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The politics of sufficiency: A new approach to ecological production

By Dirk Holemans , Maya Maes

The ecological production project of the Green European Foundation (ECOPRO) centralises its focus on the development of sustainable green technologies in a post-growth society. The core idea integral to the project is that the deployment of such green technologies would produce and maintain a green and just societal equilibrium; one that is needed in contrast to the current model we employ of damaging capitalist growth that breeds only austerity, inequality and environmental degradation.

A growing number of developments, such as the global depletion of fish stocks and climate change, make clear that we ask more than the earth can give or carry. And greening our existing economy won’t reverse this systemic crossing of borders: making production processes merely more (eco-)efficient only leads to more production and consumption. People just drive more kilometres with more efficient cars. In essence, our GDP-growth focused economy, which has been very successful in the 20th century, does not deliver its promises anymore: growing inequality and structural unemployment in the EU go hand in hand with the transgression of the planetary boundaries. Aurelie Marechal identified five big moves to go beyond growth in the Green European Journal[1]: we need to share wealth; share work; reorient financial profits towards investments in the real economy; reduce the overall scale of production and consumption; and experiment with local alternatives. However, these changes are not enough if they merely re-establish existing power relations. Real ‘ecological production’ entails different material, mental and social infrastructures, as part of the strive towards a more fair and just society. The economy would be truly embedded in society because it would be measured against the backdrop of sustainability and fairness.

A key concept for this ‘ecological production’ is sufficiency, in the frame of a post-growth society. As Alexander puts it, “Economies should seek to universalize a material standard of living that is sufficient for a good life but which is sustainable into the deep future.”[2] Research has shown that, after a certain threshold, a further growth of income (and thus material wealth) no longer increases happiness. So why should we strive for it? The ultimate goal of the politics of sufficiency is to ease production in a strong, sustainable way in order to practice sustainable lifestyles. This means encouraging social innovation and new forms of appropriate technology; to learn from international examples such as the cycling culture of Copenhagen; India‘s vegetarian culture; and so on. However, above and beyond the personal choices of individuals, the transition towards strong sustainability is immanently political. The political and economic orders should be changed so as to foster the initiatives of innovators of ecological production in order that their innovations can grow up to transformations for society.

In our vision, the ecological production manifests itself in different forms and pathways. These pathways can, when synergistically interacting, lead to a new system of social-ecological production. A factory and a product in the frame of ecological production are really different from the current ones. While these paths are constantly developing, they form together core elements of the toolbox for a new economy. Of course, the below-discussed paths do not form an exhaustive list. And while none of them provide a silver bullet solution, they can all challenge the way products nowadays are produced, used and disposed of under the current, outmoded model.

A new vision on knowledge and design: P2P

We are used to the idea that the innovation has to lead to patents and copyrights. But what if this method is just an obstacle to innovation? Why is Wikipedia more successful than the earlier copy-protected encyclopaedia? Because, in the new peer-to-peer model, dedicated citizens cooperate to create a product or a service that will make a part of their life more sustainable. Everyone can contribute to the transparent production process. The created product or service has a direct utility for the community and internalizes what would ‘normally’ be external costs, making the individual and the collective goal identical. What they create together is therefore called commons and doesn’t need to be tied to a logic of profit – although the initiative is preferably economically viable. In software, most of us know already the open source example of Linux, and there is also the hardware example of the motherboard Arduino.

And instead of patenting new products, we see the rise of open design: the information for the manufacturing of products and machines is shared in public, and people develop specific models for open design. Whether it is a table or a guitar, nowadays you can find an open design model on the internet.

A new way of producing: light, local and sustainable

Globalization has pushed the production process to the furthest corners in the world. Did you know that half of all the socks worldwide are made in one Chinese city? This is neither sustainable nor resilient. Thanks to open design, and new technologies such as 3D-printers, co-creating a product and local manufacturing it in micro-factories is becoming a real opportunity. This connects the knowledge and the innovation we envision for production: why do we protect ideas (which have no weight) and send heavy material products around the globe?[3] Let’s do it the other way: share ideas globally and produce products locally! If people can participle in micro-factories, they will only produce what they need, and so we develop economies of scope instead of scale or of sheer volume. Micro-factories could produce the products with less waste of energy and materials, and energy use and pollution caused by transport would decline.

Furthermore, if the design would be modular according to one shared grid, it becomes even easier to design and produce parts and components. By standardizing the design, the building blocks are compatible, allowing for a great variety of objects to be constructed. The company OpenStructures started in 2007 with making modular objects, such as a cargo-bike[4]. The physical parts can be reused and there is no need for expensive tools or special skills.

A different sort of using: Sharing

Besides a new way of developing and manufacturing products, there are paths that focus on the way we use products as a consumer. For instance, why would you buy a drill if you only use it twice a year? Sharing it would be a better solution. By some estimates, one rental or shared car can replace ten or even fifteen owned vehicles[5]. Sharing can reduce the use of scarce resources, reduce costs and can enhance social cohesion[6]. However, not every sharing initiative represents a viable alternative to conspicuous consumption. To be the vanguard of a new solidarity and sustainable economy, the direct sharing relationship should not be mediated by a vertical framework, which reintroduces capitalist logic. Sharing initiatives which need to respond to the demands of shareholders or venture capitalists and financial groups such as Goldman Sachs[7] (e.g. Airbnb), which do not give their clients or suppliers full information (e.g. Uber) or which use a platform that sells big data to third parties (e.g. Freecycle and Facebook), are in fact forms of share-washing, “turning a crucial response to our impending ecological crisis into another label for the very same economic logic which got us onto that crisis in the first place”.[8] Instead, it would be better if sharing initiatives follow the peer-to-peer principles, putting transparency, shared ownership and added value to the fore.

Doing business differently: Product-service systems

Another pathway approaches business goods in a different way as well: product-service systems make the utility value of a product key instead of its exchange value. Xerox has implemented this in its print service PagePack where the company asks a certain price per copy. The client does not have to buy an expensive copier but is offered a complete service, which includes the usage and maintenance of the machine. Product-service systems such as these provide sustainability of consumption and production and make profit dependent on user satisfaction. And as the company remains the owner of the machine, they are motivated it doesn’t break easily, and the dumping of old machines by the users will be prevented.

Another economic circuit: Circular economy

The aforementioned paths fit well into the transition from a throw-away economy to a circular economy.

In a circular economy, the output of one production process is designed to become the input of another, thereby minimizing waste. Biological materials will re-enter the biosphere and technical materials are designed to circulate with a minimal loss of quality. The Belgian company Umicore, for instance, turned its core business from a classical mining company into the world’s leading recycling company for rare metals. By increasing their capacity for ‘urban mining’, they attempt to close the resource loop, thus making the economy circular[9]. Of course a circular economy can still be unsustainable: workers can still be paid low wages, and a lot of energy and toxic substances can still be used in trying to close the circle. So maybe we should speak of the goal of a social-ecological circular economy.

Role of the government – towards a post-fossil democracy

Public investments and legislation have always shaped economic development, such as railway systems or automobility. It is time for governments to shift their focus to new initiatives and enable them in two ways. First of all, governments should adapt regulations to the situation which new players on the market, such as Uber, have created, in order to continue to protect society’s interest. Obstructing innovation is foolish, but replacing cab drivers by underpaid freelancers with precarious statutes is not a viable alternative. Secondly, governments should create legislative frameworks to support citizen’s initiatives. Shared ownership should be made easier, legal frameworks for crowd-funded investments are necessary, as are frameworks for the liability of P2P products[10]. So, in addition to the existing public-private partnerships, it is time to develop new public-civic partnerships.

This, of course, doesn’t stand in the way of cooperation with the private sector and preferably they would cooperate along the full value chain to achieve a performative circular economy[11]. The public sector must boost waste collection, enforce waste shipment conditions, set and enforce recycling standards and promote design that allows for a quick dismantlement of products. On the other hand, the private sector must develop new technologies and invest in new recycling capacities. Working together, both actors can increase the recycling performance, maximize the re-use of materials and minimize the leakages out of the circular economy[12].

Beyond job-creation

To create a society that permits a good life for all, a fundamental re-orientation is necessary. Many social and ecological activities are decisive for resilient communities but are not based on paid work, such as the care for others, cultural activities, volunteering in cooperatives and involvement in social or political movements. These non-paid activities sustain the economy and will become more important in the social-ecological transformation. Reducing the working hours for paid work is a necessary strategy to combat unemployment and to increase the available time for other essential human activities.

Nevertheless, having a job and earning a living remains decisive for a good life. Foreseeing how many jobs would be created in peer-production is hard because it breaks away from the classical pattern of work for pay. Job creation from recycling and reusing of valuable by-products and scraps can be reasonably expected. The European Environmental Bureau estimates that the circular economy will create additional jobs from recycling and reuse between 600 and 800,000 by 2025, depending on the ambition of the scenario[13].


The future of production does not simply consist in the transformation of big industrial plants. Neither the factory nor the product of a sustainable 21st century will resemble its predecessors. In recognizing the importance of the combination of circular and sharing economy, it also resides in the emergence of more decentralized networks of so-called micro-factories as well as non-monetary forms of economic activities and new citizen cooperatives. Experiments with new modes of ecological production are happening and different paths for ecological production are constantly developing. We consider them as inspiration for the creation of other potential paths, which ultimately form a toolbox for a new ecological economy. This new type of economy should become more embedded in society, guided by the principles of peer-to-peer and sufficiency.

The project Ecological Production in a Post-Growth Society (ECOPRO), the successor of the 2014 GEF-project Socioecological Reindustrialisation (SERIND), will explore pathways for a transition towards ecological production, as part of a sustainable economy that is low-carbon and fosters an equal society. Nine Green organizations of different European member states form a knowledge alliance to search for a multitude of context-sensitive solutions for a production 2.0. This article is a first exploration of the possibilities.

Read more about the ECOPRO project by visiting the Green European Foundation project page.


[1]    Marechal, A., No growth? Beyond growth/degrowth, Green European Journal, 03/09/12, pp. 47-55

[2]    Alexander, S., The Sufficiency Economy. Envisioning a prosperous way down, Simplicity Institute Report 12s, 2012

[3]    Brooks, S., Design for social innovation. An interview with Ezio Manzini, Shareable, 26/07/2011


[5]    Seeing the back of the car, The Economist, 22/09/2012, Autodelen: een handboek voor lokale besturen, Bond Beter Leefmilieu, 2011

[6]    True Price, Deelinitiatieven creëren miljoen euro maatschappelijke impact, 17/02/2015. The platform uses the Life Satisfaction Approach, as described in their ‘Principles on Methods for Impact Measurement and Valuation’

[7]    Holemans, D., Sharing is not always sharing, Green European Journal, 16/04/2015

[8]    Kalamar, A., Sharewashing is the new greenwashing, OpEdNews, 13/05/2013

[9]    Csoma, S., “Circular economy towards a resource-efficient society”, 24-27/05/2011

[10]  Yasir, S., Brastaviceaunu, T., Open Value Network: A framework for many-to-many innovation, Sensorica Blog, 22/11/2013

[11]  Lox, E., Thought Leader Green week 2014, The Parliament Magazine, 28/05/2014

[12]  Csoma, S., Circular economy towards a resource-efficient society, 24-27/05/2011

[13]  According to their ambitious scenario, they calculate that with intense reuse and 70 per cent of recyling, 1 out of 6 unemployed youth can get a job. European Environmental Bureau, Advancing resource efficiency in Europe, 2014