Skip to main content

Slow branding is debranding

Degrowth proposes a human way out of the environmental and social crises in which we are immersed. In this context, debranding seems inevitable.

We are coming from the surplus, from the excess, from the inequity, from “winners take all”, from the Global North plundering resources as if there were no tomorrow, from the Global South, from the promotion of an unsustainable lifestyle, from the excluded and the included. As much as I would like it to be otherwise, the world is still like this, of those who rise at the expense of those who fall, of many people who can’t make ends meet while a minority has more and more. Of brands that appear in the rankings because they grow and grow as if there were no limits, the “terrainfinitists”, the ” growthists”.

But as we said in a previous post, now brands’ priority should no longer be to grow business but to maximise human and non-human wellbeing within planetary boundaries, in that sweet space of the doughnut that Kate Raworth talks about. The goal can no longer be to stay as we are. It is imperative to degrow because we have exceeded at least 6 of the 9 planetary boundaries. Unfortunately, we are no longer in a safe space for human development. The consequences of this transgression are here and are devastating

Jason Hickel, author of “Less is more”, defines degrowth as “a planned, democratic reduction of the least necessary forms of production in rich countries to bring economies back into balance with the living world in a safe, just and equitable way”. In short, degrowth is about businesses meeting the needs of people within the limits of the planet.

Degrowth therefore has a two-fold dimension: i) ecological, reducing the resources and energy use of rich nations to bring the economy back into balance with the living world and ii) social justice, reducing inequality and improving people’s access to the things they need to live longer, more prosperous and healthier lives.

Every time we create a new brand we should ask ourselves not only whether it contributes to the well-being of our target but also whether it adds to social justice in general and to the health of the planet. 

For some time now, those scientists that nobody listens to, have been calling for radical transformations in our lifestyles, and this is exactly what degrowth is all about. As the famous quote by Victor Hugo says, there is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.

On June 7, 2016, the transdisciplinary researcher Jasmine de Bruycker published a pioneering article that went almost unnoticed: “The future of branding is debranding”. In it she argued that it is only possible to be truly subversive if you buy less stuff. Having more has not made us happier and just as consumption became a way of life, so too might be the adoption of a frugal lifestyle.

Jasmine envisioned the return of the traditional grocer, in charge of weighing food in bulk and being the best champion of his or her products.  In reality, they never really disappeared, like the Gallic tribe they are unconquerable and resist now and always to the invader in the neighbourhoods of many cities, despite the uncontrolled proliferation of hypermarkets and shopping malls. Instead of brands, real people and real tones of voice will again be the interface between consumers and products. That, she says, is the heart of debranding and it means a return to a more slow-paced life in which we don’t run madly from place to place avoiding all human contact, but quite the opposite. On the contrary. We will recover something as beautiful as the value of shared time, as is already happening in Paris with the “republic of good neighbours“.

In the future without branding that Jasmine envisages, consumers will not necessarily spend less, but they will buy less stuff. Fewer throwaway clones and more few essential products of quality and at a fair price. Buying more does not bring more happiness and economic growth has no direct correlation with improved levels of well-being. It is also about contributing, as James Williams says, to what may be “the decisive ethical and political struggle of our lifetime: the liberation of human attention.” We will move away from being glued to a screen all day to regain reflection and time for others. We will redefine what makes a “good life” with less tangible goods, such as more free time, better personal relationships and a slower pace of life.

Prices will reflect their real value, not the conceptual value that brands magically bestow, as brands like La colmena que dice sí or Minimalist with its policy of radical transparency already do. Products will be stripped of the brand codes and their imaginary worlds and the excess of unnecessary packaging that has characterised the last decades. The only information on packaging will be the origin, the manufacturer’s intentions, the production process and the environmental impact. Perhaps manufacturers will find a way to subtly brand their product by adding their signature to the product itself, omitting the packaging altogether. All this, she says, will be a kind of branding, but reduced to its minimum expression. 

In reality, it is not the disappearance of branding but the recovery of its more traditional meanings. Less storytelling and more promises kept trust, honesty and guarantees of quality, durability and reparability. Under this logic, we will only launch a new product on the market if it is intrinsically better socially and environmentally. As Houdini says in his design checklist, does this product deserve to exist?

Many companies are making a remarkable effort to create this new reality, such as renature in regenerative agriculture, the ethical and sustainable fashion market place good on you, the network of cooperative supermarkets, holaluz in self-consumption solar energy and many others in sectors such as electric and collaborative transport, the new ways of being together in cohousing, coworking and coliving projects, the tech-for- good projects and in general the whole market for ecological, fair trade and locally and ethically produced products.

But let’s say it loud and clear. Growth is the enemy of sustainability. To be sustainable, companies must learn to function without growth.  The world now needs some big brands to show the way to degrowth, for a post-growth economy will necessarily have to be a smaller economy if it is to operate within planetary boundaries (i.e. if we are not consummating collective suicide). 

If we were to vote for a company that was a pioneer of debranding, it is very likely that the winner would be Patagonia. Its latest decision to protect the company from extractive capital and ensure that all its profits – around 100 million a year – are used to fight climate change and protect wildlands around the world has been widely applauded.  But degrowthists have been a little disappointed because they had hoped for a more radical transformation of the company into a workers’ cooperative network. Patagonia is a great champion of environmental issues caused by economic growth. What if Patagonia shifted its focus to the root cause of social justice and used its experience to advocate for degrowth policies, such as universal basic income, reduced work hours, banning product obsolescence, limiting advertising in public places, cancelling student debt, jubileeing the debt of the global South and global climate equity? Yvon Chouinard blazed a spectacular trail in the 20th century with Patagonia. Will they also be the pioneer of degrowth in the 21st century? It would be a shame, they say, to disappoint what is now their only shareholder, the Earth.