Why chasing traditional growth targets could kill your business – and our future

Imogen Graham
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We’re constantly chasing growth – in our businesses, our economies and even our personal lives. But at what cost?

The incessant pursuit of growth comes at the expense of more important things. As economies grow, consumption grows, and the earth’s resources are depleted more rapidly than ever.

When you live on a planet with limited resources, continuous growth is simply not possible. More is not always better. Having more wealth, above and beyond a comfortable income level, won’t necessarily improve happiness. In a similar way, as nations grow their economies they lift millions of people out of poverty. However, as their GDP keeps growing, their use of resources continues rising, but human wellbeing doesn’t improve at the same rate, meanwhile the environment continues to perish.

Transitioning to a sustainable future

The future can be better. It can be sustainable. But to embrace that future, we need to let go of our pursuit of mindless growth. Instead, we need to think about degrowth.

Although degrowth sounds like a one-word answer on how to kill your business, it’s a new and better way of building a long-lasting enterprise. Degrowth is the planned reduction of resource consumption and energy use, until it reaches a point where our resources can sustain everyone.

During the Auckland Climate Festival in October, we hosted an event by Impact Hub, focused on degrowth – and it was a huge eye-opener. The panellists believe that degrowth is no longer a radical idea, but a genuine imperative for business, government and the global community.

Degrowth is not a call to close businesses, but an economic diet, as Jennifer Wilkins of told our audience. She says that a gradual shrinkage and restriction of resource use could potentially be difficult or even painful, but it will have a streamlined and powerful outcome. She believes degrowth can create an economy where everyone’s needs are met, without exhausting our resources. It could massively reduce our global carbon footprint and put us on a fast track to net carbon zero by 2050 – a goal that our current trajectory will see us miss.

What degrowth will look like

Thanks to the pandemic, we already have a glimpse at what the future might look like if we stop chasing growth. The reduction in energy consumption and changes in human behaviour had phenomenal effects during the COVID-19 lockdowns, as Bill Murphy of Purpose Capital explained. He believes we can keep the upsides of lower resource use, without everyone having to stay home. His business invests in ways to help shape both energy consumption and human behaviour. Bill has some inspiring success stories about investing in renewable energy, as well as funding circular business models that embrace a sharing economy. Projects like build to rent housing for long-term tenants; solar farms to provide renewable energy; and iwi-led open ocean aquaculture.

Investing in sustainability, circularity and degrowth will also shape our urban environments, says Ben van Bruggen of van Bruggen Urbanism. He talked to our audience about how better cities can shape human lives for the better. Moving around on foot, scooter or bike; living within 15 minutes of everything you need; eliminating the long single-person car commute that pushes up our emissions. A ’15-minute city’ would cut pollution, reduce energy use and boost wellbeing. It would mean fewer respiratory illnesses and help create connected communities which improve mental health.

In some ways, degrowth takes us back to earlier times, when we lived more holistically in tight-knit communities, took care of each other and stewarded our limited resources. Tori McNoe highlighted this when she took a Te Ao Māori/indigenous lens to the concepts underpinning degrowth. Tori talked to our audience about Aotearoa’s unique worldviews based on Māori culture, family and education.

This worldview helps us give degrowth a New Zealand perspective. She used the parable of the kūmara to demonstrate a different approach to value: “E rua e rua te kūmara me te pūtea, kāore he hua ōna ki tua atu i te whāngai tangata.” Money is like a kūmara; it has no value outside of its ability to sustain people.

A new focus for the future

For a sustainable future, we cannot keep pursuing constant growth. In the same way that Bhutan measures Gross National Happiness rather than GDP, we need to turn our attention to measurables beyond economic growth. That applies to our national GDP, and also to our individual businesses.

As we enter a period of transition, it is clear that all businesses need to prepare. Today’s business model is unlikely to cut it in the future. Few businesses are close to true sustainability. Now is the time for businesses to consider the ideas that will make them sustainable and future -fit.

Instead of just thinking about your business’s revenue growth for the year, what else could you measure? How well do you use and reuse materials? How much energy could you reduce? How is your organisational happiness? Changing the way you think about success away from simplistic, traditional measures is a vital step to creating a sustainable company that’s ready for the future.