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Me, Rupert Murdoch and The Elephant in the Boardroom
Now I’m not an economist, I am a fashion journalist. As we all enjoy the last few episodes of Succession, I’m going to share my Murdoch story of shame. It was 2010, the election was coming, and it looked like 13 years of Labour were about to give way to Tory rule. Nothing excited the Murdoch empire more that a shift in power (see Succession S4 Ep7) and Rupert was in town to convene his chiefs and discuss the electoral temperature. This always involved glorious hospitality (the Murdochs love a drink and good food, and they have extraordinary houses). I was Style editor of the Sunday Times and the then editor of the paper was asked to bring a few of his chiefs round for dinner. I got the call up. Imagine the excitement! Imagine the terror!
I can’t remember what I wore but I do remember vainly reading The Economist on the way there in a cab. The soirée was at his penthouse in St James’s, London, and I prayed then wife Jerry Hall was there so at least we could talk about handbags. She wasn’t. It was me, the Business editor, an eminent economist, the Foreign news editor, the Politics editor and a couple of right wing columnists. Rupert was charming: he shook me by the hand, his eyes twinkling, and after a glass of champagne ushered us into his dining room. I was sitting next to him. Heart pounding.
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Dinner was the biggest professional disaster of my life. He had ordered in from Hakkasan, and it was 15 excruciatingly painful courses long. I know because I counted them, like a slow tolling Domesday clock. Why so bad? Reader, I had nothing to say. Half the room had just got back from the OPEC conference in Russia, others had spent the day stalking Westminster picking up nuggets from the corridors of power, and others were authors of important think tank reports. The conversation was pure geopolitics. Me? I had probably spent the day editing copy on the new cropped trouser and attending a press launch for face cream.
As the conversation oriented further up the scale of intellectual chicanery and macro economics, I had less and less to say. The longer it went on, the less I found an opportunity to interject with something dazzlingly insightful and clever, until eventually Rupert took pity on me, and asked me direct: “So Tiffanie, what do you think the majority will be at the election?”
I had absolutely no idea.
“93,” I replied. And that was it. I went home shaking with shame.
I share this story so you will place my economic naivety in context. I since went on and educated myself, taking the CISL course in Sustainability, which woke me up to the idea of Doughnut Economics, the work of visionary economist Kate Raworth (see her riveting TED talks here), and the subject of degrowth entered my fashion-addled brain.
Come with me on this journey as it’s interesting. More interesting than Jerry Hall’s handbags! This is what you need to know:
We are using the world’s resources at 1.75 times the rate at which the earth can regenerate them. On current trajectories, scientists have modelled a tipping point at 2070 beyond which none of us can survive. See the MiT report The Limits to Growth for more intel, but basically we have 46 years until “overshoot and collapse”.
Growth is based on Gross Domestic Product, which the west uses as the measure for social prosperity and progress. But GDP does not account for the negative impacts of growth, such as un-replenishable planetary resources. It just measures financial wealth, it does not measure happiness, community or environment or other such ‘hippie dippie’ things that we are now realising are actually rather valuable. As the Harvard Business Review put it in 2019:
GDP takes a positive count of the cars we produce but does not account for the emissions they generate; it adds the value of the sugar-laced beverages we sell but fails to subtract the health problems they cause; it includes the value of building new cities but does not discount for the vital forests they replace. As Robert Kennedy put it in his famous election speech in 1968, “it [GDP] measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”
Now let’s apply fashion to this: that Chanel handbag, that new Roksanda dress, those Saint Laurent tribute sandals. They must signal success and prosperity, right? Wrong. They might give us an immediate dopamine hit, and every time we pick them up and put them on we feel ‘status-worthy’, but if you look at levels of societal happiness and wellbeing, the more goods we acquire, the less happy we feel.
(I’m going to pause here and say, just writing this I wonder if it’s true. I really, really would love a Chanel handbag. Roksanda’s dresses are heavenly and I’d die for those sandals. Am I really sure they wouldn’t make me even the teeniest bit happy? Even in the short term? Or have I just been brainwashed by some very sophisticated marketing messages? And does that even matter?)
To go back to the Harvard Review, the problem with all these delicious fripperies, however much dopamine and perceived social status they convey, no one has factored in environmental degradation or the corrosive effect incessant consumer marketing has on our satisfaction levels. “The production of more goods adds to an economy’s GDP irrespective of the environmental damage suffered because of it.” How I wish I’d had that up my sleeve at the Murdoch dinner party.
Someone who has pointed this out recently is the fashion journalist Alec Leach. In his book, The World is on Fire But We’re Still Buying Shoes he illustrates how the fashion Industry has one of the most sophisticated and powerful marketing machines on the planet. As an editor on digital news site Highsnobiety, Leach presided over the rise of streetwear, drop culture and the headline grabbing power of unlikely fashion collabs: “a collaboration’s cultural significance makes the products seem much more important than they might be on their own.” On his recent podcast with BoF’s Imran Ahmed, he talked about how at the end of his time there, he looked into his wardrobe and found it stuffed with clothes that he didn’t even like. He gave them all away.
So what to do? In this excellent piece for Textile Exchange, consultant Rachel Arthur, who is also advocacy lead for sustainable fashion at the United Nations Environment Programme, writes:
While emission reduction targets are crucial, we need a complete rethinking of what we consider value and a move away from growth based on exponential increases in production and consumption volume.
Like Alec, Rachel proposes ‘Slow growth’: a gradual weaning off of production and alternative systems of wealth creation which are not so heavy and extractive on our environment and collective mental health. Just by way of example, monetisable services might include mending and alteration, or business models might be more circular, like renting and resale.
I launched the Rule of 5 campaign this year which encourages us to buy less whilst still having lots of fun with fashion. Find out more about my journey here:
Of course the industry is already thinking about this - and in ways and rooms you might not expect. Leena Nair, the recently appointed CEO of the normally highly secretive Chanel gave an interview to the Financial Times recently in which she stated her aim: “that our iconic house continues to be a beacon of inspiration for the next 100 years. And that means constantly investing in disruptive capabilities.” She said the company had to “encourage buying less but better quality” in order to “decouple” revenue growth from sales volumes, “and we have to invest in carbon capture technologies”.
Over at Kering, the indomitable Chief Sustainability Officer Marie Claire Daveu last week celebrated the EU’s proposal to ban the destruction of unsold clothing: “A ban will undoubtedly scale up much-needed solutions for product disassembly and textile-to-textile recycling. There are innovative technologies that have the potential to become the missing links to achieving critical mass when it comes to a circular transformation.”
But it’s not just industry that is waking up to this - the establishment is too. Last week saw extraordinary scenes at the European Union Parliament, as the three day “Beyond Growth” conference dared to propose ‘The Elephant in the Boardroom,’ as it is known. With over 2000 young people in attendance “it resembled a rock concert more than a conference,” says our woman on the inside, Katia Dayan Vladimirova, a sustainable fashion researcher at Geneva University. When the President of the EU Roberta Metsola opened the conference saying that what Europe needs is “sustainable growth” the crowd broke out into laughter and she was widely booed. What followed was a roll call of economics rock stars, including degrowth heart throb, Jason Hickel: “he urged us to invest in what matters - hospitals, education, public transport and to stop fossil fuels, SUVs, private jets, and fast fashion. He actually said that!” triumphs Katia. “The crowds cheered. People whistled and whoo-hooed. It felt like being part of something historic! ”
Katia herself is about to publish another groundbreaking report (she was a co-author on Hot or Cool’s Unfit, Unfair, Unfashionable, see my Rule of Five) in which she defines what is a sustainable future for fashion: Fashion Futures 2040. “It’s not ‘in a far, far away galaxy’,” she says. “It’s four very achievable scenarios. There is so much talk about a ‘failure of imagination’. So we have imagined the future:
Fair share consumption - in other words, ‘government- led friendly rationing’
Green new garments - government imposed regulations, like a sort of green new deal for fashion
People powered progress - consumers driving changes in line with better materials, less resource use and so on
Enough is enough - when people say we have too much stuff, we want to live with less
“We need to satisfy needs as opposed to wants, and we need to decrease consumption as it is out of control and not benefiting us in any way - marketing still keeps us wanting more,” says Katia.
To show off my new economics skills (as patiently explained to me by Katia), this means understanding that ‘green growth’ and ‘decoupling growth from revenues’ is not possible. It hasn’t happened and won’t happen. Instead we need “degrowth” which is the planned temporary slowing down of the economy towards “post growth”, in which we are more attentive to the rhythm of our ecosystem. In which we understand that some years we can live with more, and some with less, depending on the capacity of our planet.
The exponential growth luxury has enjoyed over the last few years as huge amounts of wealth have relocated into the hands of a very few, is - they all know - not sustainable on current models. I wonder if they are talking about that at the Murdoch dinner table now.
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