Can Capitalism be tweaked to adjust to our finite planet?

Capitalism was founded on a simple principle: I create a product or service that provides you with a benefit, and you pay me. You’re rewarded with a sense of well-being, and I’m rewarded with money. Both of us walk away happy.

There are two catches, however.

The first is that we live on a finite planet. If the products and services I create for you use up our natural resources, eventually I’ll have to stop. My wealth will end, your well-being will end, and we’ll all be grumpy.

The second catch is that at some point, we seem to get less and less well-being from the stuff we buy. According to the rules (and advertising), increasing consumption should make us happier. But a number of studies seem to call that theory into question, if not refute it.

Combine the limitations of a finite planet and dubious correlation between wealth and happiness, and you see we’re overdue for a bit of a recalibration. But what could a new model look like? Does wealth provide happiness? Or vice versa?

In 1972, Bhutan’s former king coined the term Gross National Happiness. It framed his vision for an economy built on Buddhist principles, where material and spiritual development occur side by side.

Although somewhat fickle to measure, the idea captured the imagination of academics who created a GNH screen. As countries were measured for GNH, startling results began to appear. Yes, those living in poverty were made happier by money. But once people attained a lower-middle class level of financial security, more wealth didn’t seem to come with greater happiness.

Not surprisingly, the news didn’t cause our economies to grind to a halt. But with the looming threat of global resource shortages, the topic has come to the forefront again. And the GNH has inspired new measures like the Happy Planet Index, which measures well-being against ecological efficiency.

‘Beyond Growth’ Economics

In his speech at TED, Professor Tim Jackson said “We spend money we don’t have, on things we don’t need, to make impressions that don’t matter.” It’s a depressing, and ultimately self-destructive path.

If Jules Peck has his way, brands of the future will help us move away from it.

Peck, founder of Abundancy Partners in the UK, was introduced to me at this year’s Sustainable Brands conference. He works with corporations to redefine their concept of success – away from purely economic growth, and toward creating well-being for stakeholders.

Peck outlines five basic conditions that must be met for humans to feel greater well-being:

  • Connect with other people,
  • Achieve greater harmony within themselves,
  • Be more physically active,
  • Learn, and
  • Give back to society.

Granted, a single brand would be hard pressed to tick off all the boxes. But Peck believes each brand should help us achieve at least one.