moves in a different direction, you are bound to remain irrelevant. In a new book we published this year, The Case for Degrowth we talk about an articulation of the personal, the common, and the political. We talk about these three levels and how we should connect them. 

The term lifestyle is tricky because it is linked to capitalism. Capitalism feeds on alternative lifestyles; it needs them — this is very relevant to fashion. It needs things that are not already fully capitalistic to renew capitalism and give new profit opportunities. Critical scholars have said that about capitalism, that it needs virgin territories like the Americas where it can expand. That's clear to see, but we can think also of virgin territories in terms of new untapped styles — and I've thought of that in relation to fashion — that capitalism needs fresh internal territories. An example of this is Airbnb; it commodified something that was there, but no one had thought could become profitable — like the spare bedroom of your house. Fashion commodifies ways of living, think of the countercultural or the punk movements, or inner city styles.  

Lifestyles are essential for capitalism, and especially the people who differ — the counterculturals — play an important role as they signal a different way of living that is not mainstream, and can be desired by those who feel their life is too conformist. Once an alternative lifestyle is desired, it's straightforward for capitalism to get that and turn it into a mass market. Think about the hippies who wore blue jeans. Jeans were working-class worker's clothes, and the hippies first adopted them as an anti-conformist statement to signify, We are like workers, we don't need to dress better than the rest — we live a simple life. Blue jeans were a clear signal that they lived an alternative lifestyle. Now blue jeans are a massive market with an enormous environmental impact. A lifestyle disconnected from anything else — is just a lifestyle. An alternative or degrowth lifestyle paradoxically can be welcomed by capitalism; it signals new ideas, new products, new things that people can desire and aspire to. Everyone aspires to a simple life, not everyone can have it, but at least you can get the blue jeans like the people who live the simple life!

Shonagh: How would you envision fashion within the ideology of degrowth? How would it operate?

Giorgos: It would be mostly based on reuse. Alternative or squat communities in Barcelona have an extended system of cloth reuse. The more dedicated ones will get their clothes only through exchange. Others, including myself, buy clothes from secondhand shops rather than buy them new. 

There is a big network of exchange, I have two one year old babies, and I would say 90 to 95 percent of their clothes are from friends, and after we have used them, we pass them to other friends or friends of friends. I don't know if this is common everywhere or a Barcelona thing, but within my university, whoever has a child passes their clothes around, especially with children because you can't buy clothes every two months. 

Another way of thinking about degrowth in fashion is that having a limited amount of clothes, you can keep coming with new combinations or new ways of mending them and developing them — this is an art, and we have to think about how it could be cultivated. Kate Fletcher I believe has written extensively about this in her book Craft of Use: Post-growth Fashion.

Shonagh: Degrowth has had some high-profile articles in The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and The Guardian do you think that people will try to commodify degrowth? 

Giorgos: No, degrowth is an intellectual argument to a large extent up to now, that cannot be commodified or easily assimilated as such. It has to do with climate change and inequalities, and I don't see it as commodifiable. But the degrowth lifestyle or a different way of living, I think is. This lifestyle is not necessarily degrowth, but it is compatible with the ideas of degrowth, and it's the way many young people who don't want to play by the rules of the system would like to live  to signal that they're trying to do something different. These people recognize climate change and acknowledge that we can't be carrying on the same way. Within the way the current system works, I think this is commodifiable. My friends, who are the least commodified people possible, live in squats and dress in clothes that are entirely reused; there is nothing fancy about them. But I could very easily imagine a fashion designer picking up this and making a fashion show where all the models are dressed like them. 

Shonagh: My final question is, do you live within the ideology of degrowth? 

Giorgos: I don't offer myself as an example. I have friends who are better examples than myself. I try my best, but I have to negotiate with my family, as all of us have to. As a mindset — I'm not after more. My principal value is sufficiency  to always think what is enough. I don't want more for the sake of more or to make more money to buy this or that. I'm trying to be as simple as I can. I'm not going to consume something extra, excessive, or unnecessary.

On the other hand, I have family in Greece and the US, so before COVID, I would fly to see them; I would like to fly less in the future. In terms of my consumer choices, I try to buy as much locally and buy as little as I need. I try to buy from cooperatives or be part of cooperatives here. I have to admit, you know, that sometimes I'll buy the kiwi from New Zealand — I'm not Jesus Christ or Virgin Mary. We have to be kind with ourselves. A metaphor is when active smokers say that smoking is bad and should be banned. The fact that they haven't given up smoking doesn't make them hypocrites. 

Some say you're pitching something that you can't fully live yourself. In The Case for Degrowth, we say that between four and ten contradictions are acceptable in your life, if you have less than four, you're a preacher and a fanatic, if you have more than ten, then you become a hypocrite — I'm somewhere in between. We have to accept our contradictions, and we also have to accept, which is more difficult, arguments from people who live within this contradiction. More importantly, we have to understand that our contradictions stem from the systems we live in, and to which we must fit, unless we want to take the hard road of ostracization. How each person deals with this is personal and difficult, and I am not going to play the puritan evaluating who is less or more degrowther. The point is we need to change all together and make it easier for everyone to live a simpler life. And to do this we must organize communally and politically. 

Thank you for reading, see you in two week. 


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