For the June London event the panel contemplated Sustainability and Growth, and how business can achieve decoupling. The three speakers on the panel shared their thoughts on the subject, and debate focused on whether decoupling is either realistic or sufficient in the long-term.
Tim Jackson of the Sustainable Development Commission offered some stark observations of equality and economic growth, stating that the Global economy will be eighty times bigger at the end of this century than it was fifty years ago, though it would need to be 200 times bigger for all to live a western way of life. He put forward that if there is a continuation of the “business as usual world” then we will still live with great inequality - “Islands of prosperity and oceans of poverty”. He concedes a flaw in the argument for prosperity without growth, is that it will not wash in developing countries where development is needed. But the vast economic growth needed by these countries is undoubtedly coupled with the stripping of resources and untold extraction of energy at a level difficult to imagine on a finite planet.
Tim said the only solution currently on the table to meet this challenge is decoupling: to achieve more with less, a fundamental business principle. He drew again on figures and examples that prove how businesses do things more efficiently over time. But they just do more of them, with the growth in global energy use over the past two to three decades illustrating this. Scale has outdone efficiency as companies seek economic growth and market share growth. Also in a global trade system, figures are being fudged and do not include the carbon emissions of our imports. And more finished goods are arriving in the UK than ever before. Tim suggested that we have left ourselves blinded by our efficiency gains, and that decoupling goals can be an obstacle to creating the right kinds of structural change.
Unsurprisingly Tim came to the conclusion that decoupling won’t get us there in the long run and that we have to explore the underlying systemic drivers that are creating a growth based economy that we cannot support. He finished by proposing that businesses, governments and individuals need to unpick their own models to unravel what prosperity means as we must have prosperity without growth.
Steve Creed (WRAP) referenced an economic equation, that impact is derived from population, affluence and technology. Without wanting to broach the subject of population, some of the work he has done has shown that though houses have become more efficient, households have not. People are buying more to feel the prosperity from their affluence. Steve noted that there is a culture of replacing goods that no longer fit our fashion sense, citing the mobile phone market as a prime example of this, though conceding that a product like the iPhone could show a shift in the precept, as a it is a product with open architecture that may prove to be a tool to reduce personal impacts. However, would such a product represent a true restorative economy?
His research has also found that food waste is as high as a third of what is purchased, coming to the conclusion that by keeping a food diary makes individuals aware of what they were wasting. Subsequently he believes that you do not want to make people change their behaviour; rather help them make the changes they want to make.
The panel was completed by Santiago Gowland (Unilever), who questioned the approach of the environmental lobby and argued that the decoupling argument was too often applied too generally. Santiago argued that things need to be approached at a micro economic scale, from business to business, which brought him on to the notion of utility over footprint, where development is linked to social value. Products need to have a high social value; enjoyed and used by many with low externalities and minimal environmental costs. Brands must ask themselves, how do we internalise the externalities?
Santiago went on to discuss that brands and marketing are often condemned as the drivers of consumer materialism, and that they could be a part of the solution to problem that marketeers created in the late 20th century. What is the license for brands to operate with a higher social value? Where do you draw the line on sensible consumption? This he sees as subjective.
Santiago concluded by highlighting the challenge to marketing departments and brands alike, that the social contract of a brand was about quality, price and high standards, but their role has extended to include conscious choices. With dilemmas that transcend national boundaries it is difficult to engage society in a meaningful way and how can brands move to an intrinsic set of social values as they play the pivotal role with consumers and their consumption.
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