Live Chat: How can we move beyond GDP?

By Rachel Brown

Sustainable Business Network CEO Rachel Brown: "A shift in values from a welfare state to a wellbeing state holds great potential for rethinking economic progress." Photo / Getty Images
Sustainable Business Network CEO Rachel Brown: "A shift in values from a welfare state to a wellbeing state holds great potential for rethinking economic progress." Photo / Getty Images

What will New Zealand look like in 2025? With a host of challenges such as climate change, an ageing population, inequality, our economic resilience, and increased pressure on our land, air and water, the only certainty is that we will have to do things differently. We can no longer look at wellbeing through the narrow lens of GDP growth. To see genuine progress, and genuine prosperity, we have to look at progress in broader social, environmental and economic terms.

Over the coming weeks, Element and the Centre for NZ Progress will host conversations to explore what real progress means to New Zealanders. Each week we will focus on a different issue under the four streams of economic, social, environmental and democratic progress.

We will hear the ideas of a diverse collection of thinkers, experts and leaders, from New Zealand and around the world, and we will create a space for you to share your ideas.

Join Sustainable Business Network CEO Rachel Brown for a live chat about wellbeing economics and moving past GDP from 5.30pm tonight.

Rachel Brown. Photo / Supplied
Rachel Brown. Photo / Supplied

Defining economic progress using gross domestic product (GDP) as our key measure is seriously flawed and will continue to lead New Zealand into decline across economic, social and environmental fronts.

This isn't just the mantra of left-wing economists and NGO community any more.

In the last month we have seen the release of reports and calls for change from mainstream financial advisors Standard and Poor's (warning about the long-term economic costs associated with income inequality) and Lincoln University academics Paul Dalziel and Caroline Saunders, calling for broader national measures for wellbeing progress.

How is New Zealand doing?

So what is wrong with using GDP to measure our financial success? According to the government, New Zealand has weathered the global financial crisis pretty well compared to many other countries and our GDP in recent times has been looking favourable. We're doing OK, aren't we?

The issue is, when you look closely at GDP, it doesn't tell the full story of economic progress. It neglects to measure the things that really matter to people - things like healthcare, safety, a clean environment, equality and a host of other indicators of wellbeing - issues that also impact our economic performance.

GDP is essentially just a sum of national spending and it is not able to make distinctions between transactions that add to wellbeing, those that undermine it, and those that do not involve an economic transaction (like voluntary work).

GDP doesn't account for negative factors such as inequity of income and the cost of crime or pollution. Amnesty International's latest figures show in the last 30 years the rate of child poverty in New Zealand has almost doubled, despite the fact GDP has been growing steadily over the same time period.

Amnesty International figures suggest the rate of child poverty has almost doubled in the last 30 years. Photo / Getty Images
Amnesty International figures suggest the rate of child poverty has almost doubled in the last 30 years. Photo / Getty Images

The rise of 'wellbeing economics'

This isn't a new discussion. In the mid-1990s, an international movement began redefining progress using a set of genuine progress Indicators with local academics including Marilyn Waring, Ross McDonald and others participating in global discussions about genuine progress. Bhutan led the way by creating its own national happiness index.

A new framework that's emerging internationally to better understand economic policy is wellbeing economics. In their new book on the topic, Dalziel and Saunders say the purpose of economic activity should be to promote the wellbeing of people. Instead of measuring economic growth for its own sake, we should be measuring how well the economy enables all New Zealanders to "lead the kind of lives they value and have reason to value".

Wellbeing economics aims to address issues like unemployment and poverty directly, rather than assuming these problems will be solved automatically with higher economic growth.

I believe this type of thinking, with a shift in values from a welfare state to a wellbeing state holds great potential for rethinking economic progress.

The argument is lent greater weight by the new report from Standard & Poor's, which claims inequality is holding back the US economy. The wealthy tend to save their money rather than spend it, while the poor have limited money to spend. At the same time, cuts are made to spending on education and infrastructure, which makes economic forecasts even gloomier. Sound familiar? This is a salutary warning to New Zealand: if we don't address inequality, it's likely to impact on future economic growth.

How do we put a price on clean air, water and land - and how does that fit with existing industries? Photo / Getty Images
How do we put a price on clean air, water and land - and how does that fit with existing industries? Photo / Getty Images

What price for clean water, air and land?

When we consider the growing number of social, equity, access and environmental issues we face, our measures of progress and wellbeing need a radical overhaul.

The challenge in shifting to a fuller measure of our economic and wellbeing performance has been around 'pricing' things to fit an existing economic framework. What is the cost of depleting natural resources, dirty water and air, or declining social conditions?

In the sustainability sphere, attempts to value nature have increased in intensity. The theory is that by putting a price on the natural world, it will be protected through market mechanisms. We've already seen examples of prices being put on the environment in New Zealand, such as the emissions trading scheme, however the pricing is low and so often leads to environmental outcomes which are far worse.

But it is very tricky to get this right. Individual benefits often are much greater than those of the local community. How do we put a price on clean water, air and land?

To quote the cautionary words of Guardian columnist George Monbiot, "what we are talking about is giving the natural world to the City of London, the financial centre, to look after. What could possibly go wrong?"

New forms of business reporting

We need some way of allowing ethics and shared values (people, planet and community) to have a stronger place above economics. We need to work at integrating social and environmental indicators into measures of economic progress so that we can value what really matters.

A small number of businesses are attempting to do this via integrated reporting which, when done really well, provides a much deeper and comprehensive assessment of an organisation's activities beyond traditional financial reporting, by recognising the value that exists in other areas.

There has been some excellent work by the New Zealand Post Group, which has recently produced the first integrated report in New Zealand. It selected six areas of value, which it termed 'our people', 'our environment', 'our relationships', 'our networks', 'our finances' and 'our expertise'. For each, the company explained how it has been creating value and how it plans to keep doing so over the medium- and long-term. This turns a traditional sustainability report into an informative strategic tool with much broader metrics beyond pure financials.

Other companies around the world adopting integrated reporting include household names such as Unilever, Marks & Spencer, Microsoft, Volvo, Coca Cola and Deutsche Bank. I look forward to increasing numbers of New Zealand companies following suit.

 Social enterprise Te Whangai Trust operates a commercial plant nursery as well as environmental services. Photo / Supplied
Social enterprise Te Whangai Trust operates a commercial plant nursery as well as environmental services. Photo / Supplied

At the values end of the scale, there are a large number of small businesses whose raison d'être has been to address social or environmental issues. They have embedded social and/or environmental solutions into the fabric of their business models. Te Whangai Trust, for example, operates a commercial plant nursery that trains people who are long-term unemployed, ex-offenders and at-risk young people to grow native plants that are sold, together with environmental services. They have established a robust model that returns social, environmental, cultural and financial benefits to their organisation and the community where they're based.

At the Sustainable Business Network, we're well underway with a work stream focused on embedding social value into business models, together with work streams on the circular economy, smart transport and restoring New Zealand's food system.

We're adapting a new campaign called The Big Shift and the 'Six Steps to System Change' Framework, created by our UK partner Forum for the Future, that will take into account different values - social, environmental and financial.

Collaboration is critical to achieving the significant progress required across all sectors to improve New Zealand's performance across all fronts. We're working with businesses, government, academics and NGOs to understand the issues and find solutions. Using The Big Shift (#theBIGshift), we will identify practical steps to bring change.

We'll be launching this campaign at our conference Project NZ: The Big Shift in Auckland on September 17-18. Pioneering businesses will explore where New Zealand sits on the path to a model economy and identify opportunities for genuine progress.

Business has a pivotal role to play. I am optimistic that this decade will mark a turning point, with business starting to bring about a big shift in genuine economic progress. I am yet to be convinced that we can successfully use existing economic models to put a value on non-financial things like nature or wellbeing but I will watch with interest.

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