Reframing ‘prosperity’ beyond growth – the rise of wellbeing economics in political and corporate thinking

Evidence is now emerging to help question the assumption that ‘more is better’ and Economics Professor Jean Gadrey, of the Sarkozy Stiglitz commission recently stated that “If we abandon quantitative growth, will we be condemned to social regression? The answer is no. There are good quality scenarios that show we can increase prosperity without relying upon traditional economic growth”.

New research from Nef’s Great Transition macro-economic modelling and from Professors Tim Jackson[1] and Peter Victor suggests that, if we redesign economics correctly, we do not actually need growth to deliver the kinds of things we expect from a successful economy such as high employment, fiscal balance, high wellbeing and ecological efficiency.

If economies are forced to cease growing and to focus on new measures of progress such as wellbeing then the implications for commerce will of course be significant. As Professor Jackson has said, we urgently need to tease apart what kinds of economic goods actually contribute to the satisfaction of human needs and promote wellbeing, and which simply serve as pseudo-satisfiers or destroyers of the underlying needs.

Whether capitalism can be compatible with a beyond-growth wellbeing economy is as yet unclear. What is called for is a shift away from the comodification of everything and to a market system not based on profit maximisation but the ecological efficiency of the equitable satisfaction of wellbeing-needs. Whether the entities we call ‘companies’ will morph to be compatible with such a paradigm or new enterprises, more like co—operatives, family, employee and community owned enterprise will be the norm in this new paradigm is also not yet clear. But what is clear is that we can’t go on in the same blind fashion we are currently pursuing.

The rise of wellbeing economics in society and politics

In progressive circles a new economics is emerging that questions the meaning of prosperity and posits that instead of focusing on growing wealth we ought instead to focus on growing wellbeing. Such thinking comes at a time when a significant segment of society, described as Cultural Creatives and estimated to be 33% of US citizens, are tuning in to Thoreau’s insights in Walden that “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can do without.”

Recently these debates have started to go mainstream. Bodies such as the World Economic Forum, the UN, Harvard Business Review, Oxford, Cambridge and LSE Universities and social movements like Happy City, Action for Happiness and Transition Towns are all integrating a wellbeing perspective into their thinking.

Even some politicians are tuning in to these new cultural norms and framing their new politics in terms of wellbeing and community rather than wealth and individualism. President Sarkozy asked Joseph Stiglitz to lead a high-level policy review on these issues and, after his own review[2], Prime Minister David Cameron has set his Office of National Statistics the task of measuring and developing policy around wellbeing. As well as numerous speeches on the subject of wellbeing, Cameron recently called on business “to work on improving quality of life and wellbeing.”

Echoing this, Sir Gus O’Donnell, whilst head of the civil service and Cabinet Secretary, said that he thought within ten years wellbeing will be the economy’s headline indicator and that GDP will be a subsidiary indicator. Alongside these UK moves, the EU, OECD, France, many US States, China, the World Bank and UN are all committed to rethinking how we measure progress through the addition of a wellbeing perspective.

The corporate world starts to tune in to wellbeing and needs

Ian Cheshire, CEO of Kingfisher B&Q, has recently spoken about the need for a new capitalism which prioritizes wellbeing over growth[3] and has said ‘I am convinced that this approach, bringing a wellbeing lens to strategic and sustainability challenges, is one of the most exciting areas for breakthrough innovation. It can bring a valuable new strategic compass to the journey we are on as a company.”

Cheshire is just one of a number of global CEOs who are working hard behind the scenes to understand how they can evolve their business models so that their products, services and brands deliver maximum possible wellbeing for society per unit planetary input. Such a reorientation may start to show that alternative forms of value-adding and economy are feasible and palatable.

Ian Marchant, CEO of Scottish and Southern Energy has blogged[4] about his support for my local community energy enterprise and his vision for the future of SSE and that “An important part of this relates to wellbeing and to work we are doing to integrate wellbeing as a lens for strategic innovation.  As a company we are looking at how to bring the idea of wellbeing into our strategic planning. Companies can and must make a positive contribution to wellbeing.”

There are broadly three main areas where progressive companies can help push the boundaries of thinking and action on these issues. Firstly they can push government to radically reframe the market to favor those companies willing to be part of a rapid transition to a new wellbeing economics. Secondly they can help take society on a journey from a paradigm of ‘wealth, growth and material as prosperity’ to one of ‘wellbeing as prosperity’. And thirdly they can shift their strategic direction to focus not on producing ever more stuff but on the ecological efficiency of delivering to human needs.

The holy-grail for these companies has become the ‘wellbeing dividend’ where sustainability efforts can be shown to increase rather than damage customer and societal quality of life and wellbeing. In its Sustainable Living Plan, for example, Unilever committed to “improve the wellbeing of one million people.” Having made that promise, the company must now work out what it must do to deliver on it. The progressive corporate world seems poised for the next step: turning theories of human needs into practice through experimentation and innovation.

[1] Economics commissioner of the UK Sustainable Development Commission and author of the ground-breaking book Prosperity Without Growth

[2] The Quality of Life Review Directed by Jules Peck




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