The Editors' Post: ‘Sustainability is growing up’ – degrowth takes on capitalism at ChangeNOW

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The impact world “finally talks about money”, big corporates face the big questions, and Sandrine Dixson-Declève tells us why it's “bullsh*t” to say change isn't possible – highlights from the ChangeNOW conference 2023 in Paris.

One strength of the ChangeNOW conference is that it brings together people from very different (some would say, radically opposed) backgrounds around the theme of impact – from grassroots activists to big corporations making their first steps towards sustainability. That can lead to a clash of perspectives – but it’s also where some of the most fruitful conversations happen.

At this year’s conference, held last week in Paris, a discussion on corporate social responsibility was followed by a full session on “degrowth” – the theory that we need to intentionally shrink our economy to stop overexploiting the planet, move away from GDP growth as an objective and start focusing on the planet and people’s wellbeing instead.

The speakers at the degrowth session, which I moderated, did not hold back when explaining that the root problem was the very design of business, geared towards maximising profit for shareholders. Some would argue that big corporates – some of them present on the same stage just moments before – are the epitome of this business model. 

The world of business and finance is currently built on the basis of (extractive) growth, Philippe Zaouati, the founder and CEO of Mirova, reminded us. How to dismantle a system on which the whole economy depends?

Degrowth advocates argue that since that system is collapsing anyway, there’s little choice left but to rebuild the foundations. That involves, economist Timothée Parrique suggested in his opening keynote, reconsidering capitalism itself. His point resonated with many attendees, but as someone told me afterwards – “as soon as you say something along the lines of ‘abolish capitalism’, you lose half the people in the room”. 

Indeed, while all of the 35,000 ChangeNOW delegates are aware that change is now needed (the clue is in the name), are they all ready, and importantly, able, to go far enough?

Zaouati suggested “playing judo” with finance – use your adversary’s strength against itself. Finance players have tough calls to make, but if they make the right decisions, they have the power to drive transformational change. For Melanie Rieback of Nonprofit Ventures, the only solution is to remove financial extraction out of business.

Having this diversity of points of view, both on stage and in the audience, was actually incredibly valuable. “I'm very excited by this conversation,” said Erinch Sahan of the Doughnut Economics Action Lab. “Sustainability is growing up. Finally, we’re talking about money – for two decades I've been part of this world and nobody talked money.”


“Utter bullsh*t”

Also speaking at ChangeNOW was Sandrine Dixson-Declève, the co-president of the Club of Rome. She is a champion of systems change like no other; she teaches in top business schools and works with policymakers at the European Commission; she was also an advisor to the oil and gas industry for 10 years. She doesn’t take any nonsense from anyone, and she’s the kind of person you can’t really disagree with (watch the video of our conversation if you don’t believe me).

“We don't realise just how broken our systems are” she argued. Change is scary, but it is also “incredibly hopeful” – and possible, as demonstrated by the response to the Covid pandemic, she says.

“To be told that we cannot transform is utter bullsh*t,” she insisted. “If we are going to change now, we have to realise that we already have changed.”  


This week’s top stories:

Our tainted economy: how can we overcome the ‘original sin’ of business and finance?

Ireland’s first social enterprise census reveals ‘dynamic’ sector

Is impact measurement creating a false sense of hope?


Pioneers Post is a media partner of ChangeNOW 2023.

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