#195: Emerging From Covid Into A New Wellbeing Economy with Katherine Trebeck

"Business as usual was not very good for people and planet. We need something different"

Katherine Trebeck

What is a wellbeing economy, and how will it help global markets as we emerge from Covid-19?

Katherine Trebeck, advocacy and influencing lead at Wellbeing Economy Alliance Scotland, explains that returning to “business as usual” will be disastrous for people and planet. A thrust for economic growth will see a return to austerity that will only hurt the poorest and most vulnerable in society.

The Wellbeing Economy Alliance unites groups and organisations who see the economy as a subset, not a pillar, of society. They believe it should be squarely focused on delivering human and ecological wellbeing.

Covered in the episode:

Can you just tell us a little bit more about the Wellbeing Economy Alliance Scotland? [0:27]

“So Wellbeing Economy Alliance Scotland, which nicely shortens to ‘WEAll', is the Scottish hub of a global collaboration. There's also local hubs bubbling up in places like Canada and New Zealand and Costa Rica; groups of people and organisations who are really diverse but united by the sense that, if we're going to have a chance to change and address the challenges facing the world, we have to transform the economic system. And to do that we need to collaborate like we've never collaborated before.”

What is a wellbeing economy? [2:33]

“A wellbeing economy, at its most basic, is a repurposing of how the economy operates to make it much more focused, and delivering for human and ecological wellbeing. For decades, we've had an economic system that has been designed around ‘faster faster' economic growth, and all the changes that that leads to in terms of business design have largely been in pursuit of faster GDP, out of the assumption that that is what led to quality of life for people. And yet that assumption is breaking down in so many places. But a wellbeing economy is saying we need the economy to be squarely focused on delivering human and ecological wellbeing. It means different ways of designing the tax system. It means we need to rethink work in terms of quality of jobs, payment, what sort of work we remunerate, and in what ways, how we share work… When it boils down to it, a wellbeing economy is about having humanity, and the goals of humanity, determine economics, rather than the other way around.”

And how can a wellbeing economy help us recover from the Covid-19 crisis? [7:59]

“I think the wellbeing economy agenda gives us a really lovely alternative destination to that frantic return to business as usual. Once the emergency of the health response is dealt with, I'm really quite anxious that there's going to be a conversation around, quick, how do we get back to business as usual? And the fear of that is, it won't just be business as usual, it will be more fierce and more ferocious than business as usual; it'll be worse for the environment, worse for people and we'll have another, worse round of austerity than we did coming out of the global financial crisis 10 years ago. And the wellbeing economy is a potential picture, a potential destination. We're talking about building back better, which is a term that comes from humanitarian work, and I think the symbolism of that is quite profound. If we build back better to a wellbeing economy, then we can have an economic system that is much more equal, that delivers dignity, that regenerates a natural planet, that addresses those huge extremes of inequality, of wealth or power, that has a greater sense of connectedness, that is “community up” rather than extractive economic models.”

So, what the wellbeing economy is really offering us is a vision of a better world. And we can redetermine what we value, and what's important to ensure that we get there…. [12:31]

“There's a very practical concern, at the policy level – how do we pay for the measures that are being enacted now? There're going to be so many books written about what happened, when you saw a Tory Chancellor saying, we are going to pay wages. I mean, it's just extraordinary – necessary, completely, but just extraordinary. So, the big thing in terms of practical politics emerging from that is, how do we pay for that level of unprecedented government intervention? We have to start talking about things like wealth taxes, land taxes, resource extraction taxes, clamping down on tax evasion and avoidance, because if we don't, it'll be debt funded. The wellbeing economy offers some really practical solutions. We can't just pay for this through debt and then try to recoup that through fierce austerity that will hurt the poorest, most vulnerable, the hardest. Maybe we're going to have to start talking about a windfall wealth tax on those tech companies that are doing relatively well out of this. I mean, come on, Jeff Bezos has to be first in line that we're tapping…”

How do you build a billion dollar business that does good from the start? [22:19]

“We've got a lot of business models that are structured in a way where their purpose is to extract wealth from workers, from communities or from environment, and give the returns to people who have already got wealth. Basically, we've got a whole lot of business models that are designed to create inequality. Business models such as cooperatives, worker cooperatives or community cooperatives, that have been around for centuries, have started to reconcile some of those questions. Could we have more cooperatives as part of the economic space in a country? Could we have more social enterprises where they're purposed in a way where they've got social and environmental goals at their forefront? And of course they're commercially successful, they're commercially viable, they're financially feasible, and they're still trading and operating in markets and so on. But they are doing so for a different reason and a different purpose. Heerad Sabeti has described this as the new fourth sector.”

If people want to create a wellbeing economy, they could look for inspiration within this emerging fourth sector… [26:24]

“Yeah, that's a great idea. Because often people say, ‘What can I do?' and I think everyone has their own different sphere of influence. Look at your voting, look at your investments, maybe look at your purchases, but also have more conversations. In the last few decades, economics discussions in places like the UK have been constrained by what I call a narrow cognitive bandwidth. Essentially, we've been told business as usual is the only option. ‘Of course we have to grow the economy. That's the only way to deliver quality of lives for people.' We celebrate our success when we redistribute slightly through taxes the huge gap that's opened up between rich and poor. Anti-poverty charities pat themselves on the back, when they can eke out an extra £5 or £10 a month in social protection provided to low-income families. And all of those examples are what I would perhaps critique as downstream, amelioration activities that would be called failure demand. They're driven by our failure to get things right.”

What's the relationship between the Sustainable Development Goals and the wellbeing economy? Are they both pointing to the same vision? [33:10]

“We'd have people in our membership, and in the wider movement, who would love the SDGs and say, ‘These are fantastic. They are a step change. They're brilliant.' There were others who would say, ‘I don't want to talk about the SDGs. They're flawed, they don't go far enough.' And, in a way, they're probably both right. The critique that I think is rightly levelled at the SDGs is around, particularly from the sort of sustainability perspective, the goal of growth. Some of the other goals are going to be undermined if we keep pursuing growth as a goal for the economy, because all the evidence is how tightly coupled economic growth is with environmental impact. What I like about the SDGs is the holistic nature of them, and particularly that quite beautiful underlying phrase of leave no one behind. What we've seen is how so many businesses are finding the SDGs a really useful framework for mapping and understanding their different impacts, and the layers and spheres of how their activities impact across a wider set of objectives. I will certainly always recognise that they're not perfect. But nothing is and if we kept waiting for the perfect, we will never get anywhere and the world will implode before we get to it.”

What is your favourite memory of a time or place in nature and why? [41:11]

“I grew up in Australia, in the capital city, Canberra. First memories would be out in the local mountains, local bush camping, and the smell of campfire, the smell of eucalyptus… What I really miss being away from Australia is that smell of eucalyptus after the rain. And the sound of rain on eucalyptus. I actually call myself a pluviophile, which means a lover of rain, and I think, growing up in a drought-stricken country, you recognise very quickly the life-giving qualities of rain. Rain makes me feel happy and peaceful. We're so lucky in Australia to have such awesome, accessible, natural landscapes. So it would be camping with my family in the local hills.”