“When we stop thinking about what is around us, we become complicit in what is happening to us. We have to come to terms with our place in the world and do something about it.” – Simone Weill

We live in a world obsessed with the ideology of growth. Tim Jackson calls it, “The myth of our time, the myth that gives meaning to our existence”. We create brands to grow and as long as they grow, we are secure. In this framework, the opposite of growth is collapse and obscurity. 

But growth can also become an untenable weight to bear. Timothée Parrique compares growth to the absurd myth of Sisyphus, a heavy stone that we are condemned to drag up the mountain again and again, and which inexorably falls, causing crisis after crisis. 

What is the role of branding in this environment?

For many years, branding just ignored this state of affairs. Purpose orientation for the benefit of the world is a relatively recent development. When I started working in the branding world more than 20 years ago, almost all strategies were formulated more or less as follows: “In a hyper-competitive and supply-saturated world, only (my brand) offers (unique benefit) to (my brand’s consumer)”. 

This framework assumes that the world (i.e. the market) is full of permanently dissatisfied consumers who have to be seduced and that there is a fierce competition for their attention. It does not question the logic of the system. It pursues the growth of the most profitable projects and excels in zero-sum competition, in other words, in being chosen.

Branding-as-usual perpetuates a status quo that we have long known is unsustainable.

We are living the consequences of a system dependent on the logic of relentless growth and dissatisfaction. There are figures that speak volumes. Since Steve Jobs launched the iPhone in 2007, Apple has sold more than a billion mobile phones and never seems to have enough. The growth of the brand is chasing an addiction to technology that is already known as the second pandemic of the century. The sector is also notorious for unfair labour practices and for causing a huge amount of electronic waste. The role of branding has been to hide all the nasties by offering a luxurious front end in all means of brand expression: the famous Apple shops, the communication, the customer service and the user and shopping experience, not to mention the psychological dependence on their own products that gets us hooked for life. Fortunately, we are waking up.

What the world needs is degrowth

It is time to develop new myths, better stories and a sharper vision. This is as essential as understanding the dynamics of collapse. To live well, within the limits of a finite planet, we need a vision of social progress that is better than the one implicit in the growth myth. 

We need a post-growth narrative, one that understands that the end of growth is not the end of progress or brands.

Degrowth proposes a voluntary transition to a just, participatory and ecologically sustainable society and implies a profound economic transformation. It means breaking with the logic that more is always better. We know that we have exceeded the limits of what the earth is capable of regenerating and that it is impossible to “decouple” what is good for the environment from what is good for the economy. If we were to take seriously the IPCC’s warnings that we must halve emissions by 2030 if we are not to unleash Armageddon, we must see the environment and economy as inherently connected. Either we produce more or we pollute less. It is possible to achieve greater efficiency in the use of resources but there is always a rebound effect of greater consumption (Jevons paradox).Green growth is a utopia that distracts and delays the real actions that need to be taken. 

Degrowth implies a change of values, a new meaning of success. Instead of accumulating more money, the aim is to create healthier social bonds in order to reach a post-growth society in which the economy remains stable. In a post-growth society there will be income limits, universal basic services, reduced working time and democratic ownership of enterprises. Degrowth means moving away from unsustainable activities and aiming for sufficiency rather than just efficiency. 

Can we imagine a brand that only wants to sell enough, that prefers to keep its commitment to sustainability rather than boast double-digit growth? Can we imagine that decision to be rewarded?

What is enough for our needs? If we consume fewer brands, reduce demand and production, can we stop saturating the market with brands or products and services we don’t need? Will we be able to do deep debranding work, an honest branding contribution to an economic vision that pursues a good life for all within planetary boundaries? Will companies hire us to help them deactivate brands so that less work is done in companies, people get time back, stress is reduced and our health improves?

Going forward with degrowth

A deep and democratic dialogue is needed on what is really necessary. In the meantime, these are some of the changes you can apply to follow the path of degrowth: 

  • Choose to develop brands with the highest use value, not just the more profitable ones to maximise ROI. Begin with universal and non-replaceable basic human needs. Try not to “needwash”, a new brand of soda won’t be a nutritious need, shopping at Zara every month is not a necessity to dress up, etc. 
  • Seek sufficiency to meet social needs, not the surplus to swell the bottom line or produce unnecessary waste.
  • Design with durability, functionality and beauty in mind instead of building brands to identify products with programmed obsolescence. 
  • Promote the right of repairability to be undertaken by the company, as some companies are already doing, instead of launching brands that identify disposable products.
  • Enhance the value of second-hand brands, not an addiction to constant novelty.
  • Promote shared-use model brands, as they were intensively developed by the collaborative economy of the early years that can be considered a precedent of degrowth.

Degrowth brands collaborate, they don’t compete.

They see themselves and their stakeholders as a network with multiple overlaps. Rather than competitors, we will speak of allies with the shared purpose to bring together a lasting and beneficial impact on the world. 

The real challenge as Jennifer Wilkins states is “convincing enough people to buy far less of almost everything to shrink the whole market” There is a great journey of transformation ahead. 

Luckily, degrowth has already begun

There are already people who are voluntarily adopting a post-growth lifestyle. They buy only what they need. They do not accumulate. Their desires are more immaterial. They work less. Their diet is plant-based. They have more free time. They prioritise human relationships. They lead a sober, moderate, conscientious and responsible lifestyle. They try to travel by train and not to take planes. They reduce physical belongings and needs to a minimum. They follow the path that can lead us to change the world and to greater happiness. And, as Jason Hickel says, this is a happy coincidence: what we need is precisely what will make us happier. It is the search of voluntary simplicity (Quebec), of happy sobriety (France), of alternative hedonism (UK), of minimalism (USA), of Tang Ping (China).

For branding professionals, don’t worry, slow branding will continue to be necessary as brands identify more essential, more beautiful, more honest products and services. We will pay particular attention to their form of expression. A wonderful example of a post-growth brand is Bearmade which refrains from selling outside the UK for ethical reasons, they only have the capacity to make 25 products a week and have no interest in exponential growth because they know that the only way to make a sustainable business is to make less and sell locally. Another one is The light phone, a mobile phone designed to be used as little as possible that will never have social media. It is a tool that respects you and brings your attention back to the things that really matter.

If we embrace degrowth, perhaps people, in harmony with the planet, will once again be at the centre of everything. 

Cover image source: Victor Moussa