How would a steady-state economy work?

The steady state economy is an idea that I became interested in a few years ago. What some might describe as a fringe economic movement, others might term an environmentally-responsible solution to the current unsustainable, runaway-growth mentality.

The steady-state economy proposes an alternative to an economy that seeks to expand and grow each quarter.

The idea is that – in developed, usually western, economies – many of us already have everything that we need. And if we already have everything we need, does it make sense to constantly extract more, produce more, spend more and strain the planet with more people and more things? Can the economy really grow every year, forever? At some point, should we not consider a transition to a stationary, or steady-state economy?

We live on a planet with limited resources.

Why is it a bad thing when consumer spending goes down? Why are people encouraged to go out and spend money to ‘stimulate the economy’? Encouraging the mindless consumption of cheap ‘Made in China’ goods is not good for the planet. Consider the energy that it took and pollution that it caused to create these goods, to ship them, to put them in stores… For what? So that we can buy more things that we don’t need, let them pile up in our houses and closets… and eventually donate them or send them to landfill?

What about the idea of minimalism? Of not expanding the economy, but redistributing the immense wealth that already exists? What about the billionaires who have so much wealth that they wouldn’t even notice if half of it disappeared? What about the plastic piling up in the oceans? Are we really better served by increased consumer spending?

A steady state economy is an economy of stable or mildly fluctuating size (1). An economy can reach a steady state after a period of growth, or after downsizing. A sustainable, steady state economy entails a stabilised population and stable per capita consumption. That’s not to mean that there’s no change – fluctuations may occur in the short term – but that long-term a stable equilibrium will emerge. Birth rates will approximately equal death rates, and production rates will equal depreciation rates.

With a stable population and a high quality of life for most or all citizens, a steady state economy is a more logical ambition, versus the constant expansion sought by the neoclassical macroeconomic policies. The steady state economy is also the predominant policy goal of ecological economics.

Contrary to popular belief, the steady state economy is not even actually a new idea. Various economists have long considered the transition from a growing to a stable economy, famously including John Stuart Mill, and Adam Smith in his work, The Wealth of Nations (see more on the history of the idea here).

Our economic system isn’t going to change over night, if at all, but critical reflection is an important component of it. There is benefit in initiating the conversation to consider new systems, rather than accepting the current one as a given. Capitalist economic expansion has certainly provided us with numerous benefits thus far, but consideration is warranted, as to whether this system ought to persist indefinitely into the future.

What do you think? Leave a comment and let me know.

Low impact living: Why bother?

A question that many people pose when it comes to doing small, good actions for the environment is – why bother? If it’s not convenient for me, why should I do it? My actions aren’t going to make a difference, I’m just one person.

Or another common objection, “How are you be eco-friendly if you still take flights/use a cell phone made of parts with a large negative impact/ etc.?”

I think there are three important points to make here.

The first, which I think is most relevant to me, is the idea of living in alignment with your values. As I have embraced the concept of mindfulness more in recent years, I’ve tried to become more conscious, aware and mindful of all of my choices, and the impact that they have. For me, this also meant thinking more about the waste that I produce, and trying to minimise it wherever possible. This has also meant trying to buy more of my clothes secondhand, to purchase things with less packaging, and to eliminate meat from my diet. Am I perfect? Far from it. I still buy some clothes new, I still occasionally eat fish, and I sometimes still slip up and end up having to use single-use plastic. I do what’s feasible and practical for me at this point in my life, keeping in mind the impact that my actions have, and minimising it where I can.

The point is, even if one person’s personal impact is small, I think the idea of living in line with what you believe in is worthwhile.

Secondly, and related to the first point is the ripple effect impact of one person’s actions. If through my choices I can inspire others to make small changes to their daily habits, together these small actions may add up to a larger impact.

There’s a saying, don’t doubt the power of a small group of committed people to change the world, indeed it’s the only thing that ever has. If everyone thinks that what they do personally doesn’t matter and is never going to make a difference, then of course things are never going to get any better.

Finally, I want to acknowledge the fact that while individual actions are a great starting point, and one that we have the greatest control over, what’s really going to make the difference is systemic changes, through policy and by corporations. The average person just does not have the bandwidth (money, time, willingness) to go to extreme lengths to be eco-friendly. Corporations and governments need to step up and take responsibility for making eco-friendly choices not only easy, but the default option – the only option. And one catalyst for getting them to do so will be more people making noise, caring about the issues and living those values in their own everyday lives.

What is the circular economy?

The concept of the circular economy (CE) has rapidly gained popularity over the past few years, and is currently being promoted by the EU, several national governments and many businesses around the world. There are numerous definitions of the circular economy, but perhaps the simplest is that it’s a cradle-to-cradle approach – one that aims to close the loop and bring consciousness and ownership to the entire lifecycle of a product.

It’s about manufacturers taking responsibility for their product from production through to disposal, recycling or reuse. It’s the same kind of system that many countries use for bottle recycling, for example. Bottles are sold with a small deposit fee to incentivise consumers to to bring them back, they are then collected by a retailer, shipped back to the manufacturer, cleaned and reused.

Now imagine this idea being implemented everywhere, for all kinds of products. No longer would you be left wondering what to do with old electronics that don’t work anymore, debating if you should just throw them out or spend time and effort to look up where you can recycle them, and then making a special trip to a special electronics recycling location that’s probably out of your way.

Or with clothes – H&M is one retailer that is now collecting old textiles, whether they can be reused as clothes or not. In exchange, they offer customers a discount coupon for their next purchase. Similarly, some sustainable razor companies now have programs where you can safely send back your old blades instead of throwing them away.

In this way, the circular economy aims to minimise waste, make the most of resources and reduce externalities. It’s in contrast to the traditional linear economy, which operates along a one-way chain of resource extraction, production, and disposal – which the manufacturer isn’t responsible for.

Moving away from the linear model will help promote a more sustainable society, allow us to design waste out of the system, and slowly separate productive economic activity from the consumption of finite resources.

Low Impact Lifestyle: Day 5

Started out my day strong, bringing my reusable water bottle to work again (+1 points). On the way to work I grabbed a Butterbreze from the bakery (i.e. buttered [soft] pretzel, it’s a normal breakfast in Germany, ok?), and handed over my reusable cloth bag, so no waste there: +1 points again!

For lunch, my colleague and I went to eat out and enjoy the sun on a patio. Unfortunately I’m not yet in the habit of carrying around containers for takeaway food/ leftovers, so I asked to have my pizza packed up when I couldn’t finish it. I then received my remaining pizza slices in aluminium foil. At least it wasn’t plastic or styrofoam, but still, -1 points for not yet having a reusable container for takeaway food. (Admittedly this might be kind of awkward to bust out while at lunch with colleagues.)

For dinner I ate the remaining slices of pizza, and put the aluminium foil in the recycling. Not sure whether this is really positive, but no waste appears to have been generated, and no plastic was used today.

Again, that leaves me with a score of +1. Not perfect, but not such a bad day.

P.S. Are these posts becoming boring?! Perhaps I’ll only continue to update on my low waste/ low plastic challenge if there’s an interesting development. I look forward to writing some deeper and more well-researched articles later this weekend when I have a bit more time. Until then, keep it sustainable my lovely readers! [ If you exist yet 😉 ]

Low Impact Lifestyle: Day 4

Brought my reusable stainless steel water bottle to work today – no more drinking out of plastic for this girl! +1

We made salad bowls together at work today, and I was assigned to bring feta cheese, so I did create some plastic packaging waste from the cheese. I’m not at a level yet where I’m going to make my own cheese or go to a specialty cheese shop with my own paper… So I will have to accept this small amount of waste generation for now. -1

Positively, I think that was the only waste I created all day! Dinner was aubergine with penne (plastic packaging, but it’s not empty so no waste yet) and tomato sauce from a glass jar that I look forward to keeping and reusing. I plan to buy my pasta from a cardboard box next time! (Or bulk!) +1

Impact score: I’ll give myself a +1. Not a bad day overall!

Low Impact Lifestyle: Day 3

Today I brought my whole lunch in Tupperware and didn’t buy anything new – I therefore award myself +2 points for sustainability.

I did however eat my breakfast (yogurt) out of a plastic yogurt container with a foil and plastic lid: – 1 point for sustainability.

I rode my bike to work! + 1 point for sustainability

I drank out of a plastic water bottle at work: -1 point for sustainability.

I will recycle the yogurt container, and the water bottles will be picked up, cleaned and reused: +1 point for sustainability?

I just can’t commit to making my own yogurt at this point! It’s just too much to ask of a working girl isn’t it? But maybe next time I’ll buy the yogurt in the glass jar, which has a deposit on it and is collected back at the grocery store. (Or I’ll keep it to support the burgeoning jar collection for bulk food in my cupboard).

Sustainability score for Day 4: + 2

In the positives at least, but I think I can still do even better!

Low Impact Lifestyle: Day 2

An update on my Low Impact (i.e. low waste, low plastic use) journey: Yesterday I wrote about how trying to be zero waste makes you feel like a failure multiple times a day.

Today I am proud to report two small wins. First, a colleague told me that I inspired him to purchase re-usable produce/ bakery bags. Very proud to have already influenced at least one person to make sustainable changes in their lifestyle!

Second, I left the grocery store today without any plastic or waste! To be fair, I only purchased three items, but nonetheless, goal accomplished by bringing my own bag for my buns (ciabatta rolls) and selecting package-free produce. This also ended up with me leaving with a large head of lettuce in my arms, but I was able to put it into my reusable bag once I ate the ciabatta rolls with lunch. Unfortunately I don’t like lettuce as much as arugula (rocket) or mixed greens (which were on sale), but it came without any plastic packaging, so I picked it.

One challenge still to overcome – the use of plastic water bottles in our office. I plan to speak to our office manager and ask her about the cost of the current bottle delivery/ pickup service*, and see if I can make a business case for a water filtration/ carbonation machine instead. Working in Germany, many people love to drink carbonated sparkling water, so this would be necessary to replace the current offering of flat and sparkling water bottles.

*They also pick the bottles up and supposedly clean and refill them, so it’s at least somewhat of a closed, circular supply chain, but I suspect it’s not as eco-friendly as simply having a water filtration and carbonation machine in the office and saving on all those supply chain and transportation steps.

Embarking on Low Impact Lifestyle: Day 1

As I’ve recently become interested in the zero waste and plastic-free movements, I’ve become more conscious of the products I use and the waste that I do produce. I thought it would be interesting to see how easily I could minimise my waste and my plastic use. Thinking of myself as an ‘already-fairly-environmentally-conscious’ person, I didn’t think it would be that hard – but oh how wrong I was.

I didn’t want to start off too ambitious and get discouraged, so instead of aiming for zero waste and zero plastic, I thought I’d first try consciously reducing my usage. The first step I took was to order some reusable cloth produce/ bakery bags online, and get myself a bamboo toothbrush.

Using the bags has going well. At first I felt awkward handing them to the baker to give me my buns or bread in, but I’ve never gotten more than a vaguely odd look, and they don’t seem mind using that instead of a paper bag. The trickier bit is when I buy a larger amount of bread and want to store it. Since the bags are mesh, and we don’t have a bread box, the bread doesn’t stay particularly fresh… They’re not particularly great for freezing the bread in either. Turns out plastic is pretty useful after all… For now I’ve put my bread in the freezer in a reused old plastic bread bag. Luckily in Germany it’s pretty typical just to shop fresh and only buy one or two days’ worth of bread. Otherwise I guess I’ll have to consider getting a tin or a bread box for better storage.

In general though, I do feel I’ve significantly reduced my usage of paper and mixed paper-plastic bakery bags, of which I was using a lot since I usually buy a pretzel or a bun for lunch everyday.

I’ve had somewhat less success on the toothbrush front – unfortunately it appears that the ergonomic advances in toothbrush technology over the past few decades weren’t all for nothing. My bamboo toothbrush has too much bristle-free bamboo at the end, and I always feel like I’m poking myself in the gums trying to reach my teeth at the back. Perhaps I’ll try a different one later, but for now I’ve sheepishly switched back to a plastic toothbrush with more comfortable bristle positioning and handle shape. I console myself with the fact that I only dispose of my toothbrush once every 3-4 months.

Researching and reading more from the zero waste community, I’ve come across a number of quotes that I feel aptly summarise the journey to be zero waste or plastic-free:

“Trying to go plastic-free really does have a way of making you feel like a failure multiple times a day.”

The hardest part of the journey so far seems to be that you put invest a lot of time, effort and brainpower towards small decisions that you used to not concern yourself with… and nonetheless you end up feeling like a failure multiple times a day, and having people think you’re a bit odd.

You spend twice the amount of time at the grocery store wondering things to yourself like, ‘What’s more eco-friendly, an aluminium can or a TetraPak?’ and gaze longingly at the sushi packed in single-use plastic, wondering if you could ask the sushi counter to make a new one for you and put it in your reusable container. Even then, if you’re a hardcore zero waster, you’ll still have to worry about the plastic price sticker, the wasabi package or the tiny plastic-fish soy sauce dispenser.

“Don’t EVER pack light if you want to avoid plastic. You must always bring all your accessories in your zero-waste ‘mom bag.’” 

In order to succeed, it seems as though one must always undertake a lot of planning and preparation. I made the mistake of packing too light recently. While travelling in London, I thought was only going out for breakfast, so I only brought my tiny purse and my wallet with me. Four hours later, I found myself still out, walking around the city, parched and craving water… And I eventually succumbed to a guilt-ridden purchase of a large plastic water bottle.

The learning here is that if you’re trying to be zero waste or zero plastic, you better have a full travel meal kit with you, or have planned time for dining in, even for a coffee. As one blogger puts it,

“Being zero waste is not very efficient, but you could look at it as forced relaxation.”

All in all? I’m still very much at the beginning of this journey, but I look forward to continuing to make small changes that I hope will add up to a larger impact overall. I’ll be keeping you updated on how it goes!

It takes courage, commitment, and a ****load of planning to be zero waste/ zero plastic.