MUCH has been written and said about a “wellbeing economy”, however, much of it does not reflect what this alternative vision proposes – and what is required to deliver it.

My new paper for Common Weal, Wellwashing: why a superficial approach to wellbeing economics will fail, started as a reply to a discussion paper on the wellbeing economy by SNP MSPs Kate Forbes, Ivan McKee and Michelle Thomson.

However, their approach to addressing poverty and the climate crisis is essentially the same as that taken by First Minister Humza Yousaf in his 2023 Programme for Government.

It is encouraging to read these interpretations, as they speak to the cacophony of dissatisfaction with the current economic model and the need to provide hope through alternatives.

However, as is explored in depth in the main paper, much of what is being said can be classified as using the language of wellbeing to promote a business-as-usual vision, a tax and spend agenda with implementation relying on tried and failed superficial policy interventions.

READ MORE: Kate Forbes: First Minister's goals for Scotland are welcome - but our economy must deliver

It is not unfair I believe, to represent this as wellwashing and wellwishing.

Wellwashing is attaching the language of wellbeing to existing economic policies and models.

Wellwishing is the expectation that hitherto unaccomplished social or environmental outcomes, such as closing the poverty gap or halting climate breakdown, can be achieved without the structural and institutional reforms fundamental to the wellbeing economy (WBE) vision.

Our current economic systems goal, structures and institutions cause poverty and climate breakdown – they are not the cure. By conserving these conditions, poverty will continue to flourish, as will the mechanisms by which we are destroying our planet’s carrying capacity.

As is argued in the paper, many representations of the WBE can be summarised as “good” or “green” growth visions, with some paternalistic redistribution designed to deliver nicer outcomes now classified under the heading “wellbeing”.

The National: Kate Forbes failed to win the SNP leadership contest earlier this year (PA)

For example, the solutions set out to address poverty in Forbes’s paper: tax changes, subsidies and welfare payments, represent what Donella Meadows argues – in her seminal work Leverage Points – are the least powerful ways of enacting deep change. Instead, they are minor, temporary alterations that feed the broken system.

They are the policy equivalent of giving the hungry a fish (though most welcomed when you have no food) all the while encouraging the global fishing fleet to empty the oceans.

It is perhaps the lack of familiarity with the Leverage Points concept that causes the deeper messages of the WBE to be misinterpreted or missed. This approach requires that we recognise that GDP growth is a failed approach to building equitable prosperity. Changing mindsets creates the conditions for deep change – but is hard to achieve!

This paper is an attempt to build common understanding from which to build meaningful interventions to the emergencies faced. It proposes we focus on understanding the work of the Wellbeing Economy Alliance (WEAll). It is not vague or ill-defined.

READ MORE: The Sustainable Growth Commission is dead. Long live Scotland's wellbeing economy

WEAll state: “A wellbeing economy delivers social justice on a healthy planet. It prioritises meeting our needs before our wants. Needs include human and planetary health, access to nature, participatory governance, connection within communities, fair institutions, and dignity for all people.”

These simple words represent an economic vision that relies on a system change delivered through an application of the leverage points concept. This change can only be achieved through “predistributing” power, wealth, time and income – and as such require deep institutional and structural reformation.

We cannot expect our structures of land ownership, energy dependency, distant democracy and extractive economics to be the foundation upon which meaningful change can happen. These are the foundations of the dysfunctional economy that has brought us unaffordable housing, ongoing fossil fuel and cost of living crises, and concentrated, exclusionary economic activity.

The National: GDP

A WBE is a crisis-driven reorientation of the economy, led by mindsets open to understanding the unsustainable and damaging nature of fixating on the measurement of GDP growth. Goals like GDP matter because all the infrastructure, institutions, flows of information, materials and processes within a system act to achieve them. By changing the goal, all these elements move towards achieving something new.

The true relationship between the economy, planet and people is that the economy is subservient to the needs of the other two. It sets a new goal of delivering social justice on a healthy planet.

A WBE which delivers this cannot be built on extractive, unfair, unjust institutions and business-as-usual thinking. This new paper explains that the second step to building a WBE is to change our economic system’s goal. The first step is to understand why this is needed.

Iain Black is professor of sustainable consumption at the University of Strathclyde Business School and a Common Weal Board member