Regenerative Business: 7 Critical Issues for 7 Generations

In hosting the first of a series of discussions on Regenerative Business for the future of work platform Connectle, I was privileged to be able to host some very advanced discussion and thinking on the future of business. Some key issues emerged from the discussion between Daniel Christian Wahl, Ralph Thurm of Reporting 3.0, Zoe Le Grand of Forum for the Future and Jon Khoo, Innovation Partner at Interface Inc that I think are worth summarising.

If you have an hour to spare, I can’t recommend the webinar highly enough. There are SO many rich important insights within it. If you need to do a speedy (ish) skim, check out the 7 critical issues I pulled out that might help us to think in terms of 7 generation instead of 7 minutes of fame in the here and now.

1. A regenerative business pays attention to regionality

A key theme which we came back to frequently is that of regionality and bioregionalist as opposed to the predominant globalised approach we currently have. As Daniel said: “A regenerative business is a business that makes the business of regeneration its business.” One of the important considerations for businesses now and in the future will be looking at the regional and local capacity for their business and their people to be playing an active part for the regeneration of the local ecosystems in which a business is nested. This goes hand in hand with a re-regionalisation of production and consumption. We need to shift out of fossil fuels for our material and energy needs, and we need to shrink the material/industrial circle and grow the bioproduction cycle.

There is a huge opportunity for regional innovation to shift to a biomaterials-based circular economy which could improve the whole system’d health, — social, economic, environmental — of the region the business system is embedded in. This will mean that businesses will have to become more active in lobbying policy changers since currently the system is stacked against re-regionalising businesses.

Working in this way is likely to be a fundamental reinvention of what a business is and what it does. It will mean looking at how your business can net-positively contribute to growing biomass in soils, growing standing forests, growing healthy watersheds, for example. Ecological regeneration goes hand in hand with shifting business focus from global to glocal. It is always about elegant soltions carefully adapted to the biocultural uniquenes s of the place in which a businesses is located. It’s about what people can do in their place with the opportunities and challenges their region faces.

At Forum For The Future, a pre-competitive and collaborative not-for-profit that works with many global brands, the issue of doing business in a way that is locally appropriate, it has come up a lot this year. As Zoe Le Grand, head of the Net Positive Project for Forum explaned: “If you aim to be net-positive in water, its not good enought o try to clean up a watershed in one area while polluting a watershed in another. If you produce more clean water than that which you pollute, that also doesn’t make you net positive. The way in which these business have been tacking it is to look at all the watersheds in which they have an impact. They examine what they are extracting, whether it is a water scarce locality or whether it is water-scarce at certain times of the year. Only when that the system is fully understood can they design an appropriate response where they can have a net positive impact of that particular ecosystem.”

2. A regenerative business supports intrapreneurship, has a clear mission and builds capacity

Interface is one of the most advanced organisations to have woven together both social and environmental impact. From founder Ray Anderson’s vision of becoming a Zero Impact business, the company has always been at the forefront of the scale of ambition it has brought to its organisation. Innovation Partner Jon Khoo attributes this to the attention that is paid to creating, designing and maintaining a culture of innovation, and to the company having a clear mission and purpose.

“ You need to have an employee base that is always willing to be entrepreneurial and challenging. When you have a company with a clear mission, its people want to push the boundaries of what’s possible. At Interface we had a key ‘intrapreneur’ Miriam Turner, who wanted the organisation to match that all the work we had done on the environmental side of our business with the the same impact on the social side.” Jon highlighted the importance of organisations designing a culture and a system that supports intrapreneurship to flourish.

Are you willing to have an ambition to be a restorative business? 
Are you willing to back your intrepreneurs and allow them to test out ideas? Are you willing to give them the tools and resources to prototype?

Building capacity is also the responsibility of individuals, leaders and organisations who are working regeneratively. As Daniel suggests: “It can’t always be the consultant coming in to activate change. We need to build capacity among everybody. Within businesses and wider networks of businesses.”

Mission and purpose of the organisation are key catalysts. “People earn in two economies,” explained Daniel. “The economy of money to pay bills and put food on the table. But what keeps people in a company and engaged in its work is earning in the economy of meaning. Contributing to something more than just paying your mortgage. By becoming regenerative, businesses have the opportunity to bring back the inspiration for humanity to come together and redesign the human impact and presence on planet earth in one generation. What a goal to aspire to — ‘I am contributing to the regeneration of the health of local ecosystems, health of my local community and social system I am embedded in, regional economies that give people meaning as they go to work’.”

3. A regenerative business understands the strategy continuum for change

We are talking about a massive transformation in how business is done and what business will be in the future. And that’s not achieved in an instant. One of the important starting points is the acceptance and understanding that there is a journey towards becoming regenerative, and that it isn’t particular easy to do, or to sidestep any stage of the development process.

That continuum includes all businesses whether they are currently operating the ‘business as usual’ model of stakeholder and shareholder value, at the early stages of delivering ‘sustainability’ and improving their impact, are actively transitioning to a ‘circular’ economy, considering how they can be ‘regenerative’ or to whether they are delivering ‘thrivability’ for people and planet.

Taking a company on such a massive transformational journey requires exceptionally gifted leadership, excellent communications and a framework for that journey. Reporting 3.0’s recently launched Transformation Journey Program aims at supporting leaders and businesses through that journey — in organisational design, aspiration, cultural change and psychological strain on leadership resilience.

4. A regenerative business thinks, designs and operates systemically

Taking a systems thinking approach is frequently highlighted as key to a regenerative future. We had some very concrete examples of how to do that from Forum For The Future’s partnership with SIG, a packaging company.

Instead of looking at the impact of the company on social and environmental systems, the company takes the view of looking for the systems which support its business — in this case forests system — to produce the board its products are made from. For this business to be sustainable into the future there needs to be a certifiable, reliable supply of board and therefore sustainable management of forests. It’s in the interests of the organisation to support the systems it relies on, to ensure there is a greater supply of sustainable board into the future. By taking that systems approach and by recognising that the business is reliant on a natural ecosystem, SIG then had to collaborate with their supply chain and with the NGOs who are supporting reforestation to that ensure that supply continues.

Another more recent story of re-imagining the transportation and freight system is below:

5. A regenerative business has a collaborative not competitive mindset

So easy to say, so hard to do. We are trained into a competitive mindset from the moment we start school. Both Forum for the Future and Reporting 3.0 are great examples of pre-competitive collaborations. Forum creates an open space as an impartial host for organisations to work together on global challenges like plastic and cotton. Reporting 3.0 brings sustainability and management consultancies, lobbying groups and businesses together to expore the potential for reporting, accounting and data to act as a transformational agent inside business.

As a business owner, Jon suggests that even a market leader like Interface has to take a slightly more pragmatic view. “Working collaboratively is not easy within the current economic model. We’re a business, we’re still looking for shareholder value. We have to find ways to be more agile within our competitive market. It’s about collaborating with more unusual suspects than direct competitors. In the case of our Net-Works project that has been our yarn supplier, the Zoological Society of London and local village communities in the Philippines.”

Being collaborative also means seeking the wisdom of many perspectives. As Daniel points out: “We need to be able to consider the perspective of the CEO, whose responsibility it is to keep the lights on and people in jobs; the vale of the disruptive innovator — whether entrepreneur or intrapreneur — who says we already have the technologies to move forwards, and the perspective of the visionary who can actually imagine the regenerative future we need.”

One of the many valuable tools and frameworks that help organisations achieve this is IFF’s Three Horizons model for innovation. It helps organisations map out the different perspectives in its organisation and wider industry from an open mindset, critically enabling people to see and hold their own position, yet see the value of all the other perspectives. You can read mor about Three Horizons HERE.

6. A regenerative business thinks in terms of intergenerational equity and multi capitalism

When The Bruntland Report (Our Common Future) was published back in 1987, the core idea was that sustainability should be based on the foundation of People Planet & Prosperity — putting the human being at the centre of sustainable thinking. Asking the question ‘how do humans have to behave to continue to have the support of the planetary ecosystem that sustains us?’

A pre-condition of that idea of sustainability is intergenerational equity. Don’t do anything that would restrict future generations from having the same opportunities you have. “Today intergenerational equity has been engineered out of sustainability strategy,” argued Ralph Thurm. “It is a quality that tries to ensure zero negative impact. It doesn’t go to the other side of the opportunity — regenerative or thriving business for all life systems.”

Multi-capitalism asks business to look at and measure returns that are not just financial, but inspirational, social, and natural capitals that are the fundamental basis of value creation in any economy. They are not just building blocks that help companies to have regenerative resourcs to continue to use for pragmatic value creation, but also to generate the intrinsic value so critical to human psychological development and health. It is a model that could help us to increase the level of consciousness and awareness of being critically dependent on our planetary life support system and health ecosystem functions.

Companies that have been designed with the ancient indigenous wisdom principle of taking care of the 7th generation into the future include Seventh Generation (aptly named) founded by Jeffrey Hollender soon to be launching into the UK and Europe. Jeffrey has since founded Sustain, a transformation business in sexual health and reproduction also based on Forum’s Net Positive model. It’s not yet common, but these businesses do exist.

7. A regenerative business challenges language, legal forms and shapes new narratives through creativity and imagination

In today’s information age, communicating with absolute clarity is difficult. Today’s orginal idea is tomorrow’s buzzword, adopted by millions around the planet without much consideration for what it might mean.

When the UN announced its global mission to create an open, inclusive and green economy, supported by the UN Sustainable Development Goals framework, there was little practical understanding of what it actually meant to deliver that. Which is where back-casting from a re-imagined future becomes valuable. The challenge may be that positive imagination is in short supply these days!

Reporting 3.0 chose to imagine what an open, inclusive and green economy might look like, and then backcast and design for the transition that was necessary (rather than politically opportune) through the medium of reporting, data and accounting. “The difficulty is that business isn’t asking for this. Regenerative advocates have to be market-making, we have to be advocates as much as agents of change. We’ve all been educated to be risk averse which prevents us from thinking in the way that needs to be thought. Instead of working towards the The Future We Want, we work towards The Future We Design by producing the information infrastructure that helps the transition towards a regenerative economy.”

Another immediate barrier to progress is the legal forms available for organisations to operate within. The Limited Liability Company, designed over 200 years ago is a model, according to Ralph, that gave the corporate organisation the ability to operate without recourse to intergenerational responsibility. New legal forms are beginning to emerge. The B Corporation is becoming a highly successful bridge model which weaves multi capital responsibility — including not just financial but natural, social and human capital into the organisation fiduciary responsibilities. Global corporates like Unilever and Danone are gradually acquiring and transitioning many of their sub brands to the B Corporation model. Co-operatives and collectives are emerging in grassroots communities in the built environment, agriculture and even finance. Regenerative busiensses have to use the mechanisms and levers available currently to make their transition, whilst developing and lobbying for new and better models.

Both Daniel and Reporting 3.0 introduce the idea of ‘Rightsholdership’ as a better way of seeing the interconnected responsibility of an organisation. Three key questions to consider include:

Can you tell me if any aspect of the performance of your organisation is sustainable? Measure the actual performance against threshholds and allocations. 
Are you building financial capital on the back of any other capital? 
Are you able to educate, collaborate and advocate for economic systems boundaries change?

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If you would like to join the 2nd webcast in our Regenerative Business Series on Nov 6th, we will be discussing Regenerative Culture Design. You can register HERE.

The link to the full interview is at the top of this post if you missed it. Here are some more valuable resources and links that might be helpful:

Daniel Wahl’s Medium channel
Forum for the Future Net Positive
Reporting 3.0:
Interface Climate Take Back
Interface: Net-Works —
Interface NextWave —
The Regenerative Business, Carol Sanford
Three Horizons Model from International Futures Forum
Global Goals
B Corporation
The Capital Instititute, Regenerative Communities & Field Guide
Gaia Education
All In: