Beyond sustainability to regenerative
In My Journey to Regenerative Business Thinking: The Beginning, I set out my goal to encourage business owners to take the less traveled path and aim to become regenerative by nature and purpose. Seeing profit not as an end in itself but as a means to create value for customers, employees, communities they inhabit, and the planet. For those who follow this path, the rewards are immense. Beyond financial rewards, the regenerative way provides real meaning and self-worth to practitioners and their employees as they see the positive impact on communities and make a real difference in the world. PWC’s Putting Purpose to Work study found that 83% of employees seek fulfillment through purposeful work. Regenerative businesses provide that, as I discovered at Zoho’s Indian HQ in Chennai in February 2023 (Zoho — Regenerative Capitalism at Work).
As the name suggests, regenerative goes beyond sustainability and good resource housekeeping. It seeks to generate healthy outputs to impact humanity and our planetary ecosystem positively. Regenerative farming, for example, enriches the soil, which is fundamental to the health of the field and subsequent crop production. It encourages biodiversity, improves the quality of the crops, and adds to the natural beauty that contributes significantly to well-being.
Manufacturing and production generate considerable waste that the United Nations Development Program states is responsible for 5% of global greenhouse gases. Yet, if carefully managed, waste output from one company can be reused or recycled by another by partnering with a circular waste management company like Evreka.
During my research, I’ve discovered that regenerative practices can span any industry or sector, even finance, seen by some as parasitical. These examples are by no means the epitome of what can be achieved.
Getting started on my research into regenerative business: a multi-pronged approach
Complex challenges cannot be tackled in silos.
As I discovered in my years grappling with customer engagement and CRM, success requires systems thinking, not siloed departmental solutions. While many businesses tackle complex customer engagement challenges by figuring out what customer-facing departments or functions need — sales, marketing, service, eCommerce, etc., those that succeed take a systemic view from the customer’s perspective.
Humanity’s challenges, survival, planetary health, inequality, and diversity, are on an entirely different scale and complexity. They cannot be tackled in isolation. We need a unified perspective to see and make sense of the world.
My research would have to be holistic, covering the context of businesses operating in markets, communities, geographies, and within the broader ecosystem of Earth’s resources and climate. The complexity of the entire ecosystem demands a very wide-angled view, not isolated fire-fighting solutions. While I felt my forty-odd years in sales, marketing, consulting, and analysis gave me a basis for understanding, I had a sketchy appreciation at best, of climate change and most of the other planetary services that contribute to our well-being and existence. Little did I realize what a giant Pandora’s Box I had opened.
Four related topics of inquiry guide my research
To deepen my understanding, I focused on four interrelated elements:
Planetary Boundaries: the context
While we’ve all heard about climate change and the negative impact of fossil fuels on carbon emissions, I wanted to understand the problem more deeply. I read an informative book, a 50-year update of Donella Meadows’ book, Limits to Growth , the original edition published in 1972, which knocks on the head the idea that GDP can continue exponentially forever given the constraints of Earth’s resources. It’s also a call to action before it is too late.
I then took an online course, Planetary Boundaries, courtesy of Stockholm University’s SDG Academy, providing irrefutable evidence of the threat of catastrophic tipping points across nine planetary boundaries, or safe spaces for human existence, outlined in the most recent diagram below:
Of the nine connected planetary boundaries, I was unaware of novel entities (new chemical pollutants), nor did I understand much about biosphere integrity, the planet’s life support ecosystem, including climate regulating mechanisms, provisioning systems for food and water, fuel, material resources, etc., and the underlying support from soil formation and nutrient cycling. The course also made me aware of the pivotal shift from the safe place of the Holocene era to the Anthropocene age where climate change is driven by human activities and puts our very survival at great risk. The diagram highlights existing boundary transgressions across six of the nine. The course material developed around 2015 or so, showed ‘only’ four at risk, which gives you some idea of how fast things are changing and why acting now is our best hope.
The Club of Rome proved to be highly insightful. Established over 50 years ago, and sponsors of the MIT computer model referenced in Meadows’ book. The model has since been significantly updated as technology and experience have advanced. Their book, Earth4All — A Survival Guide for Humanity, uses their new model to predict alternative futures based on success or failure in dealing with planetary boundary challenges. Their earlier model predictions based on human activities and population growth tracked closely to reality in the early to mid-2000s.
The new model is considerably more powerful and has a much deeper pool of data on which to draw. They also offer guidance on corrective actions governments, businesses, communities, and individuals must take to ensure benign outcomes and a better future for humanity, the planet, and all life.
Regenerative economics and critical principles
My research is driven primarily through the lens of regenerative business. The first port of call was the Capital Institute, founded by John Fullerton, an ex-JPMorgan banker (poacher turned gamekeeper?) who challenges existing neo-capitalist and socialist thinking by raising our sights to regenerative capitalism. He takes aim at the global financial system. Fullerton’s vision of the financial system serving humanity’s well-being rather than itself as the apex parasitical predator (my words, not his). He also identifies eight principles to support regenerative vs. extractive capitalism, which I will discuss in a future article.
A friend of a friend introduced me to Doughnut Economics, a book by Kate Raworth, an economist and senior associate at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute. Raworth provides a compelling vision of economics as the servant of humanity’s well-being within the constraints of planetary boundaries. As a non-economist, I found it very easy to read and understand. She has also established a flourishing global movement, DEAL , where people can learn and participate in local initiatives or run workshops for their companies.
The Chief Strategy Officer at Zoho, Vijay Sundaram, is another source of economic wisdom and a supporter of regenerative economics. He’s been with Zoho since the start 27 years ago, and three fellow analysts who came on the February trip produced this YouTube video, where Sundaram explains the principles of Zohonomics. He counters the US-driven economics of efficiency as the key driver behind growth, pointing out the dangers of losing capabilities through outsourcing and the unhealthy shift from making things to services.
Regenerative case stories
While I want to learn about the principles underpinning regenerative business, there is no substitute for hearing from companies doing it for real.
In later articles, I shall post stories about individual companies that are regenerative by nature and purpose or are starting the transition toward regenerative business practices. I’ve mentioned Zoho several times, but you can read about them here.
Other case stories I am working on include an international mining company that has promised me an interview, transitioning from purely extractive to regenerative activities. I’ll also catch up with Evreka, the waste management company, to see how they are progressing and what lessons they can share.
I’m still searching for others, large, medium, or just starting, to add to the library of case stories. Please get in touch with me if you can introduce me to others.
Any significant and wide-ranging transformation is challenging, particularly for established companies that want to transition to a more regenerative approach to business. This led me to Otto Scharmer and his book, Essentials of Theory U. He is a senior lecturer at MIT and founder of the Presencing Institute. He explains the process underpinning Theory U, which acts as a bridge from the present to a desired but ill-defined future. Systems thinking is involved that seeks to understand how an existing ecosystem functions. Once stakeholders and decision-makers can see its shortfalls and impacts, they can sense what the future is pulling them toward and figure out how to make it happen collaboratively. This almost magnetic pull of the future, Scharmer calls ‘presencing’. It’s a spiritual journey with the heart playing a more prominent role than the head or habit. I was so impressed that I joined an online course he runs on the MITx platform and met fellow travelers on the regenerative path.
Lastly, discovering the emerging world of regenerative business is potentially a lonely and overwhelming journey, especially in the face of seemingly impossible levels and layers of complexity. However, we are not alone. I’m in the process of joining the collaborative and international Wellbeing Economy Alliance — WEALL, which has a great introductory video on its home page with the positive message: for an economy in service of life, which is what regenerative business is all about. The website offers encouraging examples of companies in many of the world’s regions bringing the service of life to life. Take a look! Kate Raworth is one of its many ambassadors.
I hope fellow travelers find this article helpful. Please share your journey, and if you work in a regenerative business or one in transition, I’d love to hear your story. In my next article, I shall go down to a deeper level and examine the eight principles John Fullerton and the Capital Institute recommended and the seven dimensions for the ‘business of wellbeing’ from WEALL.