On the occasion of our latest Magazine, which deals with sustainability within the fashion industry, we asked several insiders and experts to share their different perspectives. One of them was Niko Paech, a German environmental economist, author and lecturer, who is currently teaching "Plural Economy" at Siegen University and has coined the term post-growth economy in Germany. By stating, that "We are rushing headlong toward the ecological end of human civilization", he gave his thoughts on causes and why a radical reversal of thinking might be inevitable.
The stance of science
What is the stance of science regarding the topic of sustainability? For some time now, in addition to the usual scientific disciplines, more new courses of study are appearing that are dedicated to the topic of the environment, resources and sustainability–from waste economics, environmental informatics and ecotoxicology to hazard control and sustainability science. These are not introductory subjects or sub-disciplines; they are independent majors and have emerged as offshoots of conventional areas of study, such as biology, chemistry, computer science, education and environmental technology, and have become more diversified, so that almost everyone can find a field they are interested in–whether it is waste, forestry, the oceans, architecture, urban development, sociology or, of course, fashion and design. Why is the topic of sustainability so pervasive? “It can hardly be overlooked anymore: no relevant field of action affecting ecology can be found where the total number of already known and newly identified harmful activities has not continuously increased. We are racing at greater and greater speed towards the ecological end point of human civilization. To talk about sustainable development is a reflex in response to this disturbing feeling. And talking doesn’t hurt and costs nothing–quite the contrary, you can even make money using ‘sustainable’ as a quality criterion,” says Professor Niko Paech, environmental economist, author and lecturer in “Plural Economy” at Siegen University.
Fields of specialization have also evolved from economics which are daring to adopt a new perspective, such as post-growth economics. One of this discipline’s most famous and radical proponents is Paech. He does not fly on airlines, has no car, rides a bike and consumes only what is absolutely necessary. But most importantly: Instead of beating around the bush, he confronts others with clear concepts and simple rules, one of which says: “There are no products that are sustainable, there is only a sustainable lifestyle,” as the professor is quoted in a newspaper interview. Statements like this do not only gain you friends–especially not in a market economy setting in which growth is both a motivator and a driving force.
But why is everything concerned with growth? “Companies do not bear sole responsibility for the fact that all societal development is based on growth. The modern emancipatory thought, as leftist and trade union stances internalize it, is no less responsible for this orientation towards growth. And democratic regulatory agents, regardless of whether politics, education, parenting or the media, have become the willing accomplices of an eco-suicidal form of existence which is wrongly seen as social progress. They try to outdo each other in pleasing every kind of clientele with newer and newer offers of freedom and affluence. Formative and guiding principles have sunk to the mindless level of distributing presents,” says Paech. In other words: Social progress, the further development of society, is constantly tied to economic growth. It is worth discussing how much sense this makes. What cannot be discussed is that we have reached the limits of this attitude: The garbage dumps are full, even the Chinese are no longer willing to accept shipments of garbage, the oceans are on the brink of collapse (see the Greenpeace interview in this issue); the air is so full of harmful substances that legal requirements can no longer be observed even by using criminal schemes. The fields are full of liquid manure so that nitrates, medical waste, resistant germs and other toxic substances have long ended up in the groundwater and insects are dying.
We buy things we don't need with money we are not entitled to, in order to impress people we don't like.
The responsibility of the fashion industry
“This madness can only be countered with an opposing vision which is not only declared emphatically, but is also convincing because people live by it,” adds Paech, and demands a radical change in our lifestyle. He makes not only companies but everybody responsible for this: “Through reductive, post-growth practices both companies and consumers can set an example with which they confront those around them,” he adds. But what constitutes post-growth practices in the clothing industry? “Clothing companies should make a contribution to producing and selling fewer products. Textiles must first of all be physically durable and secondly be designed in an aesthetically enduring way, meaning they should be fashion robust. Thirdly, manufacturers must start repairing as much as possible, expand their repair systems and, above all, persuade their customers to develop their own skill at carrying out repairs. Fourthly, the clothing remaining after minimization in this way should be ecologically optimized and behavior along the entire production chain be fair. Fifthly, upcycling concepts should be developed for textiles discarded because they are no longer reparable,” according to the researcher. The clothing industry could even become sustainable “if it experiences structural changes involving a move towards smaller businesses which are operated decentrally and organized around artisan crafts. Less technology, less globalization and less need for investment can reduce the high level of capital required for the clothing industry, and as a result lower the pressure to expand.” It must be clear to everybody “how large an ecological burden individuals can cause without living beyond their means.” It would not be at all difficult to carry out this radical but necessary change, according to the critic of growth, since nothing is cheaper or easier than doing without certain things.
He does not mince his words, either: “It is not about doing without–it is about responsibility.” Just as we justifiably demand from the auto industry that it observes statutory requirements, everybody else has to assume responsibility, too, and not just wait and see what happens. “Self-limitation” is what the economist calls this and demands that individuals immediately be held responsible for their personal ecological footprint. To achieve this, he is calling for clear terminology: “If I know that with 7.3 billion human beings I have an annual CO2 budget of approximately 2.5 tons, I need the companies whose goods I buy to inform me about the quantity of CO2 involved in the product, keeping the entire processing chain in mind. The same holds true for water, land, etc.”
Time for change
Everything is still running the same way it always has: “We buy things we don’t need with money we are not entitled to, in order to impress people we don’t like. The culture of a consumer society involves the identity and social position of each person depending on the commercially available things that the person possesses. People constantly compare themselves with others at this level. The resulting competition generates an uncontrollable growth logic,” according to Paech. Until now the fashion industry has done well based on these mechanisms. And may it continue to do so, but perhaps the time has come, as the many examples, conversations and interviews in this issue show, to break out of this “unbridled growth logic.” Otherwise, everything will continue to veer out of control.
Read and see more interesting stories and insights in our new Sustainable ISSUE here.