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Business in degrowth transformations

In recent years, discussions in the degrowth literature have increasingly revolved around issues related to degrowth business. Such discussions have sought to understand what business would be like as part of a degrowth society, if it can indeed be part of it, and what, if any, roles business can play in transformations towards such societies. The chapter provides reflections on degrowth and business, suggesting that the latter constitutes an important actor on the roads to degrowth. Subsequently, various matters related to scale and diversity are considered before the chapter analyses what practices businesses would need to implement to render them consistent with degrowth. The chapter ends with a contemplation of whether a degrowth business is necessarily a non-growing business – the conclusion being that this is not the case.

Having considered civil society and the state in degrowth transformations, we now turn to the role of business. In recent years, discussions in the degrowth literature have increasingly revolved around issues related to ‘degrowth business’ – or some other combination of the terms ‘degrowth/post-growth’ and ‘business/organisation’ (Hankammer et al. 2021; Nesterova 2020a, 2020b; Schmid 2018). Such discussions have sought to come to terms with what business would be like as part of a degrowth society, if it can indeed be part of it (Nesterova and Robra 2022), and what, if any, roles business can play in transformations towards such societies. In what follows, we first provide some general reflections on degrowth and business, explaining why we regard the latter to be an important actor on the roads to degrowth. As in the preceding chapters, we then consider various matters related to scale and diversity before we analyse what practices businesses would need to implement to render them consistent with degrowth. We end the chapter with a contemplation of whether a degrowth business is necessarily a non-growing business – concluding that this is not the case.

A primer on business and degrowth

Within the degrowth discourse, some claim that business in most of its forms is simply inconsistent with degrowth. The reasoning is that whereas the business is an inherently capitalist entity established to seek, make and maximise profit (Nesterova and Robra 2022), degrowth is both anti- and post-capitalist. Here, Perlman’s logic is followed. Perlman notes that a ‘businessman is a human being whose living humanity has been thoroughly excavated’ (Perlman 1983: 31). Others assume that business can indeed be part of a degrowth society. Or they assume that at the very least business can be part of the journey towards such a society, whereas the final elements of a degrowth society remain obscure (Nesterova 2020a; Trainer 2012).

We agree with the second viewpoint for two reasons. First, businesses currently exist in large numbers. Thus, a strategy of some kind is necessary for them to participate in a broader societal transformation – in cooperation with social forms in civil society (Chapter 4) and the state (Chapter 5). To exclude the domain of business, a large part of the modern economy, from a theory of degrowth transformations seems unwise. Moreover, while some businesses are not compatible with degrowth, businesses operating in destructive sectors being cases in point, there are also forms of business which can be compatible with and part of a degrowth economy. Moreover, it seems likely that a time will come when uncomfortable questions such as ‘how about multinational corporations?’ will need to be asked in relation to degrowth and answered in more sophisticated ways than proposing that they will not exist in a degrowth society.

Our second reason for viewing business as part of degrowth is the acknowledgement that human beings are central to business. Individuals who are currently owner-managers and employees of businesses may not be opposed to transformations, and in fact be supportive of both sustainability more broadly and even degrowth as a strand of sustainability thinking if they (come to) know what it is. Some people may be participating in business due to the absence – or their unawareness – of other choices rather than because they aim to reproduce the capitalist system and maximise profits by exploiting fellow humans, non-humans and nature. Ironically, claiming that a business is necessarily a profit-maximising entity is relying on the same logic as neoclassical economics, the school of thought from which degrowth tries to deviate and whose premises it counters.

Making a distinction between business as trade and a business as a social entity (for example, a company or firm) can be helpful. If degrowth society is seen as a journey rather than as something that can be brought into existence overnight (Nesterova 2022c), it is to be expected that trade would remain part of degrowth society, even if such a society were in later stages to move towards consumers becoming producers, greater self-sufficiency, low technology, and even barter (Skrbina and Kordie 2021). Yet what are some of the transformations that business as trade could undergo on journeys towards degrowth society? For one thing, business as global trade would need to be reduced, since long supply chains are unsustainable, energetically and materially intensive, and obscure. More human needs should be satisfied locally and in a place-sensitive manner, where the meaning of ‘location’ can be fluid rather than precisely defined (for example, as a town) depending on a product or service. More alternative forms of business and organisations would participate in trade (Nesterova and Robra 2022). Moreover, fewer activities would in general be carried out by ‘doing business’. This includes less marketisation and less commercialisation. Indeed, in a degrowth society more space (physical and metaphorical) should be dedicated to other activities outside business, and opportunities should be sought which allow people to produce goods themselves (in households) and collectively via, for example, community-based organisations (Trainer 2012). In other words, in a degrowth society not only production and consumption would be reduced, so would exchange or trade. Instead, other forms of redistribution of both goods and skills can be employed, such as sharing, gift and provision (for example, via universal basic services).

Turning to businesses as social entities, ‘degrowth business’ is a term that has so far mostly been used to refer to a business suitable for a degrowth society.1 What would business look like in such a society and during transformations towards it? A business can engage in transformations in at least two ways. First, it can be self-transformed via the intentional efforts of humans involved in the business, such as businesspersons and even employees, naturally considering the difference in power of those groups as well as the policy environment in which the business exists. Second, it can be transformative towards social structures it is embedded in, possibly by collaborating with actors in civil society and the state. These processes are deeply interrelated. In transforming itself, a business also contributes to transforming socio-economic structures (Nesterova 2021c), and business-as-usual becomes less acceptable and less desirable. For instance, nurturing a fellow-feeling by owner-managers and employees towards nature goes against the current norm of exploitation and seeing nature as merely a resource pool. Such attitudes may find manifestations in the practices of the business in which these people are involved. Transforming the business itself may encourage its networks as well as customers to reconsider their own relationships with nature, prompting them, for instance, to make more ecological choices and source more sustainable materials. While this may appear almost unrealistic and a utopian view of business, our own work with businesspersons shows that often they are normal human beings who are not any less concerned with the state of the world around them than are other people (e.g., Nesterova 2020b, 2022c). It is often the case that businesspersons do not promote or support degrowth because they do not know about it or were educated or brought up believing that capitalism is the only system that works.

Theoretically, business can be seen as both an agent in economies and societies, as well as a structure. Viewing business as a structure places focus on the transformation of business via the agency of the individuals involved in business. In this case, the interest is in internal processes, relationships, hierarchies, power, culture, teams and dynamics. Disambiguating a business as a structure and considering its internal principles and logics allows one to appreciate the depth of transformation, which goes all the way to the psyches of the individuals involved. Viewing business as an agent focuses on the role of business as a single social entity and how this entity can participate in transforming the social world as an agent. In this case, the relationships between businesses, the empowering and constraining structures a business is subject to, are the aspects to consider. Neither focus suffices on its own, and both remain important. For instance, it is challenging to imagine that a business can become an agent of change if it is not also transformed as a structure.

Scales and diversity of business in degrowth transformations

In this section we consider various matters related to the scale and diversity of degrowth business. The first thing to note here is that business comes in different scales, ranging from micro businesses and sole traders (sole proprietorship), in which case the businessperson is also the business entity, to large transnational corporations which themselves represent complex structures and systems of ownership and subsidiaries spread across numerous locations. With degrowth advocating reduced matter and energy throughput, qualitative change, localisation, production for needs and redistribution of power, it is safe to assume that transnational corporations will not form part of degrowth societies. The reason for this is that such corporations are characterised by, for instance, obscure ownership patterns, enormous power, including the power to shape and direct consumption, and highly unequal remuneration of workers. The most suitable scales of business for degrowth are the micro and small scales. Some argue, however, that large-scale production and service provision such as steelworks and railways would continue to exist in a degrowth society (Trainer 2012). This is indeed likely, unless a degrowth society is understood to be a highly localised, low-technology society (see e.g., Skrbina and Kordie 2021). If such a society does not seem realistic or even desirable, then degrowth theorists need to contemplate challenging questions such as what will happen with large-scale production and transnational corporations on the journey towards a degrowth society. Moreover, if industries such as the railways industry and steelworks are deemed desirable, many more industries become necessary. That is, like any other industries, the railways and steel industries do not exist in a vacuum: they require supply chains, complex machinery and equipment which, in turn, require large and high-technology factories.

While it may be controversial to see large-scale producers as allies of degrowth, to exclude them entirely from discussions of transformations is unwise. Interestingly, degrowth scholars often advocate services provided and made possible by large corporations (such as travelling by train), while also seeing such companies as not immediately degrowth compatible. Arguably, other strands of sustainability thinking such as circular economy and green capitalism scholarship – including various corporate social responsibility discourses – have been more attentive to the sustainability question of large-scale production and have not shied away from contemplating the role of large corporations in bringing about a sustainable society and proposing ideas for their participation (for example, business models, certification). While we do not consider large corporations the ideal form of degrowth business (or even suitable for degrowth society), focusing mostly on small firms or alternative organisations and theorising ideal degrowth organisations does not suffice.

How can large businesses become more degrowth compatible? First and foremost, the question of (fair and more transparent) ownership may be reflected upon. In contemporary capitalism it is typically incredibly challenging to understand the structure of a large company’s ownership, especially because it is common for companies to own and control other companies as is the case with holding companies. Statements such as the following from Fair Squared GmbH (2022) are rare: ‘FAIR SQUARED is a limited company registered in Cologne, Germany. The company is family owned with no other companies or investors directly or indirectly involved. Our headquarters and warehouse are located on 700 m² rented space in Cologne Marsdorf. Additional warehouse capacity is available through logistics providers if and when needed.’ Complicated ownership structures exist for the purpose of valorisation of capital rather than for the purpose of production for genuine human needs in a society living in harmony with nature. It remains unclear whether an appropriate path for degrowth is to pursue nationalisation (public ownership) beyond selected industries. Such a path may lead to bureaucratic structures and require a strong state able to manage vast resources (see also Chapter 5). A mixture of ownership can also be pursued, for instance, if only large-scale production and service provision is run by the state (such as railways or steelworks) while the majority of other types of production and service provision is owned by communities or individuals.

Micro and small-scale businesses are more degrowth compatible for several reasons. Such businesses do not possess the same level of power as transnational corporations and many such businesses are localised in various ways such as with respect to ownership, operation, employment or sourcing. Localisation is an important aspect of degrowth society (Latouche 2009; Trainer 2014). However, localisation of ownership and operation is distinct from localisation of supply chains. For instance, even a simple bar of soap produced in Sweden requires materials from far-away destinations: shea butter from Ghana and essential oil from France. Producing wine from local wild berries in Northern Sweden (based on an example from our own research) requires equipment imported from Italy, expertise from Canada and laboratory services from Denmark. Thus, often the ‘local’ appearance of a company conceals what actually goes into the production of a certain product.

Small-scale business can lead to positive outcomes for humans (and nature). For instance, small businesses can ensure a higher level of control over the processes of production and responsibility towards a place. They can also create spaces for psychological wellbeing (Nesterova 2022b). Such outcomes are due to a small business’s ownership patterns, embeddedness within their local community and their independence. However, scale does not in itself qualify a business for a degrowth society. Even a small business can be hierarchical and a less than pleasant space to work in. Such businesses might also not have dedicated human resources departments which could assist in, for instance, conflict resolution. Smallness of business also does not guarantee better practices. A small business can focus on niche products which are unaffordable for the general public, or common products which are likewise unaffordable precisely due to the small and local nature of a business. For instance, Russell (1994) mentions innumerable unnecessary small shops in London that operated for the leisure of the idle rich. While Russell’s example goes back over 80 years, his critique remains as relevant today. Businesses in a degrowth economy should focus on the satisfaction of genuine human needs and do so in a manner which allows more people to consume the product. In other words, it is important to contemplate each business individually rather than rely on broad statements such as ‘small is beautiful’ (Schumacher 1993). It may or may not be – or it may be for some but not for others.

In a degrowth society, businesses would be likely to assume a diversity of legal forms. They could, for instance, take the form of private companies, cooperatives, not-for-profit businesses or (eco-) social enterprises. Crucially, the form of business, just like the scale of business, in itself does not determine its degrowth compatibility. In other words, a degrowth society would not be brought about if all existing privately held companies (of various legal forms such as ‘limited’ in the UK and ‘GmbH’ in Germany) suddenly became cooperatives. A small privately held company can be a pleasant place to work in, it can be non-growing and practise ecological orientation and pro-sociality. A cooperative can be hierarchical, have unhealthy internal dynamics and produce products which are unnecessary.

The best approach to organising production and service provision in a degrowth society would probably be to allow for a plurality of organisational forms and ways of cooperation. Each form has its positive aspects and downsides. For instance, private companies can offer a person or a group of people more control over the company’s operations. This might be the most suitable form for, say, a small-scale artisanal and craft production firm (Nørgård 2013), as well as for small local cafés and stores. Such firms can still cooperate with others, for example by sharing resources and collectively implementing circular economy practices, fulfilling larger-scale projects in cooperation and establishing formal and informal networks (Nesterova and Buch-Hansen 2023; see also Savini 2023). Such firms may allow individuality and relative autonomy – and facilitate a higher level of wellbeing for those who prefer to operate a small business by themselves or in cooperation with friends and family. Doing so is not necessarily a sign of individualism or egocentrism and does not go against the principles of a degrowth society.

Larger-scale production of food, for example, can be organised in a degrowth society in the form of a cooperative and, for instance, be owned by workers. Again, however, this is not the only degrowth-compatible form such production can take. Food production can likewise be carried out by small-scale independent farmers. In the degrowth discourse, some have placed hope in cooperatives as a prevalent form of business in a degrowth society (see e.g., Johanisova et al. 2015). However, while such a form can be beneficial since it emphasises counter-capitalist values such as democratic member control, it may not be the most suitable form for some strands within anarchist tradition (Stirner 2005). For instance, some may see a democratic structure as constraining, and membership in a cooperative as an obligation or a pressure to participate. Such an individualist perspective is not necessarily incompatible with degrowth if one assumes human goodness to be central to human nature (see Conclusion, this volume).

Apart from cooperatives, (eco-) social enterprises have been proposed as a form of business for a degrowth society (Johanisova and Franková 2017). Such businesses, as the name suggests, prioritise ecological and social outcomes over profits. In doing so, they reinvest profits into ecological and social commitments and projects. The distinction between such forms and a ‘normal’ business is not always clear. While it may be assumed that a ‘normal’ business prioritises profits and ignores ecological and social embeddedness, it is not necessarily so in reality. Especially in the case of small companies, what practices and principles are prioritised depends on the owner-managers as well as the employees of the business (Nesterova 2021a). Some business owners operate their business less with a view to pursue profit and more for cultural reasons, as a family tradition and/or as a commitment to a certain location. In other words, a business can behave akin to an (eco-) social enterprise without necessarily being one or identifying itself as such.

Above we have considered some of the diverse forms that businesses can take in degrowth transformations. However, if society were to embark and progress on degrowth journeys, it is conceivable that the differences between these diverse forms of business eventually become less prominent. That is, ultimately, the need for a specific form such as ‘not-for-profit business’, ‘(eco-) social enterprise’, ‘community interest company’ etc. may become obsolete in a degrowth society where all businesses would deviate from the primacy of profit seeking and find more freedom to pursue other commitments, many of which businesses are pursuing already.

Degrowth business practices

In this section, we contemplate what practices businesses could implement to become degrowth compatible. To this end we use the four planes of social being model (Bhaskar 2020: 116; Bhaskar 1993) outlined in the book’s Introduction so as to provide a holistic perspective. We suggest that business transformations would pertain to their transactions with nature, relationships between people, social structure and people’s selves (Table 1). For this reason, elsewhere we identify degrowth business as a business of deep transformations (Nesterova 2022b). Certainly, it is not always straightforward to assign specific business practices to a specific plane. For instance, localisation of production can be seen as a degrowth practice of improving humanity’s material transactions with nature. Yet it can also facilitate a closer connection between the business and the people in the location in which the business is. Likewise, moral growth, a kind of growth that should be welcomed and nurtured in a degrowth society, may naturally result in rethinking of business’s relationship with nature and its practices in this domain. In other words, the planes are interconnected, a matter we return to in the Conclusion to the volume.

Planes of social being Practices
Material transactions with nature Sufficiency in energy and material use
Waste and pollution minimisation
Efficiency in the use of materials/energy, circularity
Renewable resource/energy use
Durable and repairable products
Localisation of production
Social interactions between people Non-hierarchy
Democratic decision-making
Wellbeing
Work as a process of learning and growth
Knowledge sharing
Collaboration
Social structure Appropriate technology
Decreased productivity
Reduction in working hours
Embeddedness within society
Production for needs satisfaction
Plurality of business forms
Working with likeminded businesses, activists and consumers
Transparent and fair ownership patterns
Inner being Moral growth
Non-anthropocentrism
Long-term view
Fellow-feeling towards humans and non-humans

Starting with material transactions with nature, an overall goal of a degrowth economy is the reduction in humanity’s matter and energy throughput. This does not necessarily easily translate to the level of business. Still, businesses can contribute to this pursuit by centring their production around the principle of sufficiency, that is, produce what is needed and not more. A firm may also be able to decrease the wastes that go into the environment. This can be achieved, for instance, by revising the process of production and by working with other businesses that can make use of the wastes created by a firm. For instance, cardboard waste generated by one firm may be shredded and used by another firm to package its products (Nesterova 2020b). Here, degrowth business can in both practice and theory benefit from existing knowledge of how to close matter and energy loops in the process of production by implementing circularity as a principle (Bauwens 2021; Nesterova and Buch-Hansen 2023).

Using renewable material and energy is a degrowth business practice. However, it is doubtful whether renewable energy can sustain a degrowth society (Trainer 2022), especially considering the aspirational and theoretical nature of a degrowth society. That is, it remains unclear what such a society will look like and what will be produced in it, how it will be produced and by whom. In this case, renewable energy use needs to be combined with other practices, such as sufficient and efficient production. Another important practice is producing goods which are durable and repairable. This means deviating from single-use products and packaging (including near-single-use products such as fast fashion and fast furniture), planned obsolescence and other common but destructive practices. Production of durable and repairable items can support the efforts of degrowth-compatible social movements. As described in Chapter 4, such movements may include the zero-waste movement as well as minimalism and voluntary simplicity. Consumers who align themselves with such movements seek to engage in slower and more mindful consumption and demand durable and repairable products. In a degrowth society such movements would probably become the norm.

As mentioned above, yet another important aspect of degrowth business practice is localisation (Nesterova 2022b; Trainer 2012). Localisation is not only or simply about the shortening of supply chains, thereby improving humanity’s material transactions with nature. It is also about practising responsibility towards places and embeddedness within them. This may include understanding the local culture, knowing one’s community, understanding the rhythms of local nature and climate, the patterns of topography and the patterns of the social life. Clarke (2013: 496) notes that ‘localities are not produced and then fixed in perpetuity, but get made, unmade and remade over time’. Businesses can participate in this process of making or transforming localities towards more ecological ones, rendering them better places to dwell in for humans and non-humans alike.

Turning to social interactions between people, they would undergo a significant transformation in degrowth business. Non-hierarchical organisation can enable democratic decision-making where everyone can participate in the process of business transformation. Interactions between businesspeople should be aimed at wellbeing, learning and fulfilment in the process of production rather than competition. Replacing competition with cooperation and collaboration could likewise facilitate knowledge sharing and mentoring of fellow workers. Improved social interactions between business and the surrounding community can materialise if a business considers not only the location where it is, but also the place. The notion of a place goes far beyond that of a location (Tuan 1979, 2001) in that a place is defined as a ‘particular location that has acquired a set of meanings and attachments’ (Cresswell 2009: 169). Business, alongside its customers and participants in networks, can develop a shared meaning, for instance, exemplified in a collective desire for harmonious coexistence. Also, it can arrange economic interactions in ways making co-existence possible. This requires expanding the notion of social interactions beyond the ones internal to business to also include the interactions between the business and its ‘outside’.

Next, we contrast existing social structures with what could be transformative structures both within and outside business. Usually, social structures are seen as constraining towards degrowth business. This is indeed so if the social system is seen as uniformly capitalist and homogeneous. However, within contemporary societies and economies, a diversity of structures and practices exists (Chapter 2; see also Gibson-Graham and Dombroski 2020). Some social structures can be empowering towards degrowth businesses. Such structures include formal and informal networks as well as the presence of like-minded businesses and customers (or even activists and politicians) who share similar worldviews and are likewise on a journey towards a society living in harmony with nature. Business as a social structure can be organised in a variety of forms. As we discussed above, no form is perfect, and the plurality of forms should be highlighted. No matter which forms a degrowth business assumes, its ownership patterns should be fair and transparent.

While many businesses exist as abstract and mobile entities in the capitalist system, a degrowth business is embedded within other social structures in its location. Such embeddedness may be multi-scalar and refer to the business’s own location, the broader region and nature at large. Embeddedness of a business is unavoidable. Production and service provision by degrowth businesses should be carried out for the purpose of satisfaction of genuine needs. Degrowth does not suggest that only basic needs must be satisfied, although satisfaction of basic human needs of all humans sufficiently is non-negotiable and should become a priority.

While indeed there is much that businesses can do by themselves, for example by organising networks or working with suppliers and distributors with similar worldviews, a range of policies could also assist business participation in the transformation of societal structures. Policies can target various levels of business. Universal basic income can facilitate the creation of small businesses engaged in artisanal and craft production. It can offer humans some ‘breathing space’ to deviate from their current, often meaningless, employment (Graeber 2018) and do something in which they find meaning and fulfilment, for example, turn their existing hobby into a small business. The costs, both in terms of identity and income, of quitting a job and establishing a degrowth-inspired business instead, are rather high. In the capitalist system, the risk is likewise high. A basic income and the provision of universal basic services can counter some of this risk.

Currently, policies facilitate conventional, capitalist dynamics. For instance, they aim to support growing businesses which comply with the capitalist definition of success and that can demonstrate growth aspirations. Support should be given to a much wider range of businesses, including those businesses which operate in desirable sectors (such as organic agriculture) and those which do not seek to grow. Below we argue that a degrowth business is not necessarily a non-growing one, yet non-growing businesses should receive more recognition. In the capitalist setting, businesses often seek growth not due to a certain desire to sustain capitalism, but rather to address the issue of borrowing and debt. This dynamic is externally imposed. Addressing interest repayment can be a way of facilitating businesses that are more degrowth compatible. Policies in the current system likewise target technological innovation and digitalisation. Some argue that in a degrowth society the focus would be on appropriate and even simplified technology rather than high technology (Heikkurinen 2018; Heikkurinen and Ruuska 2021; Nesterova 2021b). Further to this, policies can provide support for businesses which make use of lower technology. Having said that, no consensus exists as regards the relationship between technology and degrowth. It may be that some technological innovations can serve degrowth transformations, for example by facilitating a more effective sharing of existing resources, items and food, gifting, borrowing and lending existing goods, organising for degrowth, learning about degrowth and sharing experiences.

Finally, degrowth business transformations would also pertain to the plane of inner being. This plane has so far not received much attention in the field of degrowth (Brossmann and Islar 2020; Buch-Hansen and Nesterova 2023). A reason for this may be that degrowth scholarship seeks to deviate from methodological individualism, that is, explaining what happens in society with reference to the actions of individual humans. The degrowth discourse often emphasises social structures and systems and humanity’s material transactions with nature, thus tending to overlook people’s inner life. Degrowth advocates tend to suggest that to transition towards a degrowth society, humans need to organise with others, collaborate and cooperate. While we have no argument with this, it is also important to recognise that there are differences between individuals. For this reason, it is important that degrowth business is diverse and allows different people to choose different forms of business, production and provision which can be more or less collective, ranging from being self-sufficient to relying on networks and communities.

We would contend that growth in people’s inner being is universally required for transformations towards degrowth to become reality. This applies equally to businesspersons and employees of businesses. Such growth may signify a shift towards harmonious coexistence between humans and nature, and hence make the degrowth business practices outlined above appealing to businesspersons and employees. Orientation towards harmonious coexistence is in stark contrast with what the current capitalist system promotes: short-term goals, overproduction and overconsumption, monetary gains, power and status seeking, and materialism. Implementation of degrowth business practices, which often go against the norms of the capitalist system, is a daunting process. However, growth in people’s inner being would make this process meaningful and valuable. Such growth is a journey. Undoubtedly, as indicated above, business transformation should be seen in a similar way.

It is disempowering and unnecessarily pessimistic to assume that currently businesses are not doing anything to contribute to making degrowth society reality and that profit maximisation is the only pursuit businesspersons have. Typically, degrowth is not explicitly considered by businesses, but multiple practices that businesses currently engage in and multiple principles according to which they operate are degrowth compatible. An absence of the word ‘degrowth’ or a lack of knowledge about this concept does not mean that something akin to degrowth is not unfolding in the pockets and niches of the capitalist system and in the ways agents relate to the world, including within businesses.

It is important to remember that businesses are communities of humans. While the degrowth discourse revises every premise of mainstream economics and assumes that ‘economic man’ is a false and misleading model of a human being (see Chapter 4), it at the same time assumes that those involved in business, especially owner-managers, are ‘economic men’ working intentionally towards the reproduction of capitalist structures. Empirical work reveals that this is not the case, even if it may be the case in some businesses (e.g., Nesterova 2021a). Individuals are different and they employ a great diversity of practices in their businesses. Like other humans, owner-managers and employees are in their own ways trying to navigate the capitalist landscape and have varying views in terms of personal practice, politics, and how they relate with others, nature and non-humans. In their capacity as consumers, hardly any degrowth scholars are able to practise degrowth fully and live according to the principles we advocate (see also Ehrnström-Fuentes and Biese 2022). It is likewise unfair to expect that businesses can be fully degrowth compatible in the capitalist system.

In conclusion: growth vs non-growth

In the early development of the degrowth discourse, it was common to translate the goal of an overall reduction in matter and energy throughput into the notion that non-growth is necessary at the level of business. The relationship between humanity’s reduction in matter and energy throughput and the so-called microeconomic level is, however, much less straightforward. Moving towards an economic system that functions within planetary boundaries does not mean that no businesses can grow or indeed that consumption cannot increase in some cases. In other words, a degrowth business is not necessarily a business which does not grow (although it can also be a non-growing business). Imposing non-growth on businesses, especially micro and small business, is oversimplifying and mathematising the issue – something that was common in earlier growth-critical scholarship (see e.g., Daly and Townsend 1993). It is more fruitful to pay attention to the quality, nature and journey of a business as a community of individuals who are trying to navigate the capitalist landscape, hopefully towards a better world. Moreover, mathematising the issue and prescribing, for instance, how many items a business can produce or how many employees it can have, requires bureaucratic oversight and top-down control. The questions then arise of who would be overseeing and enforcing such rules or guidelines, how much power they would have and whether a market would be created for trading various permits for quantities. A change in values and culture, whereby individuals internalise non-capitalist pursuits, appears to be a more sustainable option in relation to a long-term change.

As we noted in the book’s Introduction, growth in some parts of a degrowth economy is in fact desirable and necessary. For instance, growth in the number and size of businesses involved in organic agriculture does not contradict degrowth. Craft and artisanal production is also often highlighted positively in the degrowth discourse (Nørgård 2013; Soper 2020). It may thus be expected that the number of such businesses would grow, and that existing businesses of this sort could expand their production and employ several more people. New possibilities in the built environment open spaces for alternative buildings and modes of living, thus new businesses may be established in this industry, just as existing ones may grow (Nesterova 2022a). This does not mean that no limits should be placed on business. For example, allowing businesses to turn into transnational corporations is counterproductive for a degrowth economy.

Overall, a more holistic approach to business growth needs to be taken. The scientific community as well as practitioners may consider deviating from the growth vs non-growth binary and see the question of growth in more processual terms. For instance, a business may grow in some periods of time when a new and good idea arises but maintain its capacity in other periods of time. Other businesses may not want to grow (Nesterova 2020b). Some businesses face increasing demand which they cannot satisfy since satisfaction of this demand comes at a cost of reduced quality of life. Still others may want to remain a certain size but are forced to expand to meet their debt obligations. A degrowth economy should offer more space for creativity and imagination as well as flexibility in engaging in business ventures. As consumers also transform their ways of relating with the world towards harmonious co-existence and thus consuming less, some businesses may naturally reduce their product ranges and even shrink. For such an attitude towards business growth to become reality, culture needs to change. Currently business growth is seen in hierarchical terms, as necessarily better than non-growth or more creative growth, or growth to a certain limit. Business growth is seen as a manifestation of success and entrepreneurial abilities. Transformations towards a degrowth economy require that such logics are challenged and deconstructed. This has major implications for business education including that in business schools and economics departments as well as in other fields of knowledge which derive from economics and business (such as economic geography).

Note

1 By a business we mean a social entity which produces and provides services. While recently a number of scholars have taken an interest in degrowth organisations (e.g., Vandeventer and Lloveras 2021), we avoid the use of the term ‘organisation’ in this context due to this term being even broader. That is, an organisation can encompass such greatly diverse social forms as, for example, religious organisations, informal organisations or institutions. A business can be seen as an organisation of production and service provision, and some organisations are engaged in business practices, community-supported agriculture being an example.
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Deep transformations

A theory of degrowth

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