An eye-opening interview with Francesco Morace, founder of Future Concept Lab, about how to reconcile economic growth and the preservation of our planet.

Degrowth theories correctly diagnosed the disease, but got the cure wrong”

Q - How can we continue growing our economies and maintain our current consumption levels, without irremediably harming our planet?

R - We all agree that our growth model over the past decades is not sustainable. In that, degrowth theorists had the correct intuition, but the cure they suggested is inapplicable. Stopping the development of world economies, and even de-scaling them, simply will not happen. Nobody is prepared to make radical concessions on their lifestyles. Being “against” industry in general, or multinationals, antagonising market economies, hasn’t produced the expected outcome and certainly didn’t win over the masses. We must think differently.

Awareness about the issue has grown tremendously in our societies, especially in the younger generations. Our consumption habits are actually changing in the light of this increased sensitivity, and in a profound way but not in the sense of a radical reduction of our social metabolism. We are not consuming less, but differently. The way we go about purchasing a new appliance, for instance, has completely changed from only a few years back. The “Fridays for future”generation, the adults of tomorrow,  is already a lot smarter and attentive in its buying decisions and is pushing the older generations into action. Industry, on its part, is quickly responding to this accelerating shift in demand towards environment-friendly products and services, not because of a new-found idealistic temperament, but because it makes good business sense. Moreover, reputation is an ever more important part of a company’s brand equity, and is now solidly linked to its sustainability stance.

In 2016, Ulrich Beck, author of  “The Metamorphosis of the World” (Polity Press, 2016) said that “climate change is transforming our concept of the world”. He also predicted that these changes in our societies would be perceived by multinationals before governments. He was right. Nowadays, while world governments still struggle to come to an agreement on the common goals to be pursued and translate them into national legislation, it is not uncommon to see large organisations include sustainability objectives, alongside financial and economic performance, in their mission statements. And the trend is on the upside.

“Digital saved exactly what it was accused of destroying: our social lives”

Q - You mention “smart” as part of the solution…

R - Yes, and that’s the second part of the equation. Smart & Sustainable is the new paradigm for a growing world economy that also effectively addresses climate change, helping to preserve and restore our natural environment. I like to call it “happy growth” (Morace, Francesco, Crescita Felice, Egea, 2015) for it does away with a sense of guilt that was hindering the debate. The digital revolution has a key role to play here. Smart technologies, big data, smart cities and our connected societies allow for an unthinkable level of precision in monitoring consumer habits and market trends, providing predictive models that help reducing waste and consumption of energy and other resources. The same instruments also serve to optimise virtually every process in our economies, and can easily be oriented towards reaching CO2 reduction objectives.

Smart is also to be intended in a bottom up perspective, as a responsible attitude on the part of each and everyone of us. A lot can be achieved through virtuous and environmentally conscious individual behaviours, from recycling and reusing to a greater attention to what we eat, to personal mobility and to the many choices we constantly make in conducting our every day lives.

The recent lockdown periods we were all forced into to varying degrees, have brought about profound changes in our behaviours over a relatively short period of time. In the recent past, such a rapid and radical transformation was absolutely unthinkable. For one thing, digital, which was accused of destroying our social lives prior to the pandemic, was the very instrument of our social salvation during the dark months of isolation.

Q - Nowadays we tend to shop less frequently, hence the need for larger fridges to store greater quantities of supplies. How does that affect our sustainability?

R - There is no right or wrong here. Variety of behaviours is vital for our developed societies. We must be free to choose what suits us best, as long as we keep climate issues in mind. On one hand, bulk buying helps save on trips to the supermarket and optimise our shopping while reducing waste, but the opposite trend is increasingly significant: Shopping more frequently, privileging local, fresh and seasonal foods that aren’t mass produced nor excessively processed. A large part of these products get consumed on a daily basis, so they don’t need such big refrigerators, which in turn leads to savings on energy consumption, raw materials and transportation. Whatever the smart personal choices, industry has a key responsibility and a central role to play in providing the smart processes and products that will eventually help us reach our sustainability objectives and win the battle for the survival of our planet.