What DO we mean by ‘economic success’?

Publication Date: 

Thursday, 1 May 2014 - 10:59am


Claire Jones

What do we mean by ‘economic success’? It’s a basic question, yet one that most of us rarely stop to consider.

Here at ICAEW (the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales) we’re thinking hard about this question as part of our project ‘So what is economic success? Going beyond GDP and profit’.

Is economic success ‘what matters’?

The Measure What Matters project is about ‘what matters’, how to measure it, and how to achieve greater alignment between global, national and business measures of it. How does ICAEW’s economic success project fit with this? Is ‘economic success’ part of ‘what matters’? I would argue that it is.

That’s because I define the economy quite broadly. I define it as the system we use to allocate resources (including natural resources, energy and human effort) through the processes of producing and exchanging goods and services between individuals and firms. It’s a system that’s inherently embedded in society and cannot be separated from it, and one that it is fundamentally dependent on the natural environment we live in. It’s a means of fulfilling people’s needs and improving their quality of life, not an end in itself.

For me, economic success is about how well the economy is delivering the things that people need – the things that matter to them – and also about whether it is doing that in a fair, sustainable and resilient fashion.

However, that’s certainly not to say that economic success is the only thing that matters! There are plenty of things that matter that are only tangentially related to the provision of goods and services – things like relationships with family and friends, feeling part of a community, and good health.

Opening up the discussion

Although my colleagues and I have already some views on what economic success is, we’re really keen to hear what others think. We’re seeking to stimulate an ongoing dialogue about economic success and get as many people as possible – from within the accountancy profession and outside – to join in. We’re doing this through both online media and traditional events.

One of our first discussion events was in Cardiff, in partnership with Accounting for Sustainability Wales. We asked delegates to consider: What does a ‘successful’ economy look like? And how does business contribute to this success? The lively and engaged discussion that ensued generated a wide range of answers, with well-being and sustainability emerging as prominent themes.

What matters in Wales

The Cardiff event was timely because a national conversation is underway to find out what matters to people in Wales, to inform the forthcoming Future Generations Bill which seeks to embed the long term well-being of Wales in public sector decision-making. We therefore took the opportunity to ask our delegates about Measure What Matters’ goal of aligning business, national and international measures of success. In particular, we asked about the relevance to business of national policy processes like the Future Generations Bill and international ones like the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals.

Our delegates agreed that national and international sustainable development policy is relevant to business as it affects things like incentive mechanisms and public procurement processes. However, businesses are unsure how to engage in these conversations. Initiatives like the existing Sustainable Development Charter are a more obvious – and more directly relevant – way for Welsh businesses to contribute to the sustainable development agenda.

One interesting question that emerged was whether a ‘level playing field’ was desirable from a business perspective. On the one hand, businesses operating cross-border might welcome alignment between different countries’ sustainable development priorities. On the other, those with a local focus saw sustainable development as a way for Wales to attract more business by differentiating itself from other countries.

It was clear that we could have spent much longer discussing what matters and how to measure it, both generally and for Wales in particular. There was plenty of appetite to continue the conversations and we look forward to doing so.

If you would like to join in ICAEW’s conversation about economic success, please post your comments below, email us at sustainability@icaew.com or join us in Liverpool on 1 July.

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