Branding in a degrowth context

A while ago I decided to write a post about branding in a degrowth environment. It has taken me many weeks of reading and learning. A self-taught minimaster 🙂

My research has been very fruitful. I have discovered wonderful authors like Tim Jackson, Jason Hickel or Richard Heinberg who write out of knowledge but above all out of goodness and heart. They have made me think, they have revealed me new points of view but, above all, they have given me hope. 

What would a degrowth economy be like? The gurus always remind us that the word should not scare us and that we should not confuse it with a cyclical crisis to which capitalism has made us so accustomed.

The “real world” or this fictitious superstructure we have imagined for ourselves is still obsessed with achieving pre-pandemic levels of growth, with growing the increasingly questionable GDP. But, for many reasons, this is increasingly difficult to achieve.  Moreover, the pandemic is putting us in our place again and again, reminding us that not everything can be fixed with the checkbook or by building inhumane walls. Added to this is the raw materials crisis. I was reading today that there is a shortage of paper in the printing presses.

But, as Kate Raworth says, what if we were to change the objective, what if instead of seeking growth plus whatever fashionable adjective contextualises it, we were to seek balance? What if, to achieve this, the Global North were to assume once and for all that it has to decrease and that this is not necessarily pernicious? 

The first thing we would need is a good dose of humility to recognise that the path taken has not been the right one. And also to overcome the divisions that degrade our democracies, to achieve a higher level of interconnectedness and a new shared vision that unites us to reverse the collapse.

Studies, such as those of More in Common, say so. People everywhere in the world yearn for something better. The solution is not growth for growth’s sake or the same level of consumerism but with renewable energy. Green growth is a chimera because, in the end, windmills and panels are built with scarce, non-renewable raw materials and metals. So is thinking that energy efficiency will fix everything. It is the so-called Jevons paradox: when we innovate in energy and resource efficiency, total consumption may fall briefly, but it quickly rebounds at an ever-increasing rate.

Imagine no more growth and no more colonising the atmosphere with greenhouse gases. Environmental economists have been calling for decades for a cap on annual resource use until we are within planetary limits.

Imagine that we all live in a fair society, in a caring society, where we all have equal access to social goods, where no one has to worry about meeting their daily needs and, instead of being in permanent competition with each other, we can build bonds of social solidarity and enjoy a good life.

Brands will no longer have to worry about positioning themselves in the market and competing fiercely with each other. Identity building that stands out yes, smashing the competition will be a thing of the past.

Let us imagine that global justice exists, that rich countries stop growing at the cost of colonising the poor, that the economy is organised around human needs and ecology instead of the other way around, that there is a global debt jubilee, that tax havens disappear, that the ultra-rich pay what is fair and that we dare to truly democratise the central institutions.

Empathetic and humane brands yes. Manipulators of emotions no.

Let’s imagine that we dismantle all fossil energy infrastructures as we once did with the Euromissiles and give a global rethink to our cities and car culture in general. And while we’re at it, we change the food system from top to bottom by accelerating, as Heüra says, “the protein transition” and ensuring that farmers are fairly remunerated for growing organic crops and regenerating our land.

Brands that actually help build a better world.

Would we really prefer an ecological catastrophe?

Let’s think about what we would gain from reducing and redistributing and what it means for brands.

No more artificial scarcity business. No more planned obsolescence. No more dismantling of the public sector, of our health, culture, education and infrastructures. No more advertising that makes us believe that we are not enough if we do not buy this or that product or service. No more forced productivity in order to survive and pay debts. No more shortage of time that prevents us from slow cooking, cleaning our house, playing with our children or taking care of our elders. In such a context, many brands would disappear because they would have lost their raison d’être. And others would be born, a lot fewer because of the clearing of the superfluous, but necessary to identify durable, useful, beautiful goods and services.

Ending the use and throw away.  Pay the right price for stuff and demand the right to repair. It makes no sense that repairing is more expensive than buying a new product. Put an end to the perpetual addiction to novelty and recover common sense: buy only what you really need, as in the days of our grandmothers. Shopping and shopping will not put an end to a ready-made anxiety. Put an end to this perverse conception of brands created so that you don’t feel excluded, less important or less sexy. After a certain point, we no longer need material things and yet we are all thirsty for beauty, art, poetry and above all, for something to believe in. 

Do away with the owner mentality. The sharing economy has shown us that we don’t have to buy everything, that it doesn’t make much sense for us all to have a drill when we are going to use it very little. And with this logic of sharing or paying exclusively for use, a multitude of P2P platforms emerged that put those who needed a good or service in contact with those who offered it. Some of these platforms lost all the collaborative logic with which they were born, became centralised and turned into real sharks exploiting people or provoking the gentrification of the historic centre of many cities with the resulting eviction of their neighbours. But the initial idea of doing more with less could be considered a predecessor of degrowth.

Ending food waste. The figures are shocking. On a planet where, according to ‘The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2021′ (SOFI), produced by five UN agencies, between 720 and 811 million people wake up not knowing if they will eat that day, more than 31% of food grown is wasted, 17% in shops and homes and 14% due to climate problems. Much food is discarded simply because it is not pretty. There is a huge opportunity to create brands like Too Good to Go to help solve this problem.

End all industries that are part of the problem. The list is very long, but let’s name a few. For example meat, which causes deforestation to produce animal feed and over 50% of methane emissions. A vegan diet for humans would solve the viability of life on earth. Or the single-use plastics that pollute the soil; the sea with continents of rubbish and microplastics even in the depths of the oceans or the Arctic; or the very air of our cities like the billion microplastics in the sky of Madrid. Not to mention industries such as tobacco, arms, private jets, space travel for the ultra-rich, major infrastructure for the Olympics, commercial aviation that encourages frequent flyers instead of the opposite, long-distance supply chains… Some things are already happening.

End long working hours. Let’s work less so that everyone works, so we all have time for exercise, volunteering, socialising, lifelong learning, culture, care… Let’s also establish a maximum wage policy, like that of the Mondragon executives who can only earn 6 times more than the lowest wage, and let’s establish a wealth tax on the obscenely rich.

If growth is not compulsory, we can ask ourselves which brands should no longer grow, which are necessary and which are superfluous, which can be downscaled and which should be expanded.

If we consume half as much, we will need half as many brands, half as many factories, half as much transport, half as much storage, half as much energy and we will produce half as much waste. It doesn’t take Einstein to see that debranding and reducing consumption is just what we need now to live up to the grandiloquent COP 26 commitments. Let’s hope they are not blah, blah, blah as Greta Thunberg said.

While austerity creates scarcity to spur growth, degrowth creates abundance to make growth unnecessary. A degrowth economy is not scary. It is much more humane and familiar than the technological utopia we will talk about in a future post. It rewards people for their work with dignity, makes rational decisions about what to buy, meets needs and minimises waste, makes better and more durable products and brands, frees up real time, and improves human wellbeing by caring for the health of the planet.

No one wants such an unequal world with its tyrannical obsession with infinite growth. Degrowth sets out a scenario of new possibilities in which things could be otherwise. Let us write a new future. We have nothing to lose and, from another level of consciousness, we can win a world. 

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