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Regeneration: a necessary paradigm shift for forward-thinking businesses?

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By Ignacio Ahijado

· 7 min read

In a world increasingly concerned with sustainability, the concept of "ecological footprint" has become key for businesses striving to fall in line with the world’s shift towards new forms of production that don’t destroy the planet. This indicator gauges the impact of our operations on the environment across various factors, such as resource consumption, land use, or CO2 emissions. The concept, however, carries the subtle implication that businesses should always minimize their impact on the environment. But could there be a more profound way to engage with nature? What are we missing?

Much like a Russian matryoshka doll, within this question lies yet another inquiry that warrants exploration as we arrive at a critical juncture for life on the planet: are humans stewards of nature tasked with wisely managing their resources to tend to our needs? Or do we embody an inherent connection to nature, playing a more profound role that extends beyond mere management?

Sustainability as we know it since the 1970s and the Brundtland Commission is grounded in the ‘managerial’ vision of humanity. It focuses primarily on damage control and mitigation, as well as the efficient use of resources. But as we witness climate indicators worsening year on year, it's evident that sustainability-as-usual is not cutting it.

Incremental changes do not suffice to repair a broken system. Sustainability might just be too narrow and shallow an approach, especially when a multitude of natural boundaries have been breached.  Moving beyond sustainability entails reevaluating the role human beings ought to assume on planet Earth. But there is a paradigm that could show us the way forward: regeneration, an innovative approach that reimagines the interplay between humans, the economy, and ecology.

Understanding regeneration

Regeneration might sound like the new buzzword on the block, but it isn’t. First and foremost, regeneration is a natural process whereby biological systems heal and recover from shocks, increasing their capacity to absorb future damage. Cells, organisms, and ecosystems all ‘build back better’ by restoring their damaged parts and improving their capacity to heal from future damage. Think of a lizard growing back its tail or a forest recovering from its ashes after a catastrophic fire.

Sustainability practitioners have taken note and are embracing regeneration. The regenerative framework invites us to step beyond sustainability by learning from nature. The focus should not be damage mitigation, but “(1) restoring, renewing and/or healing systems we depend on, while also (2) improving the inherent ability of said systems to restore, renew and/or heal themselves more effectively” (Sustainable Brands).

So just like forests or lizards, businesses can not only limit the damage they inflict but also mend previous damage done, all the while improving Earth’s capacity to heal in the face of future challenges. The profit-above-all business model that has prevailed until now is no longer viable as the ecological crisis deepens. A myopic approach that detaches companies from their broader societal impact is simply untenable. In a world deprived of the basic conditions for life, what room is there for business to thrive?

But net-zero commitments and ESG reporting, however widespread they have become, merely scratch the surface of what we need. Corporate responsibility in particular “has emerged as a traditional, short-term, profit-oriented method to manage organizations.”, mainly targeting quantitative metrics such as carbon emissions, while shunning other factors that require our attention.

So, should businesses care about regeneration? Yes, they should. And it’s not only biologists and activists spearheading this wave. According to a study by ReGenFriends, almost 80% of US consumers prefer “regenerative” brands over “sustainable” brands. The growing preference for regenerative practices highlights a significant shift in consumer attitudes, emphasizing the importance for businesses to embrace regeneration as a powerful strategy for success and positive impact.

On the other hand, the Great Transition we’ve embarked on also needs regenerative businesses to keep us on the move. Businesses, as well as other organizations of the social economy such as cooperatives and associations, often display more agility, impact, and financial sustainability than public institutions, charities, or big corporations.

The regenerative business: three key recommendations

A regenerative business creates value while nurturing and restoring the resources it relies upon. This approach acknowledges our interconnectedness with the biosphere (hence why we call it a “living-systems approach” to sustainability) and prioritizes planetary health and social well-being. A key difference lies in the concept of net-positive impact: instead of aiming for a neutral footprint, regenerative businesses give back more than they take, healing and restoring the very systems they depend upon.

Any system that individuals and businesses rely on has the potential for regeneration, encompassing all six vital capitals: natural capital, social capital, human capital, intellectual capital, financial capital, and manufactured capital. The list of what can be regenerated is long: it includes restoring companies’ relationships with employees, suppliers, customers, local communities, and other essential stakeholders, as well as reinvigorating material and non-material pursuits and values, and reevaluating approaches to governance and leadership. It is a question of what will it devote its attention and energy to.

For businesses seeking to embark on the regenerative journey, a mindset shift should be a first stop. This shift entails understanding that Earth isn't a resource to exploit; it's a living system we're intertwined with. Businesses need to grasp this complexity and embrace nature's wisdom, which has evolved over millions of years of evolutionary processes. What follows are some three key recommendations for businesses that want to become regenerative.

Reevaluate your business model

To effectively transition to a regenerative business model, a comprehensive reevaluation of your existing practices is necessary. Identify and eliminate any degenerative activities that your business may be engaged in throughout the lifecycle of your products or services. 

Map and engage with all stakeholders, including non-human entities. This might involve establishing new partnerships or collaborative initiatives that integrate nature and ecosystem functions into your business model.

Redefine your value proposition to reflect a broader understanding of value creation. Consider how your business can contribute positively to nature, society, customers, shareholders, and employees. Remember that a regenerative business doesn't just aim for profit; it aims to leave a net positive impact on all parts of its ecosystem.

Go beyond the traditional focus on profits by giving back more to your sources of capital. Initiatives like rewilding, ocean habitat restoration, and community engagement can enhance the capacity of these sources and contribute to the regenerative process.

Track new metrics

Shifting your metrics is a fundamental aspect of embracing regeneration. It involves differentiating between quantitative and qualitative growth, aligning with nature's growth principles. 

Incorporate social and environmental Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) into your evaluation framework. These metrics should go beyond the traditional carbon footprint measurement and encompass factors such as soil health, biodiversity, and youth empowerment. To effectively track these metrics, ensure you have the necessary tools and knowledge to collect accurate data.

Showcase your regenerative efforts

Embrace a mindset of experimentation and acknowledge that imperfections are a natural part of the process. As your business endeavors to lead in the field of regeneration, accept that this journey is ongoing and requires continuous learning and adaptation.

Creating a workplace culture that encourages personal freedom and innovation could prove highly positive. Nurturing a regenerative mindset among your employees will foster a collaborative environment where new ideas and approaches can flourish.

And don't just talk about nature—experience it. Step away from the screen and immerse yourself and your colleagues in the natural world. Draw inspiration from indigenous cultures that have lived in harmony with the environment for generations.

Regeneration, a life-centered approach to sustainability

In essence, regeneration stands forth as a compelling and transformative remedy to rectify the inherent imbalances within our prevailing economic framework. The exploitation by private enterprises of natural resources such as water, soil, and clean air, devoid of reciprocation to these ecosystems, poses a serious threat to the economy's long-term sustainability. This underscores the pivotal and proactive role that businesses are both capable of and obligated to undertake in nurturing regenerative approaches. 

However, to ensure the integrity of this paradigm shift, the establishment of well-defined benchmarks and rigorous evaluation standards for regenerative enterprises is paramount. This is crucial to prevent the mere repackaging of detrimental practices as regeneration – a phenomenon we might label as 'regreenwashing.' and of which there is no shortage of examples. As we cross the critical juncture, the transition from conventional sustainability to genuine regeneration rests not only on theoretical discourse and increasingly elaborate marketing campaigns but on the concerted and conscientious actions of businesses and society at large.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Ignacio Ahijado is a communications manager at Nested CoLab, a California-based sustainability consultancy & impact network. He works with clients to help them embody a life-centered approach to sustainability communication beyond today’s evermore sophisticated forms of greenwashing.

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