A ‘culmination of forces’ is set to catapult regenerative business into the mainstream, according to research and advisory firm Kaleido Insights. But who is pushing this – and what could the outcomes be?
Regeneration, compared with sustainability, is a conversation already taking place across organisations. Whereas sustainability concerns itself more with the status quo, advocates argue, regenerative business practices ‘recognise how natural systems are currently impacted and apply techniques to restore systems to improved productivity.’
One problem is that there are a multitude of ways to define this. As Jess Groopman, founding partner at Kaleido Insights, puts it, there are ‘many different inroads’ to answer a broad but ambitious question: what is a new structure for creating a world, a society, and an economy that better serves people?
Examples of a regenerative business
Nestle is one of the better-known examples of an organisation who looks to be regenerative rather than sustainable. Speaking to Sustainable Future News last month, Dr Emma Keller, Nestle head of sustainability UK and Ireland, noted the company’s ‘promise to society is to advance regenerative food systems at scale.’ In practice, this includes initiatives to improve soil health and fertility, with Nestle pledging 50% of its key ingredients will be sourced through regenerative agricultural methods by 2030.
Indeed, a large part of the momentum of regenerative is in its association with some of the world’s corporate behemoths. Walmart, Unilever and Danone are all developing regenerative business models. Walmart set its goal to become a regenerative company in 2020 to ‘go beyond sustainability to restore, renew, replenish and preserve the planet.’ Unilever offers its regenerative agriculture principles, stating the ‘only option now is systemic change.’
Putting the debate around semantics aside, could there be a bigger one around scepticism? As Groopman notes in a blog post: “Many point to chequered pasts large corporates have when it comes to highly degenerative practices. Are we watching a true transformational pivot among industry giants… or is this merely PR firms’ latest buzzword slotted into marketing and mission statements?”
It is true that the large corporates have baggage, but is regeneration the only course of action to steer these ships in the right direction? “There is very good reason for suspicion,” Groopman tells Sustainable Future News. Unlike sustainability, where a lot more practice and metrics apply, like ESG and net-zero, there is little right now for regeneration. “We hope that a rising tide lifts all boats, so to speak,” says Groopman, keeping the nautical analogy afloat. “From a very practical standpoint, what excellent looks like is yet to be determined. We’re in the very early phrases of what the real potentiality for this is.”
There are, however, some soft signals for success which Groopman’s research has explored. Is leadership supportive? How does it manifest in each aspect of the business? What does it look like in operations? Are employees trained on concepts like biomimicry?
One example of the latter is Interface, a manufacturer of commercial flooring. The company created a product called TacTiles, which utilises the adhesive properties of geckos’ feet to provide a glue-free carpet installation system. Another interface initiative involves the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) to create Net-Works, which has created a local economy for the collection of fishing nets, replenishing oceans while providing a less intensive method of sourcing nylon yarn for carpet production.
“We can tick through what [companies] are doing on employee engagement, what they are doing in marketing, operations, community outreach, supply chain – and this is where it gets really interesting, where the function of the business itself improves,” explains Groopman. “The state of employees’ lives, the state of consumers using the product… in the case of this manufacturer, they last a lot longer, they’re modular, they can be more easily replaced.
“We don’t have a clear picture, or framework, or clear designs on this, but some of the contours are becoming more clear now,” Groopman adds. “Really integrating this into the fundamental [concept] – if the business is operating, these positive outcomes are also happening by design.”
Another sign of progress in regenerative is that a wider business ecosystem is appearing, from startups, to events and media, to investors. The latter naturally feeds the former. rePlant Capital is a curious one in this case, modelling across stakeholders (pdf) by investing directly in farmers who are ‘willing and ready’ to adopt regenerative practices.
For business events, the tide may be turning. The Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA), which represents management of business events and conferences, published an article in May which called for a regenerative industry. A stand made from 70% recycled materials may be considered sustainable, but a 100% recyclable stand is attainable, according to a report from IMEX and Marriott International in October 2020.
The Covid-19 pandemic had a significant impact on the rise of virtual events, but with many in the industry looking to go back to in-person or hybrid, what needs to be done? The Shape of Events survey, from the Business Visits and Events Partnership (BVEP), found 85% of respondents saw climate change as a challenge. The report advocated the need for a top-down approach to developing an overall carbon target.
“From a supply side, the industry will need to move to having a net-zero carbon target… however, it is largely a bottom-up approach with individual operators recognising the needs and benefits,” the report noted. “Less global events and localism may become a trend in the future.”
The Global Destination Sustainability Movement published a 13-point regenerative event checklist (pdf) for event organisers to support the UN’s sustainable development goals in 2020. The second of the three Cs, after consumption and communication, is choice: choosing local suppliers, and venues which source clean energy.
The need for more local collaboration is also cited by Groopman as an important aspect of regenerative business, while also noting the similarities with wider digital transformation. “What does it mean [for companies] to interact and interoperate and to rely on and partner with local communities, other suppliers?” says Groopman. “There are several challenges that have a lot in common with the broader transformation brought about by digital and the paradigmatic shifts that introduced data to business models and the sharing of data ecosystem interactions.”
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