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Tools for the future: degrowth, at the new frontier of sustainability

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By Ignacio Ahijado

· 14 min read

Sustainability is a movement profoundly reshaping our world. Conversations around it are laden with words that convey a sense of change, action, and progress, like decarbonization, electrification, and green transition. And this isn’t mere rhetoric — staggering amounts of money are being poured into reshaping and modernizing our economic infrastructure. Governments and businesses are now scrambling to catch up to what researchers and social movements foresaw as early as the 1970s (might the disinformation campaigns of the world’s major polluters have played a role in this delay?). The focus is all on ramping up renewables, eco-efficiency, and corporate responsibility. Yet, what if the true path to a life-centered future lies in embracing less, and not more, of all that?

In this article, we’re embarking on an alternative approach to sustainable development with great potential for individuals, organizations, and communities, provided they are willing to listen: degrowth.

Beyond GDP and one-dimensional well-being

In today’s economic landscape, stricken by widespread inequality and the persistent threat of recession and instability, the idea of “degrowing” our economies may not sound particularly attractive. However, it’s important to not be deceived by the literal interpretation of “degrowth.” We should rather pay attention to its meaning in the French or Italian languages, where “décroissance” or “decrescita” refers to the moment a river returns to its normal flow after a catastrophic flood.

As Kallis (2011) defined it, degrowth entails “a socially sustainable and equitable reduction (and eventually stabilization) of society’s throughput.” Throughput refers “to the materials and energy that society extracts, processes, transports, and distributes for consumption, which is ultimately returned to the environment as waste in our current economic model.”

Thus, contrary to popular belief, degrowth researchers and activists do not advocate for a complete rejection of growth itself. Degrowth is not synonymous with recession or a mere reduction in GDP within the existing system (which austerity economic policies actually entail). Rather, degrowth rejects the idea of infinite growth on a finite planet, calling into question the ideology of “growthism” and its assumption that increased resource consumption of monetized goods automatically leads to a better life.

One of the reasons why degrowth is just so unpalatable to many is because it challenges our subconscious beliefs about the economy, the homo economicus, and human well-being. Our market-driven economies, our perception of a good quality of life, and our societal values and norms are all deeply intertwined with the notion that growth and material affluence are essential requirements, conditio sine qua non, of our happiness.

The essence of degrowth lies in rationally and selectively downsizing parts of the economy that are not sustainable to create space for the growth of other important aspects of the economy and of our social systems as a whole. These include intangible goods like emotional well-being, time for leisure and social life, safety, and human rights, which are essential to the economy but often overlooked because they are not easily monetized. This will prevent the worst consequences of unplanned recessions, which are bound to happen more often on a planet of diminishing resources.

Sustainable development & the myth of decoupling

Not only the degrowth discourse but various other theories and practices assert that the planet imposes absolute boundaries on economic growth and development, as they have been understood in Western societies. Throughout the twentieth century, the progress of our societies has predominantly been assessed by their economic growth, often quantified by rises in the gross domestic product (GDP). The proponents of growth, in its simplest form, argue that increased economic activity will result in higher incomes, thus indicating higher prosperity.

Curiously, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) framework does not explicitly mention the need for reductions in consumption or production. However, from a degrowth perspective, achieving responsible forms of consumption and production is only possible with reductions in matter and energy throughput.

Moreover, the notion that economic growth can be “decoupled” from resource consumption through the use of more efficient technologies, which is central to the idea of green growth and eco-efficiency, has been widely debunked, as evidenced by research on the “rebound effect”. In response to the dominant “sustainable development” paradigm of the past two decades, some scholars propose an alternative path called “Socially Sustainable Economic Degrowth” (SSED), aiming to foster a sustainable degrowth trajectory.

Along these lines, researchers have put forth specific public strategies for policymakers interested in following these lines:

  • Scaling down non-essential production: This involves reducing or phasing out harmful industries like fossil fuels, mass-produced meat and dairy, fast fashion, advertising, cars, and aviation, including private jets.
  • Transition to a participatory and convivial society: Emphasizing reduced working hours, recognizing the value of caring and informal economies, supporting working cooperatives, and reevaluating the significance of GDP are all important elements of transitioning towards a participatory and convivial society.
  • Fostering a fair global economic environment: This involves addressing unfair and unmanageable debts in low- and middle-income countries, addressing unequal trade practices, and creating conditions that redirect productive capacity toward meeting social objectives.
  • Fair distribution of income and wealth: Promoting equitable distribution of income and wealth is essential for a just transition, through novel tax schemes, the elimination of tax havens, or the Universal Basic Income.

However, one significant criticism leveled against degrowth is its perceived neglect of the micro-scale and the absence of actionable steps. This lack can largely be attributed to the proposed measures clashing with the prevailing political climate and presenting individuals and organizations with great barriers and risks. How can we effectively incorporate degrowth principles into organizational structures and business models?

Exploring the new frontier: degrowth and organizations

Organizations and businesses have a crucial role to play in facilitating the transition to a post-growth society. And it’s not merely a choice — it’s a more than likely reality that the end of growth is here and will impact everything. Whether driven by regulatory measures, the freezing of global economies, or the constraints imposed by natural resource limits, degrowth cannot be simply dismissed as a wishful idea. The limits of green growth and sustainable development as it has existed until now make it imperative to seriously consider a plan for a transition towards degrowth. Moreover, there is already a burgeoning consumer-driven degrowth movement that is gaining momentum at the grassroots level.

What are some of the strategies available to organizations that want to adopt degrowth as a path toward sustainability?

Tapping into alternative business models

A growing body of literature explores alternative business models that challenge the growth paradigm. Social enterprises, communities, cooperatives, and sufficiency-driven businesses offer valuable examples of how business can be done differently. These models redefine the notion of “the economy” by incorporating non-monetized sectors that are nonetheless essential to the economy. They provide insights into how organizations can align with degrowth principles and contribute to a more sustainable economy.

For example, in Community-Supported Agriculture, both the producer-entrepreneur and the consumer community share the risk sustainably. They collaborate, exchange experiences, and foster a convivial atmosphere, moving away from self-interest, competitive survival instincts, and money as the sole measure of progress.

Recognizing diverse paths to success beyond growth

Instead of solely focusing on sales growth, organizations can explore alternative paths to success that prioritize stability, social impact, and environmental sustainability. By shifting the focus from short-term profits to long-term value creation, companies can contribute to a more balanced and sustainable approach to business. Incorporating more stakeholders into the organization’s governance bodies can be a powerful strategy to prevent the prioritization of profits over the well-being of local society and the environment.

Embrace sufficiency

Organizations can emphasize meeting needs rather than pursuing endless efficiency. This includes capping organizational growth at a size that aligns with its sustainability targets and focusing rather on replicability. Furthermore, promoting the development of durable, repairable, and long-lasting products can significantly reduce resource consumption and waste.

Advocate degrowth

Organizations can and should take the lead in setting industry standards for sustainable practices. By promoting ethical and environmentally conscious products and services, businesses can challenge obsolescence and overconsumption. Companies like Fairphone and Patagonia serve as inspiring examples, actively working towards more sustainable and socially responsible practices.

Integrate degrowth into strategy and risk management

This involves incorporating degrowth-related concepts into strategic planning, assessing potential risks and opportunities, and aligning core competencies with real-world challenges and opportunities for sustainable development. By becoming familiar with degrowth policies, and considering degrowth principles in scenario planning, organizations can better navigate the complexities of a changing economic landscape.

Reimagine the place of your organization in the world

Rather than building ever higher walls to resist the winds of change, organizations can seize the opportunity amid the turmoil by redefining their purpose. This involves questioning the origins and realities of the current system, including the social and environmental costs associated with their achievements, and understanding their role within it. A realignment of personal, organizational, and systemic perspectives, can help organizations reconsider their purpose, ensuring it serves the greater good and benefits all stakeholders, including communities, nature, and future generations.

A path of many

Degrowth and life-centered sustainability are not a fixed endpoint. We must recognize that the criteria and strategies to achieve complete sustainability are overly ambitious at this point. A truly degrowth-oriented economic organization, rooted in anti-accumulation principles, would likely struggle to survive in this existing system. Therefore, a broader societal transformation beyond capitalism is necessary, and actively pursued by all social actors.

Rather than settling for incremental changes within existing business models like corporate social responsibility or sustainable business strategies, we must profoundly transform our social organization, economic practices, production systems, and overall value creation from the ground.

As reminds us, businesses are ultimately composed of people and form social communities. Considering the ongoing ecological and social degradation, people stand to benefit more from embracing degrowth rather than perpetuating growth-oriented practices. It is only when we fully understand this — not only with the mind but with our bodies and souls too — that we may glimpse the lights of change at the end of the tunnel.

This article is also published on the Nested CoLab blog. illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Ignacio Ahijado is a communications manager at Nested CoLab, a California-based sustainability consultancy & impact network. He works with clients to help them embody a life-centered approach to sustainability communication beyond today’s evermore sophisticated forms of greenwashing.

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