Business must see that zero growth is the future for developed economies, according to Jonathan Porritt

As he prepared to step down in July as chief environmental adviser to the UK prime minister, Jonathan Porritt headed out for one last media blitz. His objective: to continue challenging the government on its green initiatives right up to his final days in office.

A sustainable existence is possible, the former Friends of the Earth director told interviewers, but the UK government has underperformed over the past decade and needs to match its high rhetoric with action.

Porritt, for nine years chairman of the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC), lauded the recently published strategy to build a low-carbon economy. This aims for the UK to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 34%, from 1990 levels, and source 15% of energy from renewable, by 2020. And he heaps praise on Ed Miliband, head of the new Energy and Climate Change Department.

But at its core, he says, the government still does not get it. Sustainability continues to take a back seat to consumer-driven economic growth. Until there is a serious discussion about how to create a green macroeconomic framework, he says, the UK and other wealthy nations will barely start to resolve the climate crisis.

The commission has laid out such a pathway in a report – provocatively titled Prosperity Without Growth? – released in March. It was largely ignored by lawmakers and the mainstream media. But Porritt isn’t finished. Speaking to Ethical Corporation, he expounds his vision of what a sustainable economy would look like.


“Let me be absolutely clear up front,” Porritt says, seconds into the conversation, “we do not advocate a zero growth model.” Economic growth in developed nations such as the UK should cease, he says, but it should continue in the developing world, so that billions might escape poverty.

In the developed world, growth is the cornerstone of modern macroeconomics upon which politicians win and lose elections. And Porritt is advocating its overthrow.

In his 2005 book, Capitalism as if the World Matters, Porritt devised a number of strategies to recalculate cost and profit. Among them were diverse ways to define “capital”, taking into account social and human values alongside “natural” or ecological capital.

Porritt wants a radical re-examination of economies, taking into account the natural world. The “ecological economics” movement has long argued for “steady state” or “zero growth” economies in which ecosystems are valued more highly.

These ideas remain on the fringes of economics. Yet cap-and-trade schemes, which put a cost on carbon pollution, are the result of precisely this kind of reformed macroeconomic thinking, Porritt says. But putting a price on carbon only gets us half way to achieving a more sustainable economic system, he believes. This task will get even harder as world population booms: an additional three billion people are expected to live on the planet by 2050.

“Whilst it can of course be demonstrated that many individual companies have made great strides in reducing both carbon intensity and resource intensity, these efficiency gains have often been cancelled out by increased levels of production,” Porritt wrote in March, imploring government to use the global economic crisis to rethink wealth generation. “In other words, we’ve seen relative reductions in net ecological footprint, but not absolute reductions. And the same is true at the level of national economies,” he explained.

The disagreement between environmentalists and policymakers comes down to ideas of efficiency and what economists call “decoupling” – the notion that we can continue with existing growth models if we just get smarter in how we deliver goods and services.

According to the SDC report, at projected growth rates, it will take efficiency improvements of 7% a year to offset the greenhouse gas emissions that result from increased world productivity. That’s a tenfold increase in technology efficiency – amounting to what Porritt terms a “fantastically difficult” task.

The SDC report cuts through the heart of consumer-driven economic models. And while other environmentalists have voiced similar critiques, never before have they been made by a government body, or been as convincingly formulated.

Reduced consumption

Reduced consumption, and so reduced production, lies at the heart of the low-growth model. “We must talk about a different way of achieving prosperity in societies,” Porritt says, “and some of those alternative ways will involve less rather than more consumption.”

Porritt believes less consumption would in many respects improve people’s quality of life and would not necessarily damage business profitability. He is confident that business understands this.

He says: “You’ll still have very lively active competition between providers of those consumer goods and services to do two things: one, provide them with the level of quality for money that consumers still expect and, secondly, provide them with a far lower environmental and social footprint.

“So I’m not worried about the basic fundamentals of a competitive market-based economy. I think those will remain sound. A total quantum of consumption may fall and companies will succeed or fail on their abilities to meet those new needs.”

Porritt’s own epiphany came in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit, a ground-breaking UN conference on the environment held in Rio de Janeiro. For nearly two decades he had campaigned passionately for the environment – first in the Green party, which he co-chaired from 1980 to 1983, and then with Friends of the Earth UK, then a little-known pressure group, which he helped transform into a powerful green activist body.

By the time of the Rio summit, Porritt had grown disillusioned with activism’s confrontational approach. “I was weary of working on people’s guilt, fear and anger,” he says.

The Rio summit made him believe answers to environmental challenges could be found within industry. And to those within the green movement who question his loyalty, Porritt says he has one question: what is the alternative? “Capitalism’s collapse does not create creative and benign solutions. It creates totalitarian solutions to impose on society – and that’s my biggest fear.”

But he also soon learned about the frustrations of working with business. Companies can do a lot more, he says, but only within the limitations of the current consumer-driven model of economic growth.

Against corporate responsibility

Porritt has referred to corporate responsibility as being “massively overhyped” and, at a macroeconomic level, “serving only to obscure much deeper, systemic problems with today’s dominant business model”.

He defends this assessment, saying he’s supportive of companies seeking to become more influential in the way they manage their environmental impact. His principle beef is with mainstream economists who see environmental protection as one of many competing interests to be traded off against the economy.

“Economists live completely within a false world,” he says. “If I had one wave of a wand – and I could make one decision for the government to implement – I would press for the compulsory re-education of economists. I’d force them to learn about the law of thermodynamics, to understand how the natural world works, and then let them back out into the world, because their role at the moment is pernicious – there’s no doubt about that.”

Still, he says there are also too many examples of corporate responsibility deployed by companies with fundamentally amoral business models that cannot stand up to scrutiny. He says a particularly stark example is the UK banking industry.

The corporate responsibility teams of UK banks have strong reputations, he says. “They were seen as extremely professional parts of those financial institutions … who used to win lots of awards.

“But the reality is they never, ever got close to the business model of those banks. They were never given access to the decisions being taken about changing the investment strategy, about rethinking approaches to risk, or about the balances of portfolio or a different approach to asset management.”


Such flashes of indignation have earned Porritt his share of critics, while endearing him to allies who see a deliberate provocateur forcing government, the private sector and the public to face issues that they otherwise might not confront.

Recently, his call for a two-child limit for parents engendered personal attacks the likes of which he says he’d never experienced in 35 years. But he swore he would not back off, saying there was a legitimate debate to be had about overpopulation.

He told reporters in July: “I am unapologetic about asking people to connect up their own responsibility for their total environmental footprint and how they decide to procreate and how many children they think are appropriate.” Porritt and his wife have two daughters.

Porritt sees a very different and more challenging phase for the green movement ahead. It’s a campaign less concerned with particular technical problems and more focused on changing the trajectory of western consumption patterns.

He’ll be spending more time with Forum for the Future, the sustainable development charity he founded in 1996. He wants to become more active in the Green party, of which he is a member, and he sees himself possibly working with young people on civil liberties.

“No,” he says, “I’m not planning to pull back at all.”

The Sustainable Development Commission

Jonathan Porritt stood down as chairman of the Sustainable Development Commission on 27 July after nine years in the role.

He is replaced by Will Day, a former chief executive of Care International, the development campaign group, and external adviser to the BBC corporate responsibility board.

The commission’s job is to be an independent watchdog on government green plans.

Since 2000, when it was set up, the commission has published annual progress reports that have criticised progress made by UK government departments on sustainable development.

The reports have recommended government action on introducing smart meters to help households calculate and reduce energy use; improving housing stock to save energy, water and waste; and developing tidal power.

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