Big companies and their executives will have to soon turn their attention to considering just how much their business can grow whilst still qualifying as sustainable, argues Howard Sharman

The ‘G’ word got one brief mention at Ethical Corporation’s Responsible Business Summit
last week – at least, one that I noticed – but I suspect that future Summits will have to pay very close attention to this crucial word and its impact on business as we currently know it.

It was bandied around a lot in the election campaign too, as the solution to all of our (economic) ills.

But there is a growing group of people who consider it to be THE underlying problem that we are all going to have to address before much longer.

The ‘G’ word is Growth. Is it the solution, or is it the key issue that modern capitalism is going to have to address? Might it be the next big issue in the CSR director’s Inbox?

On one side of the argument, growth is the answer.

Get your company (or UK plc) back on a growth path and everything will fall into place. Shareholders will be happy, staff will get pay increases and the factories will continue to turn out products.

But on the other side of the argument – and there are voices here that should be familiar to the CSR community that reads Ethical Corporation and this website – growth is seen as the problem.

There are a number of pieces of evidence to support this point of view. One old saying goes ‘Trees don’t grow to touch the sky’.

A more modern variant points out that if every Chinese, Indian, Brazilian and South African were to have the same standard of living as we do in the UK, then the total quantity of material consumed in getting them to this standard of living would bankrupt the planet – we are already consuming around 1.3 Earths, so that level of consumption would push us way over the edge.

Listen to ‘The World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth’, which took place in Cochabamba, Bolivia last month .

This conference closed by producing a 4,000 word Peoples’ Agreement which begins on an apocalyptic note, “Today, our Mother Earth is wounded and the future of humanity is in danger.”

It goes on to launch a fierce attack on the whole modern capitalist system from an environmental economy standpoint, “The capitalist system has imposed on us a logic of competition, progress and limitless growth.

This regime of production and consumption seeks profit without limits, separating human beings from nature and imposing a logic of domination upon nature, transforming everything into commodities: water, earth, the human genome, ancestral cultures, biodiversity, justice, ethics, the rights of peoples, and life itself.

“Under capitalism, Mother Earth is converted into a source of raw materials, and human beings into consumers and a means of production, into people that are seen as valuable only for what they own, and not for what they are.”

The underlying argument is that all of our financial and social capital is built upon a foundation of environmental capital and that this capital is being used up at a completely unsustainable rate.

You don’t have to buy into all of the rhetoric of the World People’s Conference to acknowledge that there is some truth here.

This week the UN Convention on Biological Diversity publishes its third Global Biodiversity Outlook and it warns that some ecosystems may soon reach "tipping points" where they rapidly become less useful to humanity.

Such tipping points could include rapid dieback of forest, algal takeover of watercourses and mass coral reef death. These are not only serious environmental events, they will also have serious economic consequences.

What is needed here is some joined-up thinking about: the nature of modern capitalism; its relationship to the environmental capital on which it depends, but to which it allocates little or no value; how it can survive, prosper and bring better living standards to the peoples of the world without despoiling entirely the planet on which we all depend.

‘Prosperity Without Growth’ was the title of a report published last year by the Sustainable Development Commission and the title encapsulates the problem.

Before too long CSR directors may well be having to explain how their companies are able to deliver prosperity not only without causing environmental damage, but also without growth. And that will be a challenge.

Howard Sharman is managing director of ERD Associates ( and a Senior Consultant for Advance Aid (

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