What’s the core problem with 'degrowth'? I reckon it’s the term!

In a world fixated on perpetual economic growth, a revolutionary concept has emerged, challenging the very foundations of our societal norms: degrowth. 

This paradigm shift calls not only for a reevaluation of our collective pursuit of endless expansion but also challenges industries at their core, including product manufacturing companies. As these companies grapple with the imperative to transition towards sustainable and circular practices, intending to achieve climate and materials net zero, they face a unique set of challenges and opportunities that will redefine their roles in a more conscientious future. 

This circulist perspectives post delves into the history, significance, and practical implications of the degrowth movement, unraveling the intricate dance between economic evolution and the pressing need for environmental and social responsibility.

Let’s get started….

Beyond GDP and profit margins, degrowth prompts us to question the sustainability of our relentless pursuit of growth and encourages a recalibration of our values. Join us on a journey to explore the challenges and transformative impacts for product manufacturing companies daring to chart a course towards sustainability in the era of degrowth.

So, is the term ‘degrowth’ the fundamental problem?

Some say it's contrarian, controversial, and others would say it’s the only pathway to reform the economy and society in partnership with the planet.

Degrowth: Our Only Chance Against Climate Change? | ENDEVR Explains

As we navigate the complexities of an interconnected global economy, this post explores the key takeaways for businesses willing to break free from the shackles of overconsumption, envisioning a future where companies embrace a philosophy that prioritizes environmental stewardship, social equity, and community resilience over ceaseless expansion.

History of the Term 'Degrowth'

The term 'degrowth' has its roots in ecological economics and emerged as a response to concerns about the environmental and social consequences of perpetual economic growth. Although the idea has deep historical roots in various philosophical traditions, the term gained prominence in the early 21st century. It was popularized by scholars and activists who were critical of the prevailing economic paradigm that prioritized continuous economic expansion without sufficient consideration of ecological limits and social well-being.

Let’s forget about the term for a moment. What does it represent? Why is it important?

Embarking on a deeper exploration, let's momentarily set aside the term 'degrowth' to understand its core principles and significance in reshaping our approach to economic success, emphasizing factors such as environmental sustainability, social equity, responsible consumption, and the vital role of localism and community resilience.

Beyond GDP: Degrowth challenges the conventional emphasis on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as the primary measure of economic success. Instead, it advocates for alternative indicators that consider environmental sustainability, social well-being, and quality of life.

Environmental Sustainability: One of the central tenets of degrowth is the recognition of planetary boundaries. It asserts that constant economic growth is incompatible with environmental sustainability and aims to promote a more harmonious relationship between human activities and the natural world.

Social Equity: Degrowth emphasizes the need for social justice and equity, highlighting the disproportionate impact of economic growth on marginalized communities. It encourages a shift towards more inclusive and equitable models of development.

Re-evaluation of Consumption: Degrowth challenges the culture of overconsumption and encourages a reassessment of societal values, placing greater emphasis on human well-being, community, and leisure over material accumulation.

Localism and Community Resilience: Degrowth advocates for decentralized, localized economies that prioritize community resilience. This involves supporting local businesses, promoting self-sufficiency, and reducing dependence on global supply chains.

Here’s a great explainer video on ‘What is degrowth’ by CNBC:

Degrowth: Is it time to live better with less? | CNBC Explains

Growth vs Degrowth - Has the battle begun and what are the implications?
The battle between growth and degrowth represents a fundamental ideological and practical conflict in how societies envision and pursue progress.

Vox article “Can we save the planet by shrinking the economy?

Here's an exploration of the implications of this struggle for the economy, society, and the planet:

Economic Implications

Growth Paradigm: The traditional economic paradigm emphasizes perpetual growth as a sign of a healthy economy. This perspective is deeply ingrained in mainstream economic thinking, influencing policies, corporate strategies, and individual aspirations. Economic growth is often measured by metrics such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP), with the belief that continuous expansion leads to increased prosperity and well-being.

Degrowth Challenge: The degrowth movement challenges this paradigm, asserting that unbridled economic growth is ecologically unsustainable and exacerbates social inequalities. It calls for a reevaluation of success metrics, advocating for qualitative improvements in life, ecological sustainability, and equitable distribution of resources.

Social Implications

Inequality: The growth-centric model has, in many cases, led to increased income inequality. The benefits of economic growth often accrue disproportionately to the wealthy, widening the gap between the rich and the poor. Degrowth proposes a more equitable distribution of resources and challenges the notion that continuous growth is the only way to address societal needs.

Quality of Life: Degrowth emphasizes the importance of enhancing the quality of life rather than merely increasing material wealth. This involves prioritizing factors such as health, education, leisure, and community well-being over relentless material consumption.

Environmental Implications

Resource Depletion: Continuous economic growth often relies on the exploitation of natural resources, leading to environmental degradation, deforestation, and depletion of biodiversity. The degrowth movement emphasizes the need to live within planetary boundaries, advocating for sustainable practices and a circular economy.

Climate Change: The pursuit of endless growth contributes significantly to climate change through increased carbon emissions, industrial activities, and deforestation. Degrowth calls for a radical shift in economic activities to mitigate the impact on the climate and foster a more harmonious relationship between human societies and the environment.

Policy Implications

Regulatory Changes:
Achieving a balance between growth and degrowth requires significant changes in regulatory frameworks. Policies that incentivize sustainable practices, penalize environmental degradation, and promote social equity are essential for steering economies toward a more balanced and regenerative path.

In Europe, the EU government published a great paper titled “Beyond growth Pathways towards sustainable prosperity in the EU.”

Transition Planning: Governments and businesses need to plan and implement transitions toward a more sustainable and equitable future. This involves investing in renewable energy, supporting circular economy practices, and fostering innovation in technologies that align with degrowth principles.  

Circulist is keenly aware of the challenge implementing change that companies are facing. Led by industry expert-practitioners, that is, people who know how to transition to circularity and sustainability, circulist has designed The Transition Plus Program specifically to guide product manufacturers over 90-days to create a tailored Transition Plan for their business.

At the end of the Program, participants will not only have a Transition Plan. They will have the competency and material to apply for Green Finance - both enabling and accelerating their business’ transition.

Cultural and Paradigmatic Shifts

Values and Priorities: The battle between growth and degrowth is also a battle of values and priorities. It calls for a cultural shift away from a consumer-driven society to one that values well-being, community, and ecological sustainability. This shift challenges ingrained notions of success and progress.

How to Save the Planet: Degrowth vs Green Growth?

Challenges companies and industries face when even considering ‘degrowth’
There are several examples that illustrate the challenges companies face in aligning their objectives with broader societal and environmental concerns due to existing incentive structures. Here are a few noteworthy instances:

Short-Term Profit Pressures: Many publicly traded companies face intense pressure from shareholders to deliver short-term profits. This often leads to decisions that prioritize immediate financial gains over long-term sustainability. Companies may cut costs in areas such as research and development, employee benefits, or environmental initiatives to meet quarterly targets.

Fast Fashion Industry: The fast fashion industry is notorious for its relentless pursuit of rapid production and low costs. The pressure to continually produce new, inexpensive clothing has led to environmental degradation, unethical labor practices, and a throwaway culture. The focus on quick turnovers and high sales can overshadow concerns about the environmental and social impacts of the industry.

Extractive Industries: Extractive industries, such as mining and oil drilling, are frequently driven by the imperative to maximize resource extraction and shareholder returns. This pursuit can lead to environmental degradation, habitat destruction, and conflicts with local communities, as companies prioritize short-term gains over long-term ecological and social well-being.

Pharmaceutical Industry: In the pharmaceutical sector, the emphasis on patent protection and high-profit margins sometimes hinders the affordability and accessibility of essential medicines. Pharmaceutical companies may prioritize the development of drugs that promise high returns, neglecting research into treatments for diseases prevalent in lower-income regions where profitability is limited.

Government Subsidies for Fossil Fuels: Some governments continue to provide substantial subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, perpetuating a reliance on environmentally damaging energy sources. These subsidies can create disincentives for companies to transition to cleaner alternatives and hinder the growth of renewable energy industries.

Planned Obsolescence: In the electronics industry, planned obsolescence is a common practice where products are intentionally designed with a limited lifespan, encouraging consumers to upgrade frequently. While this boosts sales and profits for companies, it contributes to electronic waste and resource depletion.

Philosophical quandary: With all these definitions needed to substantiate what big concepts are, like ‘wellbeing’, there is a bigger philosophical question to address. This seems to be missed in the discussions around ‘Degrowth’. Questions like ‘who gets to define what is wellbeing?’, ‘who are the people charged with defining what is legitimate use of materials and the way they should be used’ need to be challenged. If the globe is going to get on the noble bandwagon of really making positive changes to the economy by including other aspects that have previously been overlooked - we need, we must, have a say in who is making the decisions on what proposed terms actually mean. They have real-world implications, at all levels. 

For example, is demonizing mining really rational, when lithium requires significant mining of natural, virgin resources for things like EVs? 

We need to be realistic, and inclusive. Not making moral judgments on the very partners we need to make positive, and sustainable, change.

Beyond this, the question needs to be asked - is the current focus on economic growth REALLY at odds with sustainability? Or, is there a way that economic growth and environmental and social responsibility can indeed coexist - are they really mutually exclusive? Without asking these questions, decisions will be made that will impact businesses (small, medium in particular) that really, won’t have much of a say.

Circulist Perspectives post “Planned Obsolescence Is Killing the Planet”

These examples highlight the tension between short-term financial objectives and the broader impacts of business activities. Addressing these issues requires a fundamental shift in incentive structures, regulations, and stakeholder expectations to encourage businesses to prioritize long-term sustainability, ethical practices, and social responsibility over immediate financial gains.

What does this all mean for product manufacturers?

Transitioning to sustainable and circular practices in the context of degrowth presents both challenges and opportunities for companies, particularly product manufacturers. Here's an exploration of the 7 potential effects and impacts:

#1. Initial Investment and Costs

Challenge: Shifting to sustainable and circular practices often requires significant upfront investment in research, development, and infrastructure changes. Companies may face initial financial challenges as they restructure their operations and supply chains.

Opportunity: Over the long term, these investments can lead to cost savings through improved resource efficiency, reduced waste, and enhanced brand reputation. Companies embracing sustainability can appeal to a growing market of environmentally conscious consumers.

#2. Competitive Advantage

Challenge: In industries where cost and speed are primary competitive factors, the initial perception might be that sustainable practices are a hindrance. Some companies may fear losing their competitive edge if they prioritize sustainability.

Opportunity: Embracing sustainability can create a unique selling proposition and set companies apart from competitors. Consumers increasingly value environmentally friendly products, and businesses that align with these values can build brand loyalty and attract a broader customer base.

#3. Regulatory Compliance

Challenge: Companies transitioning to sustainable practices may encounter challenges in navigating evolving and sometimes stringent environmental regulations. Compliance might initially be perceived as a burden.

Opportunity: Early adoption of sustainable practices can position companies ahead of regulatory changes. Proactively addressing environmental concerns can mitigate risks and enhance the company's reputation as a responsible corporate citizen.

#4. Supply Chain Resilience

Challenge: Reconfiguring supply chains to adhere to sustainable and circular principles can be complex and may initially disrupt established processes.

Opportunity: A resilient and transparent supply chain that integrates sustainable practices can enhance long-term stability. Companies can build partnerships with suppliers who share similar values, reducing risks associated with resource scarcity and supply chain disruptions.

#5. Consumer Perception and Loyalty

Challenge: Some companies may fear that consumers are not willing to pay a premium for sustainable products, especially in price-sensitive markets.

Opportunity: Studies show an increasing consumer willingness to pay more for sustainable and eco-friendly products. Companies that authentically embrace sustainability can build trust and loyalty, fostering a positive brand image that resonates with conscious consumers.

#6. Innovation and Market Differentiation

Challenge: Innovating products and processes to meet sustainability goals may be viewed as a resource-intensive challenge.

Opportunity: Innovation is a key driver of competitiveness. Companies that invest in sustainable technologies and practices often discover new market opportunities and cost-effective solutions that enhance long-term competitiveness.

#7. Employee Engagement

Challenge: Employees may resist changes to established workflows, and there might be concerns about job security during a transition period.

Opportunity: Companies that involve employees in the transition process, provide training, and communicate the positive impact of sustainability initiatives can foster a sense of purpose and pride among the workforce, leading to increased productivity and retention.

In essence, while transitioning to sustainable and circular practices involves overcoming initial challenges, the long-term benefits can include cost savings, enhanced brand reputation, access to new markets, and increased resilience in the face of environmental and regulatory changes. Companies that proactively address sustainability concerns are better positioned to thrive in a future where consumers and investors increasingly prioritize ethical and environmentally responsible business practices.

So, can we agree that it's time to move on from the term ‘degrowth’? 

Our suggested change > “Regenerative Triple Bottom Line”

This may be longer to say yet as a term combines growth with regeneration, emphasizing the positive impact that businesses can have on both the economy and the environment. It suggests a forward-looking approach where growth is aligned with regenerative practices, fostering a sense of responsibility and positive contribution to the planet.

For Product Manufacturers?

"Regenerative Triple Bottom Line" for product manufacturers signifies a transformative shift in approach, advocating for a business model that not only sustains but actively contributes to the regeneration of the economy and the environment. In the realm of manufacturing, this concept envisions a departure from traditional linear production models to circular practices that prioritize resource efficiency, recycling, and minimizing waste.

For product manufacturers, "Regenerative Triple Bottom Line" translates to a commitment to design and produce goods that go beyond minimizing environmental harm—they actively contribute to ecological restoration. This involves implementing closed-loop production cycles, where materials are continually reused and repurposed. Manufacturers embrace innovative technologies to minimize energy consumption, adopt sustainable sourcing practices, and reduce the carbon footprint of their products.

This concept fosters a sense of responsibility among manufacturers to not only meet consumer needs but also to contribute positively to the planet. It encourages the development of products that have a net-positive impact, such as those made from recycled or upcycled materials, contributing to biodiversity conservation and ecosystem health.

"Regenerative Triple Bottom Line" challenges product manufacturers to consider the entire lifecycle of their products, from design to disposal, and to explore ways to create regenerative value. This may involve engaging in partnerships with suppliers who share similar sustainability goals, collaborating with local communities to support circular economies, and leveraging technological advancements to create products that enhance, rather than deplete, natural resources.

In essence, for product manufacturers, embracing "Regenerative Triple Bottom Line" means not merely minimizing harm but actively participating in the regeneration of the environment and communities. It aligns economic success with environmental and social stewardship, fostering a sustainable and resilient future.

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