#33 Unleashing creative possibilities without growth
From growth to development, and generative business practices
It seems that you guys really enjoyed the last edition on #growthmania and all the conversations I had with you were brilliant and stimulating, so thank you 🙏. I’m low-key obsessed with this topic, so this is a sort of Part 2 to my previous article, this time looking at business practices and how brands satisfy human needs. Florencia x
The big question from the last article was ‘How can businesses prioritise permanence over performance?' in the context of finite natural resources. Permanence is important because predictions show that if the economy continues to grow as expected, in 100 years it will be 20 times larger than what it is today - and that won’t be good for anyone (it’s more like there will be an ecological catastrophe, but let’s keep it light)
One of the answers to that question is the following: instead of perpetuating current businesses practices that are focused solely on extracting financial value, we need to design businesses in a way that they generate other benefits for society as well as profit. There are plenty of ways we can move from extractive to generative practices, but in a first attempt, I wanted to look at the root of some of these problems: consumption, and how brands satisfy human needs, to see if there were any actionable learnings we can implement (spoiler alert: there are!)
The North/South consumption divide
Last time I mentioned that the critique to infinite growth is relevant to countries in the global North (aka rich, developed countries), and this is an important point because the ecological crisis isn’t being caused by everyone equally. A study from last year showed that the Global North was responsible for 92% of all greenhouse emissions, and the best 100 performing companies (of which 73 are located in the Global North) will continue working to increase their YoY profits in 2021 and add more value to their already affluent societies. Not a surprise there, but this is how it translates to consumption habits (and emissions):
“One person in a low-income country has a materials footprint of roughly two tons per year, a measure of total raw materials consumed, including those embodied in imports. In lower-middle–income countries, that number is four tons; in upper-middle–income countries, 12 tons. In the high-income nations of North America, Europe, and Asia, the number leaps to 28. Ecological economists generally agree that the safe outer limit is eight tons.” Jason Hickel, ‘Less is More’
What does it have to do with culture? Consumption is a socio-cultural phenomenon with specific values and norms, and there are specific modes of socialisation related to consumption that are intertwined with issues of social identity and status. In the Global North this manifests in many different ways, but the most evident is volume: we consume *a lot*, way more than people in developing countries in the global South.
Brands satisfy demands, and demands come from human needs, but if we understand the ecological imperative of slowing down consumption, we’re going to have to figure out what are the human needs we’re satisfying in the first place. For that, I went looking for answers precisely to the global South.
Looking for answers in español
I stumbled upon Manfred Max-Neef, a highly-influential ecological economist born in Chile. He created “Barefoot Economics”, a term he coined after he realised that the language of economics that he had picked up while teaching at Berkley was completely useless when faced with the real experiences of poverty in Latin American slums. A fascinating guy and if you have a bit of time I’d recommend you watch this interview with him (he pulls no punches).
Just like the popular Maslow, Max-Neef was interested in understanding human needs, but he created a framework that wasn’t organised around a hierarchy - he thought of needs as complementary, all of which are necessary to achieve satisfaction. According to him, there are four categories of needs:
Being: has to do with intrinsic or socially-determined characteristics, like the need for physical and mental health, self-esteem, sense of humour or imagination.
Having: is ownership (or access) to goods and services, such as the need for social security, health systems, food, shelter, rights, work, etc.
Doing: is action-oriented, and has to do with exerting personal and collective agency, so it includes the need to feed, procreate, rest, educate, have fun, play, invent, build, design, etc.
Interacting: is relational, turned towards the community, organising, public spaces and institutions, so all needs related to privacy, intimacy, space of togetherness, settings of participative interaction, associations, churches, communities, etc.
Manfred Max-Neef's point was that well-being could be achieved using fundamentally different strategies to cover these four categories of needs.
This quote by Max-Neef was a bit of a revelation 🤯 :
“Growth is a quantitative accumulation, development is the liberation of creative possibilities. Every living system in nature grows up to a certain point and stops growing. As a person it comes a point when you stop growing, but you continue to develop yourself. Development has no limits.” - Manfred Max-Neef
Consumer society means that right now we are stuck, overwhelmingly, on "having" to satisfy our needs, and “having” is all about accumulation and growth. While the other three, “being”, “doing” and “interacting” are all about development.
Instead of solely encouraging “having”, brands can satisfy human needs aligned to "doing" and "interacting", and still make a profit.
From growth to development
Thinking about development as limitless liberation of creative possibilities is *brilliant*. So I tried to find examples of brand activities that seemed more aligned to satisfying human needs for development (“doing” and “interacting”) rather than growth (“having”) and found these:
👟🛹 Vans became a broadcaster for local communities with the launch of their new digital live-stream Channel 66. It’s focused on giving a platform to content creators, leaders and voices from underrepresented communities. The schedule includes live performances, curated conversations and more, reinforcing their positioning as a grassroots brand and creating social impact.
💄👄 Sephora lets Beauty Insider members redeem their loyalty points as donations to the National Black Justice Coalition in an effort to incorporate their support for Black Lives Matter into their existing initiatives, and allowing people to redirect money to important causes instead of shopping.
🥃✨ Jägermeister launched #SaveTheNight, a campaign to save the remaining 15 lesbians bars in the US and promoting small businesses and inclusion. They produced a 90-second PSA that details the influence of lesbian venues and other cult-venues that have closed over the years, and a full-length documentary series on the wider history and influence of lesbian bars is also in production.
🛍🏠 IKEA launched Live Lagom, and ‘lagom’ is a Swedish way of living that revolves around only taking what you need. This is an initiative to directly address overconsumption, which drives increased demand and therefore, increased extraction of natural resources.
These aren’t CSR or purpose initiatives, these are brand-building campaigns that can create long-term brand meaning and positioning in the minds of consumers. Back to the original proposal of moving from extractive to generative, these four initiatives seem to fall within the latter, taking us in the right direction. And there are so many other things we could do, especially at a corporate level involving the CEO, CFO, and the board - I’m sure our impact could be huge.
To finish off, thank you to everyone who sent me books/podcasts/articles on this topic, here are some of them:
+ Murray Calder @ScotStratGuy suggested this conversation with Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens and Homo Deus, and Rutger Bregman, author of ‘Utopia for Realists' about an agenda for the future.
+ A friend recommended ‘Post-Growth living For an Alternative Hedonism’ by Kate Soper which I only skimmed through but I’m keen to read.
There’s so much to think about, and I want to have these conversations with you, so if this newsletter left you with any ideas, emotions, questions… reply to this email, leave a comment or send me a tweet. Let’s have a chat.
Until next time,
Read my #Growthmania series here:
Part 2: This article :)