TEDx Tokyo co-founder, Patrick Newell joined founder of Renew Newcastle, Marcus Westbury and curator Alison Kubler to discuss ways of designing a more ethical and sustainable economic system during the final Think Outside event for 2013.

Alison began her talk by stating that she is not an economist, but a curator, writer and a mother who looked to her children’s place in the world and what will be left for them when exploring the issue of designing a sustainable and ethical economy.

She then drew comparison between the world of fashion and the economy, saying that fashion has now become an economy within an economy. “Fashion is very big business”, said Alison, with three fashion houses owning almost all well-known commercial brands. These houses buy and exhibit art, supporting artists and opening collections to the public, but contemporary fashion moves too quickly to look at itself, she argued.

With six seasons a year now instead of two, the fashion industry is responsible for an incredible amount of waste. “We don’t need more shoes,” said Alison, “we need better shoes that last longer.” She spoke about the dilemma of fast, cheap, mass-produced clothing versus hand-made, sustainable, longer-lasting items and how this applied to the economy overall.

Marcus continued this thread, talking about the scale of “capital” and how the cities we live in are broken and not working the way they are supposed to. He believes we are designing places based on economic formulas and spoke about the way the economic drive of communities has changed over the years.

Marcus argued that when many of our cities were designed, things were made in local communities. We then went from a local economy to a national economy and instead of tailors and jewelers making things they distributed products from national retailers.

A global economy then emerged and now there are the same global brands in every city and according to Marcus, “everywhere looks the same”. He believes we need to design things for the scale of people, rather than the economy, making places responsive to people and their needs.

Patrick began by asking how we were looking at the world today. “Are we looking at is upside down or is it a bubble about to burst?” he wondered. He spoke about the wave of capital democracies going bankrupt and how more than half the people living in G8 countries are working for or supported by government and questioned how that could be sustainable.

He cited collective intelligence as a possible model for collective economies and saw the benefit in a longer-term, “pay-it-forward” system of government. By-laws that included sustainability clauses and raising awareness of sustainable product choices and removing service taxes from those products were other possible solutions. “It’s all about supply and demand”, said Patrick. “If there is a collective push for sustainable products then the price point will tip and they will become more affordable.”

Patrick also questioned how our need to grow, give, learn and share was being built into the economy, stating that social entrepreneurship was the answer rather than Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) which has become exploited as more of a PR term. He described how developing countries are hungrier for change and are using things in new ways and fostering innovation.

During questions Marcus surmised that the challenge is balancing short-term profit and political cycles with the longer-term good, while Alison believed that we’re not at the point where we feel personal responsibility yet, that we all blame faceless people for taking us over the fiscal cliff when we’re all in fact involved.

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