Sufficiency: What is it and why do we need it? How does sufficiency succeed?

This article is about sufficiency. We as humans, our well-being and our economy are dependent on the earth’s resources. However, resources are limited, just like the earth’s absorption capacity. Ecological boundaries are permanently overextended. Currently prevailing production and consumption patterns do not pursue sustainable strategies. Quite the contrary – according to the motto “more, faster and shorter-lived” – our energy and resource consumption is increasing immeasurably.

Efficiency and sufficiency

One approach to counter this phenomenon is efficiency: a reduced use of resources and energy with higher productivity. The danger here is the so-called rebound effect. This is an increased consumption of resources/energy due to the potential savings. An example of this is a more economical car due to increased efficiency. The consequence of lower fuel costs per kilometre driven is a change in driving behaviour by driving longer distances or more often. For this reason, efficiency alone is not the solution, but it is nevertheless an important approach.

A possible addition to this is the concept of sufficiency, which takes ecological and social limitations into account. Sufficiency stands for a lower consumption of resources and energy through a reduced demand for goods. Since in classical economics the ultimate goal is constant growth, the concept of sufficiency is an approach that at first glance is not compatible with the currently prevailing economic system. Nevertheless, this concept might be necessary to reduce the global demand for resources. Quality of life and consumption levels are metrics used to measure prosperity. A reduction in consumption is often associated with sacrifice and a reduction in quality of life. Consequently, the assumption of less prosperity arises. Less prosperity is not the goal of sufficiency, but it is about redefining and reinterpreting values with the help of a change in consumption, knowing that resources are limited.

What is sufficiency?

The basic idea behind sufficiency is that the global demand for resources and services is reduced in absolute terms without having to forfeit any losses. The concept addresses the behaviour of individuals up to larger groups. Individuals, policies and the role of business are actors in this sustainability concept. Sufficiency can be understood in a broader sense as a reduction in consumption. A more narrow view of the term includes the following view: sufficiency forces a maximum of ecologically sustainable consumption and a minimum of socially sustainable consumption. Thus, a good quality of life is enabled. A sufficiency lifestyle requires a change in the way of life and economy within planetary boundaries. The question of how much is enough and what is the right measure is essential. A frugal use of available resources, without reducing one’s own quality of life, should ensure a good life for oneself and future generations.

Individual level to promote sufficiency

In order to be able to live and work within planetary boundaries in the future, an absolute reduction in resource consumption is necessary. A change in behaviour, i.e. consuming less, is a requirement for this change. Sufficiency can involve all areas of life and consumption in everyday life. Housing, nutrition and mobility are just a few examples. Just like the different areas, there are also different characteristics of the possible consumption changes. Four types of consumption change can be differentiated. First, there is the absolute reduction, which completely reduces the behaviour. For example, flying is abandoned completely. The second type is the change from an intensive consumption behaviour towards a less intensive one. An example of this is the use of public transport instead of a private motorised car. This is followed by a prolonged use of products, which is ensured, for example, by repairing goods. Finally, sharing of goods such as car sharing, can be a type of sufficiency lifestyle.

Although a change in consumption alone is a significant start, there is the uncertainty of whether a long-term change in behaviour will occur or not. In addition, one should look at one’s own level of aspiration and reflect on individual needs. Questioning existing values plays an important role here. These should be adapted in the sense of frugality and a simple lifestyle away from materialistic to intrinsic values.

Political level to promote sufficiency

Individual action alone will probably not be enough to achieve the needed change fast enough. Accordingly, political intervention through the creation of appropriate framework conditions is essential in order to achieve transformative change. This involves, on the one hand, establishing sufficiency in the consciousness of the general population and, on the other hand, keeping the economy within ecological limits with the help of political guidelines. In summary, sufficiency policy includes a limitation of both production and consumption through obligatory measures by the public sector. However, political framework conditions in the sense of sufficiency and generally sustainable issues encounter criticism. The restriction of individual freedom, enforcement and constitutional limits are only some of the arguments that are mentioned against political intervention. The restriction of individual freedom, enforcement and constitutional limits are only some of the arguments that are mentioned against political intervention.

Business strategies for a sufficiency-oriented business model

In addition to the individual and political level, there is another entity that plays an important role in the topic of sufficiency. These are companies. Conventional business models are designed to produce and sell as much as possible in order to make the most profit. In the course of sufficiency, business models must be changed or redirected so that a sufficiency-oriented lifestyle is promoted.

A sufficiency-oriented business model means that solutions are actively offered to reduce consumption and production with the involvement of customers. Business is always in the area between the maximum of ecological limits and the minimum of economic profitability. The understanding of the term “value” is being redefined and the product range is being adapted accordingly. It all starts with new requirements for product design. Products are designed to be timeless, durable, recyclable and repairable. In addition to the traditional sale of products, certain services such as rental models, repair offers, second-hand sales and care instructions are offered. Certain measures are taken in terms of communication and marketing to the public. Critical consumption is encouraged. Awareness raising and knowledge transfer are integrated.

What motivates a company to promote sufficiency?

The motivations for companies to act in the sense of sufficiency can be diverse. Basically, they can be classified according to two motives. On the one hand, there is the altruistic motive, in which a positive attitude towards sustainability is already embedded in the company. Possible motivations for this are the will to contribute to sustainable development, to operate according to the precautionary principle or to play a role in society’s move away from consumerism. On the other hand, there are strategic motives. Here the focus is on improvement of reputation, strengthening customer relations, opening up new business areas and increasing profit. Just as there are motives for action, there are also barriers, which can also be divided into two categories. There are systematic barriers and organisational barriers. In the first case, the growth paradigm of the economy, the prevailing consumption pattern of society and the narrow interpretation of consumer sovereignty are issues. Organisational barriers include a strong focus on sales growth, concerns about reputational damage and an orientation towards shareholder interests.

Our conclusion: Sufficiency-oriented business models are the future

Change requires action at the individual as well as the political and corporate level. The goal should not be profit maximisation, but a sustainable sufficiency economy. Policymakers would need to take the first steps to get started. The goal should be to create a framework by developing guidelines for companies on the topic of sufficiency-oriented economic activity. In any case, consideration should be given at every level to ensure that the possible resources, money and time saved do not produce the same effect as efficiency, i.e. the rebound effect.

Where are you on the journey towards a sufficiency-oriented business model?

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