It is a truth universally acknowledged that humans (this one included) are very good at buying things. In fact, our economies — as they stand today — depend on it. But rampant consumption has wreaked havoc on our environment, a fact that is now almost impossible to dispute.
As we have begun to acknowledge our species’ impact on the planet, we have also started to slowly change our behaviour. In becoming more conscious of our lifestyle choices and buying habits, we now expect more from the businesses we engage with, too.
In response, many of the globe’s biggest brands have made commitments to be more responsible, sustainable and purpose-driven. But developing a purpose is the easy part. Adapting every aspect of your business to truly live that purpose? That’s hard. It’s harder still for brands to use their platforms and influence to leave our planet better off than when we inherited it.
Enter Kate Raworth, a self-described “renegade economist” who has developed an economic model that finds the sweet spot between human consumption and the pressure we put on our planet.
In 2017, Raworth published a book called Doughnut Economics: seven ways to think like a 21st century economist, and she now spends her time discussing her model with governments, academics, companies and communities.
Her model is centred on the “Doughnut” (pictured). The Doughnut’s inner ring represents the social foundation, the utopian state in which everyone on the planet has sufficient food and social security.
The outer ring represents the ecological ceiling, beyond which excess consumption degrades our environment beyond repair. As it stands, humanity has exceeded the safe threshold of three ecological boundaries and is falling far below every social foundation.
Raworth’s aim is to get us all inside the doughnut, or as she refers to it, “the safe and just space for humanity”. But because Earth can’t support human life at the developed world’s rate of consumption, some of us will need to make do with just a little more, and others will have to make do with just a little less.
It’s clear that enacting Raworth’s doughnut would require a global paradigm shift. So, while Raworth places an emphasis on global governments making smarter decisions for their people, she also believes that companies around the world — particularly the big guns — will play a crucial role.
When Raworth advises companies on her audacious model she receives five types of responses:
We’re not interested
We’ll do what pays — the environment benefits, but our shareholders will benefit more
We’ll do our fair share — we’re moving in the right direction, but can’t commit to more
We’ll attempt Mission (Carbon) Zero — we’re not afraid of this new paradigm, but understand there’s more we can do
We are 100% committed to this, and our work will add to the environment, instead of depleting it.
To be in that last camp, Raworth urges private enterprise to develop a true “living purpose”. This should be core to the very existence of a company. A purpose that anyone associated with that brand can remember, recite and feel proud of.
Businesses often start off with a hiss and a roar by defining their purpose and tweaking a few governance metrics, but their ownership and source of finance tend to remain unchanged. This means they keep asking themselves the wrong question: how much financial value can we extract from our work?
Raworth’s antidote is to encourage businesses to ask themselves an alternative question: how many benefits can we generate for society and the living world as a result of our work? The next step is to “invest long-term in generating multiple kinds of value — human, social, ecological, cultural and physical — along with a fair financial return”.
Put simply, the doughnut model is about balance. It’s up to all of us — government, brand, and consumer alike — to commit to a living purpose and to enact it, for the sake of the planet. And so, while the doughnuts in this blog may not have not been of the confectionary variety, there’s still plenty to digest… and with zero calories!
Watch Kate Raworth discuss Doughnut Economics at TED here