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Thinking outside of the box, and getting into the (doughnut economics) ring, with Tim Frenneaux

Thursday 02 May

Doughnut Economics with Tim Frenneaux

Sustainable, environmentally friendly and green living are all terms that most people have come across, and something that is hopefully becoming more ingrained in everyday living. But what does it actually mean for us and for the future of our planet?  Are we really fully aware of how our actions impact our future? To explore these pressing questions, we caught up with rebel economist, Tim Frenneaux to talk about Doughnut Economics; what it is and how it’s possible for businesses to shape a greener and more equitable future—one where businesses play a pivotal role in driving positive change.


So Tim, tell us, in layman’s terms, what Doughnut Economics is and why is it so important?

The term Doughnut Economics was coined by economist Kate Rayworth in 2018.

“Humanity’s 21st century challenge is to meet the needs of all within the means of the planet.” Kate Rayworth

The doughnut is her visualisation of this challenge. The outer ring of the doughnut is defined by planetary boundaries, the natural physical constraints which we cannot go beyond without endangering ourselves whilst the inner ring is formed from the social foundation, the things we all need to thrive as people.

There are nine planetary boundaries including: climate change, biodiversity loss, air pollution, ozone layer depletion, ocean acidification, chemical pollution, freshwater withdrawals, land conversion and nitrogen & phosphorus loading  – and globally we have overshot six of these nine boundaries critical for human civilisation, so we can’t continue without serious consequences. We need to get back within the planet’s capacity to support life.

This is the basic point, we can’t not change. Business as usual simply isn’t an option. We can think about these ecological constraints alongside the basics that we need to live; water, food, health, housing, energy, employment, education, peace & justice, political voice, social & gender equity, together they define the tasty part of the doughnut, the safe and just space for humanity, and all of life to thrive. 

But the doughnut also shows us that is not where we are; there is poverty and inequality throughout the world, and yet at the same time we’re are breaching the planet’s carrying capacity. So when we choose to change, the doughnut gives us a compass, it shows us what we need to do to move towards that safe and just space, by quantifying the places we’re outside it.


What can businesses do to question their current practices and take the first step to work towards that safe and just space?

A lot of my work is about creating an emotional connection, because while many people ‘know’ we need to change, real change comes from the heart. Which demands a huge amount of bravery, especially in the business context. 

This was my experience too. I was working with doughnut economics for several years before i really felt what it means to crash beyond planetary boundaries – it’s a scary place – or to fall below the social foundation into a place of sadness and despair.


So many people probably haven’t stopped to think “how do I feel”. Is this something you come across a lot?

Yes, all the time. It’s really rare that we find the make and space to think ‘What are we doing? What am I doing?Once you open up these spaces and help people feel comfortable and supported in them, it’s not unusual for it to lead to tears. Often mine! It’s hard doing this work.

I never try and stoke people’s eco anxiety. Many folk give themselves enough of a hard time about their environmental impact and the state of the world, they don’t need me pitching in! In fact, I think that whole approach of scaring people about the state of the climate is counterproductive, it shuts people down. I’m not here to make things worse. I’m here to channel that feeling, that connection, into something positive. This situation, the system we work within may seem fixed, immovable, eternal, but it’s simply the result of our choices. We can choose to change. If we embody an ambition to be better through our businesses, then really great things can happen. 


Why should businesses question their current practices and why do you think Doughnut Economics is the way forward?

Solving climate change won’t address the other eight planetary boundaries problems or meet people’s well-being needs. The problem is bigger than we think, which is why many people refer to the polycrisis, of which climate change is just one part.

Doughnut Economics takes this into consideration and reveals how all our social and ecological systems are connected. It’s time for us to raise the bar and push beyond the limits of growth-driven economies, to create a future where humanity and nature, all of life is in harmony with one another. 

If this sounds a bit like a hippy utopian vision, then yes I do bridge between the environmental activist and business camps; I can see both thought processes and, for me, it’s about bringing these two things together really for the good of our planet and for our humanity. We need to understand each other and not fear each other. 

Businesses are our most powerful form of collaborating – we created them to do the things together that we can’t do alone – that’s what company means, to eat bread together ‘com’ meaning with and ‘pan’ meaning bread. 

But with great power comes great responsibility.

We need to find a way to internalise and act on that for our future, for our childrens, for our friends children and for all the other forms of live currently trying to exist alongside us on this planet – the one tiny speck of life, so far as we know, in the infinite expanse of the universe. We are a miracle when you think about it.


What do you think is holding businesses back from adapting to a Doughnut Economy model?

Businesses being stuck in their ways and stuck in the system are the main constraints. Most businesses, and society as a whole, don’t make proper time for reflection. In fact we have designed out space for community and reflection, replacing it with the self and hustle culture. Got to get ahead, got to be the best. But really, where is all this getting us? Even with an ethos of sustainability, it’s tricky not to fall into that mindset, our worldview has been 400 years in the making and isn’t unpicked overnight.

A lot of businesses are also mandated and legally required to look after shareholders which restricts what they can reinvest. That’s where organisations for change like the Better Business Act, who are campaigning to change company law and move away from shareholder primacy, come in. They are pivotal in how we shape the future. 


Is there really such a thing as a greener and equal future like described in the doughnut? Can businesses really drive change in the environment while meeting their financial goals?

Yeah, of course they can. The economic system is a pyramid designed so those at the very top profit, whilst the rest of us get enough crumbs to keep the cogs turning without complaint, but it has proven unsustainable, in the biggest sense of the word – we cannot sustain that model, and are starting to discover what that really means. The environment is sending invoices back to the economy, and it’s only just begun. The bills are going to pile up.

So, we need to turn it around so that businesses creates and distributes the benefits of working together more equally. This redistributive element is part of Doughnut Economics that people often don’t notice at first. There are twin principles at work: regenerative and redistributive, and this means changing businesses purpose, ownership, governance and financing. 

We need to reflect. What are businesses for? If it’s about more than creating profit then what is it?


Does that depend on approach and sector? Is there anything key required for this to happen?

It’s hard to generalise, but I think it comes back to overriding growth at all costs. Look at Primark, they earnt  £750m in profit last year, but with a different, more long term, investor ethos driving them they could have met investor needs with £250m and reinvested £500m back into better sourcing, better product, better purchasing, better staff wellbeing. 

The business of the future will be about more than goods, services and profits, otherwise it will lose it’s societal license to operate. The Primark of the future will still sell products, and still make profit, still provide people with jobs but more people will benefit and our planet won’t suffer as a result.

Businesses are designed to make massive surpluses, and keep on growing forever. But we can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet. So, we need to ask ourselves as a society, what is sufficient for my needs. What is enough?


Are there any sectors that can drive the biggest change within the Doughnut Economics model? Or any problematic sectors?

Anything that perpetuates the liner economy is problematic. Anything that takes, makes, uses & disposes can look at alternative ways of doing business. Fossil fuels and their derivatives are one of the biggest contributors, but there are lots of sectors still working in a linear model. 

Nature uses feedback loops but most businesses are trying to run counter to that. We need to push everything toward being more circular, more balanced. Nature spent 3.8 billion years perfecting the feedback loop, it’s time we used it.


What would be your advice to organisations looking to ‘get in the ring’ so to speak? 

You need to develop an awareness of what is happening in this moment, what influence you have and your agency to respond, and then reimagine your work and start to transform your business. It’s big picture stuff, but it starts with simple choices and by taking the first step, or the next step.

I run workshops and offer coaching and advice to help people turn their business around. The main things we look at are what can the business do and what are the blockers? The core approach is based on the Doughnut Economics. We map business processes and procedures onto the doughnut. It’s quite heavy to jump right into the doughnut – so there’s a bit of education and awareness first and there are different workshops and ways to provide support for your journey depending on what stage you’re at.


Have you seen the impact of mindset change within your workshops?

It’s a bit out there – the concept and approach, but it works. The big difference is opening up to the need for change and making a start on that journey – the next steps are with the individuals, before we get to the business that they work within. That’s where I tend to add the most value and make the biggest difference. There’s a me within the big we. This is where the perspective change happens. 


Is there any reluctance to change or any fear?

It’s really brave to do this and step into this space and think differently. Really brave.

I celebrate the shift in awareness every time it happens. We are all human and just trying to get on to pass on our genes to the next generation, and I believe Doughnut Economics can help us do that.


So, there you have it – climate change is bigger than most people realise. And that shift in awareness all starts within us. “Sustainability”, “environmentally friendly”, and “green living” aren’t just buzzwords—they’re imperatives for safeguarding our planet and ensuring a prosperous future for all. Doughnut Economics offers a roadmap for businesses to embrace this imperative journey, shaping a greener, fairer, and more resilient world. We can all accept that challenge in some shape or form, and start to forge a path towards a fairer and just future, if we allow a shift in our awareness. If we are all pushing in the same direction to a safe and just space, then it will start to take shape; a more even, circular one.

If you’d like to know more about Doughnut Economics or Tim’s workshops for change you can find out more HERE. Or even better, come along to our sustainability conference and see what he has to say in person. Tickets are available HERE.


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