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#ebbf2013 – friday morning, what are the principles underlying a sustainable attitude?

Victoria Thoresen, IEF board member, director of PERL (The Partnership for Education and Research about Responsible Living), and Associate Professor of Education at Hedmark University College, Norway, gave the first keynote of the second day of the ebbf/IEF conference, asking, `How can work on sustainable consumption and production empower individuals, organisations, businesses, and institutions to co-create sustainable wealth in responsible ways?’

Thoresen reviewed the history of wealth, which she defined as an abundance of valuable resources: property, produce and people.

Victoria Thorensen

She noted the changes in our economic system over time. For example, she said, when her mother passed away recently, she found a large number of family papers revealing that her American grandmother grew up in a home that kept slaves. She was shocked! She reflected that while slavery is today considered outside the economic system, slaves were an integral part of the economic system of the American south. How else to plant and pick the cotton, till the soil, keep the masters in luxury? They were accepted part of the economic system and no one could think how to manage without them – it was the way the economic system worked at the time. But it was unsustainable, so it was challenged and a new economic system, without slaves, was developed and accepted.

We are in a similar situation today. The present economic system is also based on unsustainable assumptions and characteristics. So it too is being challenged and is changing.

For example, today everything is about competition – the idea that `I can beat you’. The whole society is based on this. But, Thoresen said, while we continue to measure the `real’ world in terms of monetary wealth, there is a revived interest in redefining `wealth’ in terms other than purely material/monetary ones. Our daily choices of the products we buy, she said, influence the physical and social environment but these choices are now unsustainable. So, she asked, is this a shift in understanding and action that we must begin or is it already happening?

There are some controversial ideas about the how a new economic model might look. For instance, Tim Jackson has suggested that we need prosperity without growth, that we have to redefine prosperity and develop ways in which people can flourish with justice (Prosperity Without Growth, 2009).

Thoresen outlined the ways the economic system is changing from different perspectives: the human perspective, the technical perspective and systems perspective. But, significantly a valuesbased/spiritual perspective is also emerging.

The human perspective envelopes the concept that people are the real wealth of nations. Thoresen cited the Human Development Index, which provides indicators of social empowerment, security and economic growth and focuses on both human and social capital. Another example is the Millennium Development Goals, which are to realised by 2015 and the post MDGs, which are still under discussion. But the MDGs are still stuck in the old model of the economy. The development world itself does not know how to reach its goals – they think business will save them – but it will not be business as usual, but a new kind of business based on a different set of values.

The technical perspective takes in natural assets such as the land, forests, minerals; human assets, including education and skills; and physical (manufactured) assets. Thoresen pointed out the sustainability assessment indicators, such as living conditions, social inclusion, ecological footprints, and CO2 impact; as well as resource efficiency, including water, soil, air, forests, biodiversity and so on.

Thoresen asked participants whether any of them used international standards in their businesses and a number of hands went up. She highlighted particularly International Standard ISO26000 on Social Responsibility, which covers issues of particular interest to ebbf members: organizational ethics, ethical consumerism, stakeholder involvement, accountability and transparency.

The systems perspective of wealth is wellbeing in relation to systems. She referred to The World Happiness Report and Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index, which measures the population’s general level of well-being. Western audiences did not recognize many of the indicators in the GNH Index, as they refer to spiritual practices such as prayer and meditation and fasting which are not well understood or practised in the West. Thus western analysts adapted the index to bring in `psychological’ indicators, rather than spiritual ones.

Yet it is the value-based/spiritual perspective that is now emerging as an important way of understanding how the economy will change. This perspective embraces social justice, including wealth distribution, equity, collective trusteeship, generosity. It is about imbuing material actions with a sense of spiritual purpose. True wealth, Thoresen said, is the acquisition of spiritual qualities.

She listed the basic principles for the co-creation of sustainable wealth, providing a value base for co-creation of sustainable wealth:

  1. Connectivity and cohesion: Empathy as a source of global cohesion: collective identification, a quest for universal belonging, a composite of concern, compassion and commitment

  2. Transference and transmutation:

  3. Adaptation: Collective social learning based on consultation, where you are open to new ideas

  4. Finiteness: Moderation and sharing as means of managing resources

Thoresen told the story of her father, who worked in a factory making chicken pot pies. His sole task, day after day, was to put the chicken into the pies. He was totally bored with his job. Then one day he was allowed to do other tasks and his enthusiasm for the job increased. It is now well documented that to increase the welfare, productivity and happiness of workers, their tasks need to be diversified.

Accumulating true wealth involves:

  1. Stimulating a transformation of both our inner life and external conditions.

  2. Becoming more fully human and achieving a dynamic coherence between material and nonmaterial requirements of life.

  3. Cooperating: Developing trust and compassion and inspiring the capacity for service

  4. Learning flexibility: Recognizing that our understanding changes and grows.What we once thought was right may not always be so.

  5. Fostering a vibrant community life in neighbourhoods and villages, characterized by such a keen sense of purpose.

Thoresen’s talk stimulated a lot of discussion around the question of values, making changes in a business environment and what true wealth actually is. You can view the slides form her talk below.

Don’t forget, you can always keep in touch following the #ebbf2013 hashtag on Twitter and other social media platforms

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