Move Over Sustainability: It’s Time for a Regenerative Economy
Written by Stephen Vasconcellos.
In an overshoot world, we have to go beyond Sustainability. The time has come for a new conversation about the role and responsibilities of business. Knowing that governments are behind the curve, a number of changemakers may already be paving the way for a Regenerative Economy.
able to be maintained at a certain rate or level.
Scientists estimate that humanity is currently using nature 1.75 times faster than our planet’s ecosystems can regenerate, or otherwise stated, we are consuming 1.75 Earths every year (Earth Overshoot day, 2019). This ecological deficit began in the early 1970s and means that as we have depleted our natural capital, we have compromised the planet’s future regenerative capacity imperilling the health and wellbeing of the whole system.
Ironically, we first went into overshoot just as the environmental movement began to take off. The first Earth Day traces its roots to the glorious Earthrise shot taken by the Apollo 8 mission. This image had a profound effect on people viewing it for the first time, as Carl Sagan noted;
“There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known”
Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot
Psychologists say that the moment a toddler can recognize itself in a mirror, a new developmental stage is initiated. Most parents dread the terrible twos. The child enters a messy phase of exponential learning and growth where incipient identities and personalities start to form. I wonder, to what extent this applies to humanity?
In the 50 years since, the world has witnessed both a doubling in population, and billions lifted out of poverty. This period has been characterized as an era of unprecedented technological growth. Yet somehow, despite the many breakthroughs and advances in science, the Gini coefficient, the gap between the poorest and the wealthiest, has widened. The eight richest men in the world now have more than the poorest half of our global population combined. Industrial activity, biodiversity loss, soil erosion, and pollution have pushed entire ecosystems to breaking point. The latest canary in the coalmine, the Covid pandemic, seems a harbinger of worse things to come. Governments have still to come to any meaningful agreement on how to decarbonize our fossil fuelled economies and shift to a Regenerative system. There has been no recognition by the world’s largest economies that we are causing the 6th greatest extinction since the dinosaurs with species dying of at a rate thousands of times higher than at the beginning of the last century. Earth is already 1 degree Celsius hotter than pre-industrial times and on course for 1.5 degrees by 2030 (IPCC, 2018). The projections do not make good reading. We need a course correction.
Nonetheless, we may be witnessing the green shoots of a silent revolution. Could humanity be on the verge of a developmental leap forward? The environmentalist Paul Hawken seems to think so. He has argued that a silent army of change-makers, entrepreneurs, social enterprises, nonprofits and community organisations, dedicated to a plethora of causes, has been building a movement with the potential to benefit the whole planet. He calls it the “environmental and social justice movement” (Blessed Unrest, 2007).
Mainstream business, notwithstanding its role as the greatest driver of many of the issues imperilling our planet, has in recent decades pivoted towards ‘Sustainability’. The concept has been interpreted — and actions implemented — in very different ways by companies. With notable exceptions, the overall report card shows a distinct lack of focus. Most companies have been tinkering around the edges. A great number of Fortune 500 companies have well financed CSR and Sustainability teams. Some of the better companies win plaudits from the international community. Yet while they collect these accolades, the same companies continue to devastate huge areas with monoculture, pollute our oceans with plastic, and sell products we don’t need or even really want. Often, these are just as bad for people as they are for the planet, in packaging that will be around for another 1,000 years. At the same time, they shirk their fiscal responsibilities by using complex structures, to funnel trillions of dollars through offshore havens. Meanwhile, greenwashing has co-opted the language of change. Too many companies use CSR initiatives as a fig leaf to provide cover for highly profitable but questionable activities which hurt society and the environment. Corporate doublespeak confuses the general public and saps useful energy from the many good actors in the Sustainability space. What we need is a root and branch rethink of capitalism and the consumer economy — an economy that is selling the wrong dream.
Of course, there are many shades of capitalism, and there are brave outliers breaking new ground. A growing body of companies are reaching for change, and many more are being dreamt into existence, to respond to some of the greatest challenges of our time. These are noble endeavours, and it fills us with pride at Positive to bear witness to the energy of our fellow changemaker entrepreneurs. This growing army of purpose-led innovators represents a diversified movement spread across all areas of the economy. This movement desperately needs a voice — to link up and lift up, standing as one, uniting behind a set of shared values and holding a common vision. By linking up, it is easier to support each other with hard-won insights, as well as to build meaningful partnerships for change.
Over the last decade, B Corps, the leading kitemark for businesses who want to “be the change”, have been working hard to support businesses on a path “to meet the highest standards of social and environmental performance. A new kind of business, balancing profit with people and planet.” Their tremendous efforts to sign up 3,200+ businesses and support them to reduce their footprints and give these leaders a voice should be applauded. There are fantastic people in the movement who have fire in their belly. Yet we note only 17% of B Corps members have committed to Carbon Neutrality by 2030. The B Corps Assessment is demanding, but perhaps there should be a focus on qualitative as well as quantitative change? While acknowledging the challenges of creating workable frameworks for environmental and social governance, it is clear we need to raise the bar. What’s needed is an advanced party of pioneer companies that are fully Regenerative in their impacts.
Recently, John Elkington, ‘Godfather’ of the Sustainability movement, announced a recall of his triple bottom line concept of “People, Planet and Profit” in the Harvard Business Review. Elkington felt called to do so because his framework was intended to provoke systems change, and not just be an interesting accounting gimmick. His latest book, “Green Swans: The Coming Boom in Regenerative Capitalism” illustrates how his thinking has evolved, now arguing that even leading capitalists recognize that capitalism is broken. Many, like Elkington, now believe that the Regenerative Economy is not just preferible, but has the ability to unlock both a solutions revolution for people, planet and prosperity, and deliver systems change.
“Where tough societal problems persist, citizens, social enterprises, and yes, even businesses, are relying less and less on government-only solutions. More likely, they are crowdfunding, ride-sharing, app- developing or impact- investing to design lightweight solutions for seemingly intractable problems. No challenge is too daunting, from malaria in Africa to traffic congestion in California”
John Eggers, Solutions Revolution
And so, the time has come for another great experiment, another ‘moonshot’ in our ongoing attempts to reframe the role of business in relationship to people and planet. Whereas Sustainability was about doing less bad, today we need a Regenerative Economy that does more good. This distinction is subtle but key in an overshoot world. Whereas Sustainability views the planet as a resource to be shared; the Regenerative Economy recognizes Earth as a conscious living being and demands that we assume the role of caretakers. Regenerative businesses support win-win-win solutions, systemic health, and collaborative networks that serve people and planet. Instead of taking a siloed approach to bolting on Sustainability, we take a systemic 360 degree viewpoint, placing the company, as an organism, within the complex and interconnected web of life. A Regenerative lense sees the economy as a ‘nested system’ sitting within other life supporting ‘nested systems.’ Regenerative businesses are therefore in the business of systems change. They understand that change means getting uncomfortable. Though the flipside means stepping into alignment with Nature’s rhythms and flows.
The global response to the Covid-19 Pandemic has shown us that it is possible to switch off the relentless machine of our global economy. This process has shown us what is essential, and non-essential. We are now presented with an opportunity we didn’t know we had before — that of being able to consciously choose the type of economy of the future we wish to build together.
relating to something growing or being grown again
Inspired by John Fullerton’s work on the principles of a Regenerative Economy (Regenerative Capitalism, 2015), Positive has been created as the new social enterprise tasked with the mission of supporting Regenerative businesses. It is our hope that a Regenerative Economy will rise from the embers of our past-its-sell-by-date burned out industrial era. We have chosen to build upon new power principles i.e. powered largely by our community — as opposed to a pyramidical top down structure — because we get that this is a collab which our members will drive. In order to come up with a framework that can empower us all to grow and thrive, we have gone back to basics, looking to Nature, not just for our inspiration, but also as a partner. We are currently developing supporting tools, a handbook, and benchmarking to guide our members and help them flourish. Our intention is to reclaim our place, as individuals and businesses, which we see as complex organisms, in the interconnected web of life. Our mission is about creating a regenerative economy that both works in harmony with, and honours, the complex dynamics that support the health of the whole system. We hold a vision of a future with a thriving economy powered by purpose-led companies, living comfortably within the planetary boundaries and respecting the wellbeing of people and planet. As we build this economy of the future, there are 4 core values embedded within our Positive Compass;
Right Relationship with Nature (PLANET)
Being in harmony with and respecting our place in the interconnected web of life — respecting your essence and that of others. Just as in a forest there are larger and smaller trees, and a whole panoply of organisms with interdependent relationships, we seek to best express our fullest essence whilst respecting the best expression of other entities in the system. All contribute to the health of the whole, all are mutually supporting, and seeking harmony. There is a symbiotic give and take.
Elevating Human Potential (PEOPLE)
Nurturing wellbeing, encouraging participation and creating the conditions for people to grow within an inclusive and stimulating space with strong and transparent governance. A healthy company as an organism nourishes and nurtures all its parts as a collective. In Nature we observe that while cells may have different functions and sizes, they are all recognized and fully supported for their contribution to the health and wellbeing of the whole.
Empowering Communities (PLACES)
We empower communities, honouring each place in its own unique way. We recognize each place is different and has its own special needs both from an ecological and cultural perspective. We acknowledge communities specificities, needs, and aspirations to serve them the best way we can. Just as every tree in the forest is unique, so are the ecosystems they support.
Value for All (PARTNERS)
Recognizing ‘shared value’ and lifting others up so everyone can make their unique contribution to a healthier system, and we rise together. Paying fair value. As with all ecosystems we recognize that the health and wellbeing of our organism is interdependent on the health of the wider system. Every large tree impacts a wealth of insect life, funghi, mycelium networks, birds, and other life forms, all exchanging energy, information, nutrients, water, minerals and other resources.
So, what does it mean to be a Regenerative Business in today’s business jargon?
Firstly, our member companies must commit to carbon neutrality by 2030 and being net positive beyond; we must radically transform our environmental footprints and ultimately restore the places we impact; our businesses must be circular; we must find new ways of empowering participation in our teams, lifting people up and investing in learning and growth; creating inclusive environments that foster employee wellbeing; having healthy supply chains; paying fair value to our partners; and honouring and empowering our communities. That means no more offshoring and paying our taxes where we are, always seeking to make a measurable net positive impact. Humanity has outgrown the winner takes all paradigm of business, which has to be replaced before it takes us all down with it.
A type of thinking that aims to achieve something that is generally believed to be impossible. Moonshot thinking motivates teams to think big by framing problems as solvable and encouraging “anything is possible” dialogues around how to solve the challenge.
Positive launched our manifesto for change during Climate Week, September 2020 with the support of 100 founding member companies, pioneering in many fields, with change baked into their DNA. Together, we want to get inspired by — and inspire — innovative solutions that make the world a better place. A number of incredible change-maker companies have already heeded that call. We are embarking on a moonshot to reframe the role of business in the 21st century.
If this clarion call resonates with you, whether you are an activist, an academic, a changemaker, or a pioneering entrepreneur, we want to hear from you. Our goal is to encourage thousands of new businesses to shape a regenerative economy worthy of our Humanity and this beautiful Earth — this wonderful pale blue dot — we call home.
As we do so, we are emboldened by the words of the chemist and Nobel Laureate, Illya Prigogine.
“When a system is far from equilibrium small islands of coherence in a sea of chaos have the capacity to lift the entire system to a higher order.”