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Employee-voice in the Beyond Growth transition.

Insights from the Beyond Growth Conference: The Woodstock of the post-growth movement.

From May 15th to 17th 2023, the Undercover Activist attended the Beyond Growth conference in Brussels.

Research shows the EU is heading in the wrong direction. So there was some skepticism and low expectations of real disruption and progressive voices from the European Parliament.

But with the #BeyondGrowth conference a new type of energy has entered the buildings of the European Parliament. You could feel the inspiration in the air during the three days of intensive presentations and conversation on the need, urgency and emergence of a de-growth society. The speakers and audience consisted of a great mix of industry representatives, climate activist, researchers, economists, fiscalist, politicians, academics and students.

Reshape the economy to what is real and needed in the world instead of continuing to accept everything the industry wants to produce.

Beyond Growth has many angles. The emphasis for us was on how employees can push for the new economy. What could be the role of #employee #activism in the transition of businesses to an ecological and social sustainable society.

The transformation this conference talked about is complicated. De-growth means new definitions of economic activity and divestment from our material and resource-intensive way of life. It means reshaping the economy to what is real and needed in the world instead of continuing to accept everything the industry wants to produce. It looks at how to govern and actively manage a society with a strong social foundation and clearly defined ecological boundaries.

Systems thinking and deconstructing

Let's start redesigning companies was the message of the panel on the role of business. As long as the old power structures are deciding without the voices of employees and other stakeholders the needed transition will not take place. Systems thinking is crucial and that means involving all voices in the system. Business design ranked #1 among the levers required to drive post-growth in business. Strong laws are also needed to regulate all businesses (ranked #2 in a session poll). Poll outcomes: What is needed for the transition to take place.

  • involving all voices in the system

  • strong laws

  • We need the systemic lenses.

  • Stop thinking in silos.

  • Civil society is not involved and it should be.

  • It is a power struggle we need to shift power in the industry.

  • Focus on governance and favur steward ownership and non-extractive companies by social procurement.

Many panelists mentioned a need for social and participative development of European industry. How can participation and community engagement be ensured?

Some interesting questions from the critical crowd, which could not all be answered unfortunately, show the need for deconstructing the existing frames through research and dialogue. Questions included:

  • I would like to hear your thoughts on making divisions between critical services industry and industry based on consumerism.

  • How can industries secure that (raw) material consumption remains within planetary boundaries, considering the EU now already overshoots its fair share?

  • Many panelists mentioned a need for social and participative development of European industry. How can participation and community engagement be ensured?

Forces and voices for and against

Preaching to whom? The conference consisted of voices mainly in favor of de-growth. Some political speakers had pre-recorded their message and completely missed the vibe of the sessions. Hope was found in several new important EU policies, such as:

  • European works council directive

  • Platform Work Directive

  • Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive

  • Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive

There was a strong message that there is no transition without care for the negative impact on workers. The unions published a Just Transition manifesto and want Just Transition to become an EU legal framework.

Those against these proposals are of course also found within the political system and strong and powerful groups are influencing the political system from the outside. For example these propositions are heavily lobbied against and watered down by the enormous lobby machine of big corporates. It is time other voices find their way to express their perspectives and have a stronger influence on the direction of our future.

Inclusions of stakeholders

As we know at the Undercover Activist, we need workers to address climate change and equality in- and outside their companies. Outside pressure is increasingly well organized and a great inspiration of what is possible at the inside.

Work should be democratized, decommodified and decarbonized.

Democracy at work goes hand in hand with democracy in society. At work people are subject to decisions they do not have influence on. Workers must be considered citizens at work too. Now corporations can make employees part of severe crimes and use arguments around businesses being private and neutral as a reason for the lack of being responsible. Work should be democratized, decommodified and decarbonized. Read more on

But first, existing official organisations that represent workers are in need of a transformation themselves:

  • Create employee resource groups and collectives that address sustainability and inclusion at work.

  • Create young boards and future generation boards to advice C-suites, advisory boards and investment boards

  • Workers Councils should increase their mandate and include sustainability, address the need for future proof decisions. They should demand and use proactive rights.

  • Unions should start to add sustainability to their demands and areas of influence.

  • We need a framework of rules and regulations around workers. Workers need to get rights to use their collective voice to veto certain practices.

The Role of Unions

The main input for the role of employees can have came, as expected, from the unions. But there is an important dilemma. How to fight for more sustainability and fight for jobs and social rights at the same time These interests are not always aligned. The Unions advocate to make the transition a Just Transition.

Some elements of the debate;

  • In the fossil fuel intense jobs, the workers are not ready to become part of the transition if they are not protected. New jobs and reskilling have to be part of the strategy.

  • Unions will not be able to advocate for sustainability if they have to fight for jobs at the same time, they will be a weak voice if they have to fight two battles.

  • Trade Unions have been organising workers. They know how to do it. They know the climate crisis is in essence a class struggle. They will have to get involved and play their part.

  • There should not be a trade off between people's livelyhoods and sustainability.

  • Workers should get a pro-active voice.

Rights of Future Generations:

The interests of future generations and nature must be actively secured.

Workers are not the only group that need to be better represented in the transition. The interests of future generations and of nature must be actively secured.

"Future Generations do not need our obsession with growth. Future Generations need clean air, clean water, a livable planet in harmony with nature."

Jakob Hefele from ZOE institute proposed the need for a European commissioner, a vice president for Future Generations. To safeguard that all decision are made with intergenerational justice in mind.


The BeyondGrowth conference was referred to as the #Woodstock of the BeyondGrowth momentum. Let's hope it has a better ending. It will get messy and muddy. Vested interests are not ready to let go of the old ways of thinking. It will demand an open mind and will and lots of creative flexibility to step out of the old arguments. We are so wired and indoctrinated why growth and emphasis on increasing GDP are the only way to pay for debts and the transition.

If this conference has done one thing for me, it is making it more clearly urgent that we change the economic model into a more caring and non-growth economy. Economic science and social research have more to offer here than technology. We can only succeed if we collaborate between generations and silos, educate ourselves on economics and take people along in the vision of what will grow in a post-growth society: WELL BEING!

Massive thanks to Philippe Lamberts and his team, and to the 20 MEPs - from 5 party groups - who organised this conference together.

Author: Veronique Swinkels,

Co-founder of Undercover Activist.


p.s. 1; The website is still open, you can find all names and organisations that participated, and some sessions are recorded.

p.s. 2.; in okt in Amsterdam there will be a Global Climate Job Conference.

p.s. 3; Thank you Erinch Sahan for your interesting take aways:

What does #PostGrowth have to do with enterprise design? The clear answer from the #BeyondGrowthconference is A LOT! In our session, a groundswell of interest in how to redesign businesses to make them fit-for-the future. The energy & interest was palpable. Here’s my summary:

1. Business design is hot! Activists & thought-leaders are diving deep into the way we design companies – in the session poll, it ranked #1 among levers to drive post-growth in business!

2. Must both regulate & transform design. Strong laws are also needed to regulate all businesses (ranked #2 in session poll). If we ALSO transform the deep design of companies, those regulations will be even more effective. Regulation PLUS measures to transform business design will reinforce one-another to drive the needed transition!

3. Workers are co-designing. Union movement is pioneering models for worker representation in companies, and in processes of industrial change - masterfully explained by Judith Kirton-Darling

4. Inventing new designs. New enterprise designs are emerging around democratic governance, that incorporate representatives of nature & workers in corporate governance - pioneered by the brilliant Isabelle Ferreras. New ideas are flourishing: #PostGrowthEntrepreneurship pioneered by Melanie Rieback, #StewardOwnership driven by Purpose Economy + #PlatformCoops, #FairTradeEnterprises, #SocEnt, #EmployeeOwnership, #Zoops...

5. Tailoring for SMEs. Small businesses have a key role here & will need enterprise designs + regulations tailored for their context (can’t regulate or design a business with 9 employees the same way as one with 9,000) – as eloquently argued by Veronique Willems.

6. Business communities co-designing. Networks of social enterprises are emerging and deepening, and they are generating new business designs that can unlock the ambitious action needed – explained by the #SocialEntrepreneur & activist Eva Sadoun.

7. Political courage is key! Pragmatic & visionary political leadership that builds consensus across political movements will be key here to drive policies that transform business design, & better regulate all businesses – shown by the inspiring Pascal Durand MEP (+ his team: Eléonore Devillepoix et al).

What can policy-makers do here? Nathan Schneider & I created this tool for policy-makers to get cracking (presented it briefly today):

What can businesses do here? Use this Doughnut Design for Business tool created w/ Willem van Winden + many others (translations coming soon!):


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