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The green growth myth

Safia Minney MBE on why business and finance need to go beyond ESG
Safia Minney

Main image credit: Dvora Photography

This article first appeared in our COP27 special issue of My Green Pod Magazine, published on 11 November 2022. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

Since COP26, there’s been a lot of excitement about how Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) will save us.

These standards – that are beginning to measure a company’s transparency, accountability and impact on society and the environment – are being paired with ‘green growth’ and served up as a solution to the climate crisis. There are many reasons why this approach will fail to avert ecological and social collapse.

For starters the ESG standards don’t go far enough. Administered well, they would at best represent a minimum baseline expectation of how businesses should operate.

At the same time ‘green growth’ is not green at all; extensive research supports the ‘efficiency paradox’ that as efficiency improves, we consume and extract materials at an ever-faster rate.

Our obsession with growth has led us to overshoot six out of nine planetary boundaries. It is dangerous and immoral to assume that unproven technology will save us; we need to redesign every industry so each sector is able to operate within the finite limits of Earth’s resources. This will mean demonstrating the benefits of degrowth.

Transforming trade

Whether you’re studying economics or working in business, there’s a moment of shock when you realise that the theory and thinking is out of date and doesn’t match reality – that trade and finance are stitched up in favour of the wealthy and that most levers and systems point away from building a sustainable and fairer society.

That’s why I built a Fair Trade company; transforming trade is key to delivering human rights, regenerative agriculture and the protection of nature.

Laws and regulations can help to create the rapid overhaul of trade and finance we so desperately need; on 14 September, the European Commission issued its legislative proposal to ban the marketing of goods made with forced labour, which is big step in the right direction.

Product passports, regulation around EPR, greenwash and product longevity and a clampdown on unpaid corporate and billionaires’ taxes could finance a just transition, and begin to correct the market in favour of sustainable production.

We must also look at consumption, and build new narratives around how each of us can live in a way that creates less than two tonnes of CO2 per year.


Safia’s new book, Regenerative Fashion, will be available online and from all good book shops from the end of November. Part guide and part manifesto, this book shares stories of our interconnectedness with the natural world and each other. It is divided into sections on Nature & Materials, People, Livelihoods & Crafts and New Economy & Leadership.

Fossil fuels in fashion

Responsible businesses and financial institutions must work together and lobby government to rapidly transition away from fossil fuels.

The fashion industry is heavily reliant on fossil fuels; synthetic materials account for two-thirds of all materials and the pesticides, dyes, fabric finishes, packaging, distribution and energy used to power the mills, plants and factories require fossil fuels, too.

There are low-impact ways to produce materials that have a high social impact and support regenerative farming and craft production.

To help slow fashion down, we will need to buy mostly secondhand while also opting to rent and repair clothes.

We must reduce what we buy new by 75% and redesign the fashion industry so it, too, operates within the planet’s boundaries.

Many leaders in the fashion industry are keen to share best practice, so earlier this year we launched a bottom-up, global movement called Fashion Declares, which now has over 700 signatories.

It’s time to act

Life is hanging by a thread, and Earth cannot sustain anything other than regenerative business. The rest will be choked off by laws, regulations and taxes; customers and employees will choose to walk, and finance and insurance will become expensive due to supply chain and reputational risk.

Last year our former Prince Charles – our new King – called on world powers ‘to engage in a war-like footing to tackle the climate crisis, with a military-style campaign…and to move the private sector into action on environmental issues’.

Business is ready, finance is catching up and government needs to embrace new economics.

We must act take action now, by transitioning rapidly from fossil fuels, building new models of consumption and production and regenerative economies.

For this to happen, we must recognise that women must be equally represented in leadership, as they are natural system-thinkers.

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