Degrowth as an aspiration
The end of efficiency and why that may be a good thing
Collina Strada is one of the thirteen designers that Gucci featured on its new destination, GUCCI Vault. Strada is one of the emerging New York designers (Telfar is another) who put sustainability and community ahead of fast growth.
Starting with Max Weber and Frederick Taylor, efficiency has been the ultimate business goal. Production, distribution, synthesizing workflows, and managing resources and employee output have all been held to the same standard of maximizing labor efficiency and minimizing slack.
Drive for efficiency shaped how we work, live, and entertain ourselves. Open-office plans, despite their collaboration mantras and Kombucha taps, have primarily been productivity tools to pack as many people per square foot as possible. Restaurants followed the same approach of space utilization and speedy turnarounds. I overheard more strangers’ conversations in New York City restaurants than I care for. Put a fork down, and there’s a check beelining, for “whenever you are ready.” Old people found themselves stuffed in efficiency-driven industrialized care. Production perfected cost-effectiveness at scale. Thanks to it, certain industries, like retail, started over-manufacturing. Airlines, in order to make each of their trips as efficient as possible and to squeeze more money from passengers, started offering the growing a-la-carte menu of auxiliary services, like checked bags, legroom, meals, and pillows. Frontier is still charging $39 for a socially distanced seating option (they are calling it “additional comfort” seat assignment). In contrast, Easy Jet plans to keep middle seats empty for free. Low budget airlines also ran a ridiculously short route in the name of efficiency (although all the travel time to the airport, going through security, and boarding process made it much less so): one-fifth of the European market last year was made up of flights of less than 300 miles.
Across industries, companies aspired to stay lean to keep profits high. No one wanted cash sitting in their balance sheet, or inventory sitting in their warehouse.
But there is value in the inefficiency. The success of companies embracing the Great Inefficiency in their behaviors (and P&Ls) ultimately depends on the consumer, and how they find it desirable to work, live, and entertain themselves.
Here are the five de-efficiency shifts:
De-Massification. A century ago, consumers found it desirable to own and use machine-made things, enabled by mass production and consumer society. The machine aesthetic of functionality is visible in modernist furniture (and is behind a recent revival of IKEA items as collectibles). Cars, Apple products, kitchens, bathrooms, appliances, etc. all present the approachable aesthetic of mass production. But, handmade and locally produced items have never completely disappeared. Luxury, which operates on the value versus volume principle, is not efficient - it strongly revolves around putting in the time needed for the production of excellence and time needed to create desire (we deem things we have to wait for more desirable than those that we can have immediately). In 2019, Rolls-Royce delivered an historic annual sales record with a total of 5,152 cars. Instead of increasing the volume of production, it enhances the value of each car it produces. Ferrari purposefully limits its sales to around 10,000 cars a year but is judged more valuable by investors than GM, with more than 7.7M. Hermès creates a deliberate production bottleneck. It takes a craftsperson 20 hours to make one bag. It also takes months to train craftspeople by experts, and Hermès invests in schools for the next-gen of makers, as existing experts are dying out and their descendants are opting for a different line of work. This approach pays off. In Q1 2020 Hermès revenue was down only 6.5 percent, compared to Kering’s 14 percent. Longchamp, Breitling, and hand-made Japanese denim Momotaro also invest in vertically integrated, local, and self-sufficient production and make it the core pillar of their branding. In air travel, the de-massification approach means traveling less and more expensively. It also means exploring other ways to travel other than air, like taking road trips or train rides, which create new forms of social, cultural, and economic capital.