We’ve been talking about sustainability in business for decades – but as our understanding of the challenges we face AND the opportunities they offer has grown, the term regenerative business has been gaining increasing traction.
It’s a term that has multiple interpretations – but what they have in common is a powerful, exciting new perspective on business innovation.
“The core work of business is to enable its host ecosystems and communities to THRIVE!”
The limitations of “sustainable”
The word “sustainability” has been used (and misused) since the 1970s. It has picked up a lot of negative baggage in that 50 years – and has other limitations:
- It has nearly 40 years of negative experience from its origins in the space of expense, environmental regulation and compliance
- It tends to start from “sustaining today” – trying to retrofit business-as-usual rather than innovate new practices
- It tends to be framed around “first we’ll make money, then we’ll think about reducing our impact”
- historically, sustainability was done in big corporations – and often to ‘greenwash’ business-as-usual
- Sustainability and Corporate Responsibility have typically been reputational activities done by a few people in head office – remote from “the real world” of operations
- Sustainability operates with a “humans are in charge” mindset – which includes that “when we get to it we’ll be able to fix it”
This is not to say that sustainability is “over” or “irrelevant” – it has generated decades of great science, innovative technology development, smart business strategy and valuable design thinking. However, more and more people are finding it underwhelming in the face to today’s challenges and opportunities.
The possibilities of regeneration
The language and perspectives around “regenerative business” include:
- the core responsibility of a business across every part of its operation is to “put life at the centre of every decision” – to protect and regenerate the ecosystems that deliver food, water, air and weather to the communities that business cannot exist without
- regeneration is something that is designed in to every aspect of business over time – not left to one department or delayed until “after we’ve achieved our real goals”.
- natural systems operate over long time frames in complex systems – so “I haven’t noticed a change” and “humans are in command” are an illusion
- natural systems and communities have enormous regenerative capacity – the goal is to enable them to regenerate (by stopping doing harm)
When the business strategy question becomes “How can we put life at the centre of every decision and enable regeneration?” then it opens up a different scope of creativity and innovation way behond “How can we reduce our impact?”
Most business today is inherently DE-generative
If you’re running an average business today then – unless you’ve done a lot of informed, strategic development – your business is DE-generating both our planetary ecosystems and global communities.
This isn’t because you thought about your options and chose to be destructive. It’s because the reality of the systems that deliver your energy, water, paper, computers, phones, tools and transport is that they DE-generate ecosystem. That degeneration has been accumulating – and multiplying – since before the start of the Industrial Revolution.
Humans just haven’t been all that good at taking care of the various ecosystems that deliver their food, water, air and weather – probably ever since we moved into cities.
Exploiting ecosystems to get resources for our activities isn’t recent. As far back as the first century CE, Pliny the Elder deplored the destruction caused to shellfish beds so that Rome’s Caesars could have their purple cloaks.
However, up until the Industrial Revolution the amount of harm we could do was limited by muscle power (mostly human and horse muscles).
Since the Industrial Revolution our power to make things – and to impact natural systems – has been multiplied. Steam and then electricity have massively increased the impact we have on ecosystems. At the same time, we’ve accelerated our population growth AND our quality of life expectations.
Today the human race faces a wide range of major environmental challenges – problems like climate change, ocean plastics, species loss, ocean acidification.
This list of human-made challenges sounds complicated and overwhelming – but there is a common root cause. Out of date design. Our production systems were just never designed to renew and protect the ecosystems they operate within. So they don’t.
Instead, the industrial systems we have inherited from the past are inherently destructive – because they just weren’t designed NOT to be. They’ve been SO destructive for SO long that we can’t just “slow down” – we need to change direction.
REGENERATION is a design choice
Imagine building a house THEN deciding you need plumbing and heating and electricity and sewage and insulation. Reverse engineering that house to provide basic services would be expensive – and limited in the results you could achieve.
Then imagine that you designed a house that enriched its surrounding environment, produced its own energy and gave joy to the people living in it.
Or (as Bill McDonough of the Cradle to Cradle Product Innovation Institute) says. If someone told you that their relationship with their partner was “sustainable” – what does that word mean in conversation? Would you expect it to be a relationship of joy and excitement?
Where does ESG fit in?
The Environmemt, Social and Governance (ESG) processes of larger businesses are around reporting activities rather than business operations and strategy. They’re important – because you can’t manage what you don’t measure – but the term isn’t a replacement for sustainability.