1.4.3 Distributive economies

Helpful prior learning and learning objectives

Helpful prior learning:

Learning objectives:

Oxfam is an international non-governmental organisation that works to reduce inequality. The organisation regularly releases reports on global economic inequality

Oxfam’s January 2024 report was shocking. Between 2020 and 2023, a time of social, economic and political turmoil around the globe, the world’s five richest men more than doubled their wealth. If each of those men spent one million US dollars per day, it would take 476 years to spend their combined wealth! During the same period, almost five billion people became poorer.

A large yacht

Figure 1. Money well spent? A US$150 million yacht owned by a billionaire 

(Credit: Filip Frącz CC BY-SA 2.0)

How are inequality and ecological overshoot related?

Globally the wealth and incomes of the world’s richest people are rising rapidly. They use their rising incomes and wealth to buy more products that require the Earth’s energy and matter resources to produce and emit more carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. According to Oxfam, the wealthiest 1% are responsible for 16% of global CO2 emissions, the same emissions as the poorest 66% of the global population, about 5 billion people (Figure 2).  Beyond a certain level, further increases in income or wealth do not contribute significantly to human wellbeing. But the excessive consumption of the world’s wealthiest is causing our economies to overshoot planetary boundaries in climate change, biodiversity, land-use, water extraction and pollution (Section 1.2.7). 

Shares of global income and CO2 emissions by income

Figure 2. Uneven global share of consumption-based CO2 emissions, 2019

(Credit: Oxfam)

These negative ecological impacts are felt mainly by the world’s poorest people. Ecological breakdown is reversing decades-long development gains in poverty, health, education, womens’ equality, and political stability. While there is still some progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), 30% of the SDGS see no progress or are in reverse. 

Rising economic inequality worsens ecological breakdown, and ecological breakdown further worsens inequality in a reinforcing feedback loop (Figure 3). To meet human needs within planetary boundaries, we must break this cycle.

Reinforcing feedback loops between economic inequality and ecological breakdown

Figure 3. Positive (reinforcing) feedback loop between economic inequality and ecological breakdown

Why are distributive economies important for meeting human needs within planetary boundaries?

A distributive economy shares the value created in economic activity more widely among all stakeholders. Like all organisms in nature, humans have reciprocal relationships with other humans and with the rest of nature. We rely on care from others to survive and thrive, and we must also care for others. Sharing and care are core values of most societies and religions around the world.

Unfortunately, our modern degenerative economies encourages people to take more than they give (Section 1.1.3). If people take too much from the economy, society and nature, and give too little in return, then our social and natural resources will deplete over time. So it is important that we raise people’s awareness of our overconsumption and work together to design our economies to support regeneration of our social and ecological systems through distributive practices and policies.

Kate Raworth, creator of the Doughnut Economics model (Section 1.3.4), describes a distributive economy in the short video below.

Distributive economies are better able to meet human needs within planetary boundaries. If we distribute more income and wealth from the top 1% to the bottom 50% of the population, then the wealthy will have less to spend on environmentally damaging activities. Meanwhile, low income groups will be able to meet more of their needs.

Distributive economies are also likely to reduce unnecessary aspirational consumption, where people buy more material goods, such as larger cars and homes, to increase social status. Aspirational consumption does not substantially improve human wellbeing, but it does enormous damage to ecosystems. In more equitable societies, there is less incentive for aspirational consumption.

How can economies become more distributive?

Market-based businesses, the state, households and the commons can all contribute to a distributive economy. The strategies discussed below focus on distribution of monetary benefits, focusing on markets and the state. 

The distribution of care work in households is outlined in the next Section 1.4.4 and in Topic 2. The commons, which is self-organised management of a shared resource for the benefit of a community, is by nature distributive.

Illustration of a shape with spikes and another one where lines are connected

Figure 4. Our economics can move from being divisive to being distributive  (Credit: DEAL)

Distributive design: businesses / markets

Businesses can share their gains more widely with the stakeholders who contribute to it by:

A baker baking flatbread

Figure 5. Businesses should aim to provide for genuine human needs and widely share the value of what they produce 

(Credit: Artem Yellow CC0)

These strategies and others are discussed in greater detail in Topic 3 on markets.

Distributive design: the state

The state plays a major role in a distributive economy. It can pass laws and create structures to support wider sharing of economic benefits through:

These strategies and others are discussed in greater detail in Topic 5 on the state.

Figure 6. Who needs a private swimming pool when you have a clean river? Oberer Letten free public swimming area, Zürich, Switzerland

(Credit: Yago Veith CC BY-SA 3.0)

What are the barriers to distributive strategies?

Distributive design is fundamental to meeting human needs within planetary boundaries, but changing our economic systems can be difficult because of:

Understanding these barriers is the first step towards overcoming them and building a more distributive economic design that benefits everyone.

Activity 1.4.3

Concept: Systems

Skills: Thinking skills (transfer)

Time: Varies depending on option

Type: Individual, pairs, group depending on option

Option 1 - Researching distributive design in your region or country

40+ minutes, depending on how much prompting and resources a teacher may provide

Option 2 - Discussion - how is distributive economic design related to biomimicry?

20 minutes

If you have read Section 1.4.1 Biomimicry for economic design, consider the relationship between the distributive economic strategies and Nature’s Unifying Patterns listed below. How do the strategies help our economies behave more like nature?

Nature uses only the energy it needs and relies on freely available energy

Nature recycles all materials

Nature is resilient to disturbances

Nature tends to optimise rather than maximise

Nature provides mutual benefits

Nature runs on information

Nature is locally attuned and responsive

Nature uses chemicals and materials that are safe for living beings

Nature builds using abundant resources, using rare resources only sparingly

Nature uses shape to determine functionality

Ideas for longer activities, deeper engagement, and projects are listed in Subtopic 1.5 Taking action

Checking for understanding

Further exploration


Khalfan, A. et al. (2023, November). Climate Equality: A planet for the 99%. Oxfam International. https://oi-files-d8-prod.s3.eu-west-2.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/2023-11/Climate%20equality%20report%20executive%20summary.pdf

Raworth, K. (2017). Doughnut economics: seven ways to think like a 21st century economist. London: Penguin Random House

Riddel, R. . (2024, January). Inequality Inc. Executive Summary. Oxfam International. https://oi-files-d8-prod.s3.eu-west-2.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/2024-01/Davos%202024%20Executive%20Summary%20English.pdf

Sahan, E. et al. (2022). What Doughnut Economics means for business: creating enterprises that are regenerative and distributive by design. Doughnut Economics Action Lab and Center for Economic Transformation. https://t.ly/2qWyy.

Terminology (in order of appearance)

Link to Quizlet interactive flashcards and terminology games for Section 1.4.3 Distributive economies

non-governmental organisation: an organization that is independent from government

economic inequality: unequal distribution of income and opportunity between different groups in society

wealth: the total value (stock) of someone’s assets such as money, house, or investments

income: the ongoing money earned (flow) from work or investments

energy: the ability to do work or cause change

matter: anything that takes up space and has mass

carbon dioxide (CO2): gas produced by burning carbon or organic compounds and through respiration, naturally present in the atmosphere and absorbed by plants in photosynthesis

atmosphere: the gases surrounding the Earth

consumption: using resources and products to meet needs; or in food chains, eating another organism

economy: all the human-made systems that transfer and transform energy and matter to meet human needs

planetary boundaries: the limits of human disturbance to the nine Earth systems that sustain all life

climate change: a change in the temperature and precipitation patterns in an area, in recent times due to human economic activities

biodiversity: the variety of living organisms on Earth

extraction: taking something away from somewhere else, especially using effort or force

pollution: the presence of a substance that has harmful effects on the environment

poverty: the state of being poor

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): 17 social and environmental goals established by the United Nations in 2015

reinforcing feedback: a situation where change in a system causes further changes that amplify the original change which can lead to tipping points in a system

distributive economy: an economy that shares economic benefits and power more evenly among individuals

stakeholder: a person who has an interest in or is impacted by some activity

reciprocity: exchanging things and favours with others for mutual benefit

care: the act of providing what is necessary for the health, welfare, upkeep, and protection of someone or something

degenerative economy: an economic system that meets human needs in a way that degrades and destroys social and ecological systems

overconsumption: buying and using more products and resources than you need

regenerate: to restore or strengthen ecosystems or social systems

system: a set of interdependent parts that organise to create a functional whole

distributive: when something is widely or evenly among individuals

Doughnut Economics model: a model for sustainable development shaped like a doughnut, combining the concept of human needs with planetary boundaries

planetary boundaries: the limits of human disturbance to the nine Earth systems that sustain all life

aspirational consumption: buying goods in order to increase self-esteem and social status

ecosystem: the interaction of groups of organisms with each other and their physical environment

market: a system where people buy and sell goods and services for a price.

state: a system that provides essential public services, and also governs and regulates other economic institutions

household: a system where people living together care for each other and do domestic work, often termed the 'core economy'

commons: a system where people self-organise to co-produce and manage shared resources.

monetary: to do with money

wage: payment for work

cooperative: a business or other organisation that is owned and managed jointly by its members, who share the profits or benefits

profit: the difference between the amount of money earned from selling something and the cost to produce it

shareholder: a partial owner of a business

progressive tax: tax rates that increase as income or wealth increases

tax: payment from individuals or organisations to the government, used to provide public infrastructure and services

job guarantee: a situation where the state makes a job available to any qualified person who is willing to work

rewilding: protecting an environment and returning it to its natural state, passively by leaving it alone or actively by reintroducing native organisms that might have disappeared

universal basic income: financial support from the state in the form of recurring payments to everyone to meet basic needs

universal basic services: a form of social welfare where all people receive access to free, basic services, like education and health care, funded by taxes and provided by the state

public luxury: access to goods and services that make life enjoyable, such as public parks and recreation, provided by the state

social foundation: human needs that need to be met for human survival and wellbeing

efficiency: the ratio of resource inputs compared to outputs

union: an association formed by people with a common interest or purpose

power: the ability to influence events or the behaviour of other people

anti-trust law: laws that support competition by limiting the power of one or a few businesses

monopoly: a market structure where a single seller or producer is dominant and has price-setting power

extraction: taking something away from somewhere else, especially using effort or force

loss aversion: the tendency of people to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring equivalent gains

regulatory capture: when the government prioritises the interests of economically powerful groups over the general interests of the public

institution: human-made systems of rules and norms that shape social behavior

worldview: an all-inclusive outlook on the world held by an individual or group, and through which they make sense of reality and gain knowledge