Degrowth is a social movement calling for a shift from GDP growth as an indicator of progress to a focus on sustainable living that looks after the wellbeing of the planet and its people. It is a polarizing movement. Some die-hard believers see degrowth as the only solution to the climate crisis, while skeptics see it as impractical.

The latter’s main arguments include the difficulty of devising policies to deliver degrowth and the need for GDP growth for societal function. However, the debates surrounding degrowth are not where companies should place their focus. Whether or not senior executives approve of degrowth has not stopped the proliferation of degrowth-sympathetic thinking in the last two decades, especially in Generation Hashtag (anyone born between 1991 and 2005).

Businesses should abandon the armchair philosophizing over the feasibility of the degrowth movement and observe the consumer trends already in practice. The increased demand for sustainably sourced products, the boycotting of fast fashion retailers, the decluttering of excessive material goods, and the increased uptake of vegetarian or vegan diets all illustrate the rise of the ethical consumer. Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, thrifting, and brands like Beyond Meat have cracked the mainstream.

Ethical consumers are driving degrowth trends

The new ethical consumer is making its presence felt. GlobalData’s 2020 Market Pulse Consumer survey found that customers are more likely to pay a premium for sustainability-aligned causes, and 81% of customers would pay more for products supporting environmental protection. So, companies should stop debating degrowth ideology and react to these new consumer trends.

Those who were early adopters of such thinking are already reaping the benefits. For example, UK bakery chain Greggs’ introduction of the vegan sausage roll led to a 9% rise in sales after its launch in 2019. It now has a full vegan range. Degrowth sentiments are even reflected in their company messaging. According to CEO Roger Whiteside, “It’s our duty as a modern business to stand for more than just profit…(and) to help people, protect the planet, and work together with our partners to change the world for the better.”

The shift towards ethical consumerism and degrowth sentiments will continue to affect all sectors. To survive, companies must combine their traditional profit motive with sustainable practices. This change creates new opportunities for the companies themselves – a path to profit without unsustainable growth. Businesses can no longer unquestioningly follow traditional growth models. Instead, they must think of innovative ways to satisfy the new consumer. As degrowth writer Jason Hickel notes, if someone had thought this way 20 years ago, “people would have laughed in their face.” This is no longer the case, and companies must embrace alternative routes to success. Degrowth needs to be reframed from its fringe, living off the land stereotype and instead become part of mass ethical consumerism.

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