Degrowth: An Economic Framework that Values Ecosystem Capacity, Human Dignity, and Self Sufficiency

By Teju Adisa-Farrar

The State of Waste in the Fashion Industry

Photo by the OR Foundation

The mainstream fashion industry’s supply chains are not linear but operate in an economy with a take, make, and waste production model. This model takes mass amounts of raw materials and releases carbon emissions into the atmosphere; uses exploited labor to make these materials into products; then those products are wasted and “thrown away,” usually to a landfill in a low-income community of color. The driving force for this production model is to create infinite amounts of profit by producing as many things as possible for as cheaply as possible. This necessitates destroying the earth and simultaneously exploiting low-wage workers, who are mostly women of color. This belief in endlessly growing the economy is one of the main reasons why the fashion industry has to be completely transformed. Luckily, alternatives exist and are being built at this very moment.

Recognizing Global Limits 

The mainstream understanding is that there is one economy and that it should trend in a curve ever-upwards regardless of the environmental limits and climate crisis that currently defines our human reality. What if, instead, we recognize that there are multiple types of economies and that they are not only defined by financial wealth. What if, instead, we thought of economies as circular, regional, and in solidarity with communities rather than linear? What if we defined the success of economies by measures other than material and financial excess? Degrowth is a concept that encourages us to use factors other than GDP and to scale down the global economy’s current rate of production to live within the ecological limits of our planet. Degrowth is a belief that we don’t need high incomes to live well, have dignified work and get what we need to thrive.

It is not that there is not enough food, housing, or clothing for everyone. It is that the food, fiber, and housing systems are based on the imperative for profit rather than human rights. The globalized mainstream society that currently functions under capitalism has created scarcity as a way to justify the inequitable distribution of wealth, value, and services. Mainstream economists have appropriated the word “growth,” so that rather than associating it with plants and other living things—it is associated with limitless profit. Abundance does not only mean financial wealth, it means being able to live in resilient, thriving economies and communities wherever you are in the world. Thus, we can either create sustainable futures or capitalist ones. We cannot have both. As long as our idea of an economy is based on capitalistic notions of private property and wealth accumulation, we will not be able to create sustainable pathways for human and ecological prosperity. It is crucial that we transform our food, fiber, and agricultural systems towards circular economies if we want to extend humanity’s time on earth and adapt through climate change.

A Vision for Regional, Circular, and Regenerative Economies 

Fibershed is stewarding the vision of regional, circular, regenerative economies in several ways. The seed to sew framework is grounded in climate beneficial agriculture and regional manufacturing hubs. Rather than creating textiles from synthetic (usually petroleum-based materials), using them and throwing them into a landfill—a circular model uses natural materials that can return to the earth and support a sustainable cycle of production. It is possible to regionalize the production of fiber and textiles, from the soil to our skin—as well as decrease waste, drawdown carbon, and implement regeneration in the process. This framework decentralizes the mainstream exploitative fashion industry and refocuses on bioregions, communities of entrepreneurs and artisans, stewarding the land and collective abundance.  

The circular economy is a model of production and consumption, which involves sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing, and recycling existing materials and products as long as possible. In this way, the life cycle of products is extended.

The Regional Fiber Manufacturing Initiative is working towards this vision, creating possibilities for a new perspective and way of producing the things with need centered in dignity and thrivable incomes. Relocalizing supply chains transforms local economies, which in turn transforms the world economy to redistribute value. While there are substantial infrastructure gaps and capacity barriers to immediately regionalizing supply chains, the intermediate route is to produce the fiber we need through regenerative supply chains that currently exist and are being built.

This work is crucial, yet extremely difficult because the current dominant economy forces us to operate in certain ways that are unsustainable by intentionally creating infrastructure gaps. For example, while California is in the top ten states for cotton production in the nation, there is nowhere in California to get cotton spun. Outsourcing to southeast Asia due to neoliberal policies in the early 1980s led to several cotton mills being decommissioned and, in some cases, flown to parts of the world where there is cheaper labor and fewer environmental regulations. However, the Carolina Textile District (CTD) has circumnavigated some of these challenges and has connected a regional, domestic supply chain making quality textiles and fiber-based products. Rather than focusing on maximizing profits by decreasing labor costs, the CTD uses a cooperative structure to facilitate collaboration between makers, manufacturers, and communities in the Western North Carolina region. 

Degrowth: A Pathway Towards Equity, Dignity, and Prosperity for All

Degrowth encourages us to shift our idea of the economy towards human dignity, ecological resilience, and less consumption. Degrowth invites humans to transform our supply chains, societies, and ways of life towards human and ecological well-being. It’s about all of us living better rather than a select few benefiting from endless economic profit that simultaneously degrades ecosystems and livelihoods. As we continue to build networks through the Regional Fiber Manufacturing Initiative, on our way to creating sustainable bioregional textile supply chains, degrowth is a value that is central to our purpose. In decreasing the mainstream globalized economy that is exploitative and unsustainable, we can rebuild thriving regional economies based on prosperity and abundance for all of our diverse communities. 

Photos by Paige Green unless noted.