Degrowth, or De-Growth, is from a language perspective an oxymoron. An oxymoron is the combination of two words used together that have, opposite meanings, such as: “absent presence”, “deafening silence”, “deceptively honest” or “unbiased opinion”. Oxymorons are used in language to draw attention or to have a dramatic effect or to entertain.
The word degrowth is to draw our attention to the fact that we have this well rooted idea that a healthy economy and society should produce economic growth. Some even say that there is an addiction to economic growth. This addiction can be seen in many policy decisions from governments and companies. For example in the sustainablity discussion, it is clear that measures for a more sustainable society should not hinder economic growth.
Of course it is clear that nobody wants to really damage the planet (see picture on the right) or do deliberate harmful things to our communities. The underlying thought can still be……… that otherwise, real damage could harm economic growth prospects.
The main attack on the concept of economic growth is currently on the way that we have defined it, by using Gross Domestic Product (GDP): the estimate of the total value of goods and services a country produces in a certain period of time. There is no attention to what is produced, how it is produced or who is producing it. For example failed surgery contributes positively to GDP.
Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, IMF head Christine Lagarde and MIT professor Erik Brynjolfsson all said GDP is a poor indicator of progress, and argued for a change to the way we measure economic and social development. The World Economic Forum’s chief economist Jennifer Blanke wrote in 2016 “GDP is a partial, short-term measure, whereas the world needs more wide-ranging and responsible instruments to inform the way we build the economies of the future.” GDP overlooks three main questions: is growth fair, is it green, and is it improving our lives?
In the March 2018 edition of the Journal of Cleaner Production, Khmara & Kronenberg add the business perspective to the sustainable growth-degrowth debate. They used seven criteria to assess whether a company follows the degrowth paradigm:
(1) Alternative understanding of business;
(2) From business activity to activism and social movement;
(3) Collaborative value creation;
(4) Democratic governance;
(5) Corporate leaders’ commitment to company values in personal life;
(6) Reduction of environmental impacts at all stages of product/service life-cycle;
(7) Making products that last and are repairable.
In their research they used as a case study the American clothing company Patagonia that sells outdoor clothing marketed as sustainable. I have mentioned the company in Strategy Blogs a few times related to sufficiency-driven business and positive marketing. Patagonia however does not present itself as a degrowth-oriented company. The study of Khmara & Kronenberg (2018) is an academic excercise to test their degrowth model as Patagonia is often seen as one of the icons of sustainable business but the company is growing.
Khmara & Kronenberg (2018) conclude in their study that Patagonia is relatively close to the degrowth model as it scores high on all seven criteria. It does not fit all the criteria as the company is still growing and their marketing is aimed at more consumption.
Degrowth is more than an oxymoron!
In my opinion the concept of degrowth can be more than an oxymoron when we are aiming for a more sustainable economy and society. Although degrowth is a radical concept as it contradicts economic and business logic. Degrowth is not a new concept as countries and companies use it for other purposes effectively to maintain organizational structures or to avoid costs and risks. I think growth and degrowth should be concepts that are well defined and considered.
So if you grow fast, slow or degrow from an economic perspective, there are other questions important too: how can we be more fair, more green, and how can we improve our lives?
Khmara, Y., & Kronenberg, J. (2018). Degrowth in business: An oxymoron or a viable business model for sustainability?. Journal of Cleaner Production.
Chainey, R. (2016), Beyond GDP – is it time to rethink the way we measure growth? World Economic Forum.