The French word for SUFFICIENCY is ‘sobriété’. This concept of ‘sobriété’ gained momentum in France at the beginning of winter 2022.
It was brought about as a strategy to mitigate the national energy demand, in preparation for potential energy shortages resulting from the EU ban on Russian oil.
The concept of ‘sobriété’ caught my attention, as it marked the first instance of governing officials promoting this approach.
For example, the Minister of Economy and other members of the government appeared on television wearing turtleneck sweaters and offering suggestions for practicing ‘sobriété’. Recommendations included limiting room temperatures to 19° C and wearing jumpers if necessary or disconnecting the internet during nighttime hours to minimize energy usage (!!!).
It was not necessarily a groundbreaking idea, but the fact that it was being openly discussed was a breakthrough in itself.
‘Sobriété’ was no longer a taboo topic (even though the concept of ‘sobriété’ was not mentioned as a strategy to reduce carbon emissions but as a coping strategy to avoid a potential future shortage).
But then again, the focus remained on individual actions (as it is too often the case…).
I later found out that France was the first EU country that has considered energy ‘sobriété’ measures in its decarbonization strategy under the 2015 Energy Transition for Green Growth Act. Main policies aimed at reducing energy consumption, building energy renovation, reducing waste going to landfills, promoting sustainable transportation, and alleviating energy poverty.
I wanted to understand more, particularly how organized groups like governments, civil society, or businesses could develop effective approaches for ‘sobriété’ and reduce at scale the overall human impact on the environment.
Unfortunately, I struggled to find substantial literature on the subject on the web, partly because I didn’t know how to translate it into English… Google Translate was not of much help as none of the translations was related to the environment.
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to learn more about the concept of ‘sobriété’ by attending the inaugural “International Summit on Sufficiency,” organized by Dr. Yamina Saheb, a lead author of the 2022 IPCC report on climate change mitigation and Prof. Davis Ness from the University of South Australia (UniSA)
The timing of this summit was perfect as I was finalizing a project for circular fashion entrepreneurs, seeking inspiration for innovative business models that go beyond linear sales, and eager to explore how sufficiency would pan out.
We heard from a broad mix of speakers, from scientists to policymakers, from industry insiders to grassroots campaigners.
The summit proved to be a fascinating learning experience, featuring sessions dedicated to ‘Human and Urban Settlement,’ ‘Clothing,’ ‘Food and Nutrition,’ and a ‘Ministerial Roundtable.’
An interesting fact from the summit’s website caught my attention:
‘By 2050, sufficiency has the potential to reduce emissions, compared to current policy scenarios, by more than 50% in almost all sectors’
It’s a massive claim, and it got me wondering — why has sufficiency been overlooked or even deliberately avoided for so long?
Can we define ‘enoughness‘?
One reason might be the difficulty of getting a one-size-fits-all measure for sufficiency. It’s even trickier when you think about how different people’s lives are around the world or even sometimes in the same country, with some folks still struggling to access basic necessities like nutritious food and healthcare.
But the biggest obstacle might just be our cultural inclination toward overconsumption.
The idea of sufficiency forces us to ask ourselves, “how much is enough?”.
And that’s a tough question to answer, but it’s one we need to confront if we are serious about tackling climate change with integrity and honesty.
As defined by the Working Group III on Mitigation Climate Change in the 6th Assessment Report of the IPCC,
“sufficiency is a set of measures and daily practices that avoid demand for energy, materials, land, and water while ensuring human well-being for all within planetary boundaries”
This definition encapsulates a broader perspective, emphasizing policies over individual actions, challenging consumerism, and underscoring social justice.
As Dr Yamina Saheb pointed out, it’s worth taking a closer look at what this hints:
- “a set of measures and daily practices” — it’s about policies that will trigger individual actions and daily practices.
- “that avoid demand for energy, materials, land” — it’s about all resources, not only energy.
- “ensuring human well-being for all” — It’s also about making sure everyone’s well-being is taken into account, not just the lucky few.
- “within planetary boundaries” — it’s about looking after our planet as a whole.
In short, it’s about building economies that prioritize well-being over mindless growth, systems that protect the vulnerable, and considering the planet and resources as a whole.
The ‘Sufficiency and Clothing’ session, moderated by Dr. Katia Vladimirova, was particularly relevant to my interests.
It’s no secret that the whole fashion system as it is now is unsustainable, especially in fast fashion.
If you need more convincing, check out the report co-authored by Dr Vladimirova titled “Unfit, Unfair, Unfashionable: Resizing Fashion for a Fair Consumption Space”. It outlines how the current fashion system is unsustainable and unfair, and how it could be reshaped to fit within sufficiency levels.
In this session, we heard from different speakers sharing ideas on sufficiency levels for fashion consumption and the changes required to achieve them.
Need to reshuffle the fashion system
The need for a comprehensive reshuffling of the fashion system was highlighted. This involves new policies, changing consumer behaviors, business model transformations, and a robust commitment from the fashion industry to adopt sustainable practices.
Need to find strategies to counter pressure from industries
Minimalism as a counter to relentless fashion advertisements was discussed, with the idea of a minimalist wardrobe composed of a few, carefully chosen items being emphasized. However, it was pointed out that promoting minimalism isn’t solely about individual choices — it’s part of a broader context.
Need to reduce fashion waste
The spotlight was then turned on the impact of fashion overconsumption in the Global North on the Global South, depicting a scenario of textile waste, predominantly from Europe, being dumped in countries like Ghana. The conference stressed the necessity for a review of consumption habits and better consumer education, with the clear message that the Global South doesn’t want more fashion waste.
Need or want behind fashion consumption?
Finally, interesting data was shared from a study conducted on fashion consumers in the Netherlands. The findings showed that only a third of the clothing discarded was actually worn out, suggesting that many clothes are discarded prematurely. Furthermore, merely 4% of new clothes purchases were to replace old ones, thus exposing a clear disconnection between the acquisition of new clothes and the genuine need for them.
It’s pretty evident that the current fashion system isn’t working.
Yet, the summit was a brilliant reminder that we have an immense reservoir of knowledge, innovative ideas, and impassioned individuals ready to contribute.
I’m more thrilled than ever about the prospect of contributing to a future for fashion that’s not just sustainable, but also fair and equitable.
There’s a world full of opportunities waiting for us to seize and make a real impact.
The speaker representative of the United Nations underscored
“the profound cultural influence that fashion brands hold and their potential to significantly shape consumer habits and preferences.”
Interestingly another speaker in another session ironically noted that the “Markets don’t really respond to needs but respond to demand.”
Perhaps it’s time for these smaller, more agile brands to use their influence to guide customers towards a pattern of more sustainable and sufficient consumption?
These brands could become the pioneering change-makers in this transition, the transformative leaders guiding us toward a more sustainable, future-proof fashion system.
The time to act is now.
Make this change happen!
the French 2015 Energy Transition for Green Growth Act
the report co-authored by Dr Vladimirova titled “Unfit, Unfair, Unfashionable: Resizing Fashion for a Fair Consumption Space”