It's time for brands to engage with de-growth

category - design
category - sustainability
sector - fashion
type - opinion
The pace of the last decade combined with a tumultuous 2020 is driving people towards radical community models – and brands must do the same

As a society, we’re thinking a lot about the future. We’re mulling over how to let go of what we knew, while coming to terms with the fact that we don’t know as much as we thought we did.

And as Covid-19 continues to lift the veil on our culture of hyper-performance and The Optimised Self, what has become apparent is just how much incessant demand has driven both our lifestyles and businesses.

Now, with public scepticism of big business growing, a more synergistic relationship between the social and natural world is gaining momentum. Growth is taking a backseat to a pursuit of equity and balance as the globalised pause brought on by the pandemic – and the confluence of social justice events in 2020 – has grown awareness of the systemic inequalities and counter-productivity that lie within our cultural, social and political systems.

For this reason, individuals are increasingly lacking the incentive to comply or contribute to industries or companies with hyper-acceleration at their nucleus – the great pause is forcing us to reckon with the way we live our lives.

While labelled utopic by some, a movement of de-growth is inevitable. Resistance against the obvious failings of capitalism is accompanied by calls for a ‘nowtopia’ – a conscious devotion of time and intentions towards wise consumption and creation that balances the scales socially and ecologically.

Economist Giorgos Kallis considers this in The Economics of Degrowth. He questions the plausibility of the extreme growth agenda, which has arguably driven the social and health climate we are currently in: ‘If economic growth does not increase wellbeing, and is uneconomical and anti-ecological, what is it that sustains it as a primary national objective?’

This is because we are living in a ‘post-industrial condition’, as cultural critic Jan Verwoert explains. One that traps us in a cyclical scenario of climax and crisis. In order to slow down, he says, we have to first recognise how the ‘ideology of high-performance’ embeds a deeply problematic social condition. ‘Is an economy based on systematic exhaustion not bound to collapse at any time?’ Verwoert asks. ‘If current forms of capitalism purposefully sustain a sense of crisis to increase the urgency of production, it does indeed seem inevitable that the whole system should soon spiral out of control.’

Published by:

17 August 2020

Author: Georgina Johnson

Image: The Slow Grind: Finding our way back to creative balance by Georgina Johnson, UK


Circular Design Report by Nike, Global

Yet, until companies recognise other approaches to success, they will continue to operate as though we have infinite physical energy and material resources. Extreme economic growth and activity will continue to inform the culture of tone-deaf businesses. The company of the future, however, will actively and sufficiently de-centre itself, in favour of a community-led model.

To realise this, there must be a redefinition of aspirations and a conscious-driven business landscape, with brands opting out of performance and taking steps towards de-growth. Here are some of the ways to engage with this concept:

1. Refuse to practise, build or affirm culture through the lens of old business models and KPIs

2. Examine, consider and adapt the concept of de-growth at scale as a mode of transition for your business

3. Make wellbeing and psychological safety king across the culture of the business

While the sustainability of more empathetic business models continues to be debated, interesting solutions are already arising from future thinkers. One response is the community or neighbourhood model, with structures, concepts and practises that radically shift the business paradigm into a place where people come before the performance.

This new priority and investment should encompass a brand’s employees, audiences and the communities they serve. One way in which this is successful is through the creation of open-source networks that democratise information and upheave ideas around competition. Brands already reimagining the politics of business through collective solution-seeking include Phoebe English, who in 2019 created the Fashion on Earth WhatsApp group, which facilitated an exchange of ideas between a growing number of designers for sustainable fashion production alternatives.

In 2020, global sports brand Nike is indulging in this ideology with Circular Design, its own open-source platform foregrounding the fact that ‘a more sustainable world is a collective effort’. In doing so – and by working with staff and students from Central Saint Martins among others – Nike exemplifies how brands can integrate and scale-up community-oriented thinking.

While these concepts can flourish within advanced economies, the point is not to advance social imbalance and ecological devastation but to work towards reorganising and redistributing growth voluntarily, creating a regeneration economy. Moving out of the inter-Covid period, the business of the future will have to interrogate the structures embedded within it and the outmoded forces and ideologies driving it forward, subscribing to a new, community-focused manifesto of de-growth.

Georgina Johnson is an artist, curator and social thinker and is the founder of creative ecosystem The Laundry arts. Her first book, The Slow Grind: Finding Our Way Back to Creative Balance is published this year.

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‘Brands are already reimagining the politics of business through collective solution-seeking that upheaves ideas around competition’

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