Business of Deep Transformations
A Non-binary Approach
The world is facing ecological and social degradation. This provokes reflection on how societies can become genuinely sustainable. Transformation or radical change has become a widely debated topic. In the words of Maxton (2018, p. 35), a «sustainable economic system requires radical change in almost everything people consider normal». Transformation also concerns business.
Perhaps the most radical discourse that contemplates transformations is offered by degrowth. Originally degrowth was conceptualised as a reduction in production and consumption. But a more recent definition entails «deep transformations occurring on all four interrelated planes of social being [material transactions with nature, social structure, social relations, people’s inner being], on different scales and in all sites, guided by gentleness and care, towards a society co-existing harmoniously within itself and with nature» (Buch-Hansen and Nesterova, 2023, p. 8). As such, degrowth has begun to address the question of business transformations. The ideas offered by degrowth in the business domain vary from imagining what degrowth business could look like to questioning the existence of business in a degrowth society (Nesterova, 2020; Nesterova and Robra, 2022). Transforming business into degrowth business means rethinking all business practices that concern nature, society, and profits. For many degrowth advocates, leaving conventional business behind altogether as a form of organisation means placing hope in alternative forms of production and distribution such as community gardens and foraging.
While this radical rethinking of business practices has provoked interesting conversations and research, other valuable and sustainability-minded strands of thoughts have been flourishing in parallel to rather than in dialogue with degrowth. Some began to contemplate the role of sufficiency (what is enough) in business (Beyeler and Jaeger-Erben, 2022; Niessen and Bocken, 2021), others,
The dialogues between
and other approaches to genuine
have not been as prominent
as they should be.
the role of circularity (how to close resource loops and keep materials in use as long as possible) (Bauwens, 2021; Geissdoerfer et al., 2020). The dialogues between degrowth business and other approaches to genuine business sustainability have not been as prominent as they should be: all these approaches aim to understand how a sustainable society can be achieved, even though their philosophical and ideological underpinnings vary. We invite our readers to join us on the path of synthesising more radical business thought with more realistic ways of thinking by being open to knowledge from different traditions and imagining business transformations as an imperfect and even conflicted journey.
Journey-like transformations in business
Contemplating a genuinely sustainable business may take the form of presenting a list of practices: it would produce only for human needs, use natural materials and renewable energy, and be characterised by flat hierarchies and worker-ownership, and so on. It is not a futile exercise to imagine what a perfectly sustainable business would look like. In our research on degrowth, business, sufficiency, and circularity, we notice that sustainability-orientated entrepreneurs are curious to see such lists. As teachers, we notice how presenting business in such terms is liberating for students passionate about societal transformation. Yet, in reality, it is highly unlikely that businesses can adopt all those characteristics, at least not within the framework of a growth-orientated capitalist system from which businesses must currently ultimately start. And, while it may be helpful to have an ideal in mind, it appears fruitful to reflect on how this ideal or some constellation of its features can be achieved in practice. To give a comparison from daily life, it is impossible to be a perfectly sustainable consumer: sustainable practices co-exist at different times with less sustainable practices. We believe, many of our readers can empathise with this. To be a perfectly sustainable business is as challenging as being a perfectly sustainable consumer. This is particularly so considering that sustainability is not at the heart of the capitalist system or its logic, rules, or structures.
Non-binary thinking is a
more gentle and empathetic approach
that may promote stepping
on the path of transformations.
Instead of theorising a sustainable business, this contemplation leads us to see such a business as a process of navigating capitalist and diverse landscapes (Nesterova, 2022). The landscapes are diverse since capitalism differs from country to country, and alternatives exist in parallel with capitalistic social entities and structures. This journey is characterised by trial and error, difficult choices, and nuance. To capture the nuance of the journey, we adopt non-binary thinking. Binary thinking is reflected in viewing a business in either/or terms, such as degrowth/not degrowth, high tech/low tech. Non-binary thinking is a more gentle and empathetic approach that may promote stepping on the path of transformations rather than not engaging with them due to a belief that perfection cannot be achieved anyway. Non-binary thinking invites us to see business as combining some degrowth business elements with more conventional elements imposed by capitalism, such as the need to make a profit. For instance, a constellation of elements can look as follows. A for-profit business can be small, eco-social, non-growing (Liesen et al., 2015), and might instead look for alternative spaces outside capitalism, such as working with activists or like-minded organisations (Beyeler and Jaeger-Erben, 2022). This approach also invites us to see growth in a more nuanced way: not all types of growth are bad (Buch-Hansen and Nesterova, 2023). In terms of more conventional growth, e.g., numbers of employees or productive capacity, growth is not necessarily linear: at some points, businesspersons decide it is time for the business to grow while at other times not.
With regard to technology, within the post-growth discourse, there are positions that trace ecological and social degradation to technology (Heikkurinen and Ruuska, 2021) and propose low technology and highly localised futures (Trainer, 2012). However, reality is much more complicated. Higher technologies may be helpful. For instance, digitalisation can help optimise the use of energy and facilitate the maintenance and redistribution of goods. This optimisation needs to be viewed in the context of its limits: considering questions of ownership and data protection, and keeping the goals of digitalisation focused on societal needs. Often, businesses combine high and low technologies, but the process of figuring out which level of digitalisation is appropriate is replete with uncertainty, doubt, and conflicting information.
Engaging in dialogue
The complexity of transformation we outlined above requires empathetic and genuine communication between different schools of thought within sustainability as well as between academics and practitioners. Binary thinking means that opportunities for cooperation are missed, or their potential is not fully explored. Since the goal is shared, this lack of engagement is counter-productive. This counter-productivity has been noticed by scholars, who invite us to explore more radical and normative futures (e.g., Dzhenghiz et al., 2023). Moreover, academics presenting the ideal (and thus unachievable) wish list of practices to the general public and practitioners might put them off rather than inspire action.
Focusing on the process demonstrates empathy and understanding towards the challenges businesses experience. Often, businesses are aware of the nuance and downsides of their practices.
Dialogues should focus
on multi-party conversations.
Too often, the temptation seems to be to view businesspeople as beings «whose living humanity has been thoroughly excavated» (Perlman, 1983, p. 31) while romanticising other forms of organisations such as cooperatives and community gardens. The reality is much more complex and varies from organisation to organisation, as does the constellation of practices, worries, and attempts to navigate complex and diverse landscapes. We call for exercising empathy and understanding as well as engaging in dialogues. While engaging signifies involvement, care, and compassionate presence, dialogues should focus on multi-party conversations where academia can present its ideas and ideals and businesspeople can share challenges and contradictions they experience on the journey towards genuine sustainability.
Non-binary thinking is more theoretically ephemeral since it requires us to be sensitive to conflictual practices unfolding in the same space and to constant becoming of business. It means transcending dualisms and seeing how different and conflicting practices co-exist and interact as well as trying to understand why things are as they are and what is unfolding in the minds of the humans who try to handle this co-existence of different practices. As a start, dialogues between degrowth and circular economy scholars can become normalised rather than be held in parallel. Collaborative projects can involve real businesses, including businesses that share degrowth scholars’ concern about ecological degradation but that also seek solutions currently available, such as circular processes and designs. Such dialogues and projects can also be used to share ideas and perspectives on an appropriate level of digitalisation that meets societal needs. Importantly, when considering transformations on the microeconomic level, the context needs to be remembered. The dialogues we propose unfold within the context of a capitalist system, and while inevitably the current system is where we must start transformations, transformations must improve the system. Involvement of businesses and academics is not enough: transformation is a function of civil society, state, and business (Buch-Hansen et al., forthcoming).
About the authors
- Dr. Iana Nesterova is a postdoctoral researcher at Aalto University School of Business, Department of Management, and a practitioner of voluntary simplicity. Her research focuses on the role of business in degrowth transformations
- Laura Beyeler is PhD researcher at Brandenburg University of Technology Cottbus-Senftenberg, Germany. With her research in sufficiency, she explores how businesses and their ecosystems can act to reduce production and consumption volume.
- Laura Niessen is a PhD researcher at the Maastricht Sustainability Institute, Maastricht University (the Netherlands). Her research focuses on how businesses can support sustainable consumption levels through promoting sufficiency.
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