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  • Pablo Friese

From the "eco-corner" into the mainstream - neo-ecology as the most important mega-trend of our time

Mega trends name the changes in our society by grouping together various trend developments into clusters. In this way, they make visible emerging developments that have a holistic impact on politics, culture and the economy. Societal trend developments also give an idea of changing requirements and new needs and therefore bring both opportunities and risks for companies - opportunities that result from integrating new trends into one's own strategy and risks that result from not doing exactly that.

This is also the case with the megatrend of neo-ecology, which has been declared to be the "most important mega-trend of our time" by the think-tank Zukunftsinstitut. The social challenges of our time reveal the urgent need for a systemic rethinking of the way we live. The climate crisis has been made more visible and tangible than ever by the recent hot summers in Germany, and the current Corona pandemic, like a burning glass, mercilessly highlights the fatal failures of our time.

And yet these issues are by no means new. In 1972, the Club of Rome published its remarkable report on the "Limits to Growth," which described the consequences of the existing economic system for people and the planet. Ecology was also integrated into existing structures on a political level to a large extent. In 1970, for example, the EPA (United States Environmental Protection Agency) was founded in the USA, and in 1971 the first federal environmental program was drawn up in Germany. Just one year later, in 1972, the first UN Conference on the Environment was also held at the international level, resulting in the establishment of the United Nations Environment Program as the "voice of the environment" [1].

Linguistically, since then, the concept of ecology has also established itself as an integral part of a social discourse. In this context, however, the argument for ecology has been primarily about constraints and a strong narrative of human culpability - which brings us to the core of the difference to neo-ecology, which, in contrast, focuses on a new confidence and optimism for action [2].

Neo-ecology thus expands the classical view of ecology to combine ecology and economy. With this paradigm shift, the ecological movement has also made it from the "eco-corner" into the mainstream. This is clearly illustrated by various sub-trends that the Zukunftsinstitut assigns to neo-ecology [3].

Several factors indicate that a change in consumer ethics is taking place in our society. The sub-trends of mindfulness, slow culture and minimalism mentioned by the Zukunftsinstitut, for example, can be understood as a reaction to the existing surplus of products and information, but also address the increasing need for constant flexibility. A recently published trend study by the Otto Group takes a similar view, according to which ethical consumption even takes on the function of a lighthouse in our confusing VUCA world (the term VUCA world describes the further increasing volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity in our world) [4].

The consequence of this new ethical and cultural understanding of consumption is a shift in demand, which is expressed primarily in the sub-trends of the organic boom, flexitarians and electric mobility. Sales of organic food in Germany increased again in 2020 by 17% to now 14 billion euros, despite the already steep growth of previous years [5]. E-mobility also experienced its final breakthrough in 2020 with an increase in new registrations of over 200% [6]. Whether this trend is entirely positive for our planet is, of course, debatable. What is indisputable, however, is the realization that companies must respond to this trend.

There are already many approaches to this. The thinktank Zukunftsinstitut lists three concepts - the sub-trends Direct Trade, Green Tech and Zero Waste - for companies to adapt their existing business models to the changing demand. New (and also old) examples such as the vegetable box organised as a cooperative through Solawi show how producers and consumers can come closer together again in a win-win situation. Fossil fuels are more and more replaced by electricity generation from renewable energies - 2020 was the first year in which more electricity was generated from renewable energies than from fossil fuels [8]. And examples like the Hamburger Wertstoff Innovative show that it is not only possible to reduce waste, but also to avoid producing it in the first place. In a joint project, Hamburg's city cleaning, environmental services provider Veolia, consumer goods manufacturer Unilever and drugstore chain BUDNI have developed a detergent bottle that is 100% recyclable - a flagship example of closed-loop recycling.

However, there are also opportunities to develop new business models that allow companies to provide answers to the challenges of our time while ensuring their own future viability. For example, the sharing or circular economy offer economic opportunities that are also in line with the increasing scarcity of existing resources. In addition, the sub-trend social business also represents a paradigm shift that is steadily gaining in importance. While companies in the conventional economic system tend to do as little damage to society as possible, impact-oriented business models are turning the tables. The focus is on maximizing the social or ecological impact achieved by business methods.

The growing social start-up sector in Germany is one example of the potential of impact-oriented business models. It is therefore even more important that established companies also become active and invest now in their future viability and that of the German economy.


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