Early Majority: Fashion’s First Degrowth Brand

What is degrowth? This new buzzword has plenty of other names — post-growth, steady-state economics, donut economics — but they all share the same, simple message: a managed reduction of the economy to bring it in line with planetary boundaries and meet climate goals. In a nutshell, we need to make less.

Early Majority founder Joy Howard, who is a former vice president of global marketing at Patagonia, is hoping her new brand, launched in Paris with a remote team, can apply degrowth principles to outerwear. It’s a challenging proposition that will be watched with intense interest in the sector.

It’s not the only flaw in the fashion system she’s hoping to overhaul. The nine-piece collection — designed for any eventuality — is also trying to sweep aside the predictable old mantra for so many male-dominated businesses creating outerwear for women: “pink it or shrink it”.

Howard says Early Majority designs from the perspective of what women want, need and worry about when they’re outdoors. A $676 outer shell looks good with both pants and skirts. A snorkel hood comes forward to stop mascara from running in the rain or folds back to expand the wearer’s peripheral vision. It’s also removable so future iterations can accommodate larger hairstyles. The $525 cape’s venting system uses A-line zips instead of pit zips, which allows women to wear the same garment through pregnancy. And the all-black colour scheme — chosen to avoid trends and therefore a swift route to landfill — allows women to remain anonymous for safety.

This kind of versatile design is also central to Early Majority’s degrowth strategy. The startup launched in April with just seven products, which can be adapted and layered to suit every eventuality. Two more will be introduced in the autumn, but the only new products that follow will be better iterations of what already exists. Howard says the functionality and aesthetic of each garment should be able to take you from the bike to the boardroom, or from the bar to the backcountry, and the brand’s community membership fees will eventually contribute more to overall revenues than product sales.

The brand’s modular system stands in stark contrast to the broader industry’s proliferation of products, but it matches the way outerwear brand leaders actually dress. “Athletes need garments that can take them from highly aerobic activities to periods of rest, so they need to be able to layer,” explains Howard. “When you look at the old timers in companies like Patagonia and Columbia, they are committed to living simply, and that means doing more with less.”

The challenge is delivering a case study for degrowth without watering down its core principles, and bringing investors in line, who usually measure success by exponential financial returns. Like any brand positioning itself as a sustainability leader, Early Majority will face particularly high consumer expectations. Its use of goat leather and recycled synthetics, for example, could tip the brand out of favour. That, in turn, might pose a problem for its membership model.

Putting degrowth into practice

Degrowth only recently entered the mainstream sustainability lexicon, and many in fashion still think of it as a radical concept, although a majority of scientists insist it is necessary to meet climate goals.

“The product proliferation in outerwear and sportswear companies is so obvious,” says Howard. “We realised we could make better outerwear if we didn’t need to make up reasons for selling more.” Longer term, members will be able to trade in older garments, which will enter a resale channel.

Early Majority stands out for proudly aligning itself with degrowth, says researcher and consultant Faith Robinson, co-founder of creative ethics consultancy Cogdis, which has guided Early Majority for two years. The challenge will be verifying its impact. “If you’re claiming sustainability on the basis that your customers buy less and wear the items more, you need data to understand if that is actually the case,” says Robinson.

There are inherent contradictions in any fashion brand trying to apply degrowth, she says. Early Majority is trying to get around this with heavy emphasis on its membership model. Lifetime membership is currently set at $358, which references the Fibonacci sequence, and the difference between member and non-member prices reflects the golden ratio, two mathematical sequences that occur in nature.

For members, products are priced at $196 to $930, which Howard says is “straight down the middle” for technical performance outerwear. Non-member pricing is more “luxury”, in line with Moncler or Arc’teryx. “It’s so expensive to make technical outerwear ethically, but we will never make cheap clothes. We want to make things that last, so our products all come with a lifetime guarantee, with free repairs.”

At launch, membership benefits include a member badge, newsletter content, early access to products, reduced prices, exclusives and a voice in product creation. Over time, these benefits will expand to include events, such as self-defence and direct action training, as well as product swaps, pre-orders, group buys and made-to-measure garments. “We can’t bank on those programmes just yet, because people need to love the product first, but it’s in our long-term plan,” says Howard.

The goal is to make membership so successful that non-member sales are closed completely. In its first month, membership accounted for 24 per cent of revenues, largely owing to the thousands of newsletter subscribers Howard has built up since early 2021. She says the brand will be successful in its degrowth mission when membership fees outweigh product sales in terms of revenue. “It’s always so much more satisfying to educate than to promote,” says Howard. “The challenge is how we grow and generate a return when our model is based on degrowth.”

Community has been central to this strategy, starting with a newsletter, Tools for Leaning Out. The brand will continue to publish content around the three pillars of activism, adventure and company development.

On each garment, there are four snap fasteners which can either be left blank, or adorned with badges, which sell for $25 on the brand’s e-commerce site. Members will be given an Early Majority badge, but there will also be collaborative designs which raise money and awareness for charities and grassroots communities such as hiking clubs and bird-watching groups. This allows customers to refresh their garments without buying new products. Each badge will be NFT-enabled, so secondary sales of the badges will earn royalties for the brand and its affiliated communities.

A work in progress

One challenge Howard anticipates is raising capital. It’s been calculated that less than five per cent of venture capital (VC) funding is given to women founders, largely because of unconscious biases and male-dominated VC firms. Howard has raised $4.3 million to date, but struggled to find investors who understood her mission. “I had to paint a vivid picture of what is broken in the current business model and how my team could address those opportunities,” she explains. “Having patient investors who believe in the vision means we don’t have to artificially grow the membership and can focus on getting people with a deep affinity for the brand.” She is on target to reach 800 members by the end of 2022.

“Our membership model addresses the contradiction between scale and sustainability,” continues Howard. “But, you cannot build a business that doesn’t grow, because that isn’t a good experience for the people in the business. What we need to do is address how we grow, to dematerialise growth and create businesses with less drawdown on natural capital. The pace of growth most VCs have come to expect is not sustainable for the planet or for the people in the business.”

Is Early Majority too fixated on degrowth? A brand needs to sell itself on fashion as well as sustainability, says Raphaël Estripeau, associate director at Boston Consulting Group (BCG). “Membership platforms can be very powerful for loyalty, but fashion products have to be fashionable first, because sustainability is still a secondary concern for most consumers,” he explains. Positioned correctly, degrowth can attract members and investors alike, he acknowledges — consumers will pay five per cent more for products they can resell through the brand, he says. Estripeau also points to Kering’s stake in resale platform Vestiaire Collective as an indication that attitudes to degrowth are changing.

Meanwhile, Early Majority faces the challenge of working with synthetic materials. “If we’re making something from a petroleum-based product, we want it to be 100 per cent recycled,” explains Howard. “I’m hoping that we’ll be able to make more local, sustainable choices in the future. Right now, the best thing we can do is make less, and sell the Guppyfriend bag alongside our synthetic products to minimise microfibres entering the waterways during washing cycles.”

The brand has also grappled with a decision to include a leather jacket, eventually selecting French goat leather, which Howard says is sourced from an ethical farm in Aveyron and is a byproduct of the meat industry. It is one of several compromises the brand has had to make on sustainability, prioritising performance. “Leather is durable, breathable, water-resistant and it gets better with time, but it has been one of the hardest products to solve,” she explains. “Recycled and vegan leather both feel like wearing a plastic bag. There is huge competition to access mycelium right now, although we will in the near future. Until those alternatives are ready, we have to make the best choices we can.”

Source: Vogue Business