Can Regenerative Business Restore Planet Earth?

Our Collective Failure

Carry in, carry out. It’s the old familiar message at the beginning of the trail or next to the campsite — a polite request to leave it as you found it. It’s a subtle reminder to not leave our trash in the beauty of nature. To keep our parks green and beautiful for the next park-goer.

Photos by Florida-Guidebook.com and Jeremy Bezanger on Unsplash

Yet, the park, our planet earth, in many places, has been ravaged; and the next park-goer — the generations to come — is already seeing an erosion of their birthright. In our minds, we know this, and in our hearts, we feel it. The data shows that it would take 5 Earths to support the global population if we all lived like Americans, based on current United States living standards. As Otto Scharmer, Senior Lecturer at MIT and Founder of the Presencing Institute shares, “Collectively we are creating results that most of us do not want.” What is causing this level of failure of collective action on such a widespread level?

The Consumer Experience

In many ways, a focus on our singular agendas perpetrates these atrocities on the planet; we are actively not seeing or feeling as a collective. In my experience, we get overwhelmed and we shut down. Let us, for a moment, look at the level of personal experience as consumers. All of us are consumers. In order to get my regular, everyday needs met, I have to make a decision of where to shop, what to buy, how much of it to buy, and how much to spend.

When I’m at the market (which is already a decision to make — local market, big box store, warehouse/bulk shopping, etc), most of my decisions start and end with price; but, as a consumer, I have other factors to consider: how will this affect my health/the health of my family, how long will this last etc. And, as conscious consumers may ask themselves, how was this produced? Does the production match my values? Who owns this company? How will my dollars be used? How does this purchase affect the environment?

As we move through phases of life, and aisles in the store, we often can’t hold all of these factors in our heads for every single product we purchase. We look to someone else in the chain to make those decisions; we look for labels — Non-GMO, Organic, B Corp Certified, etc. — and in some cases, we ignore them, thinking that this one purchase won’t single handedly save the world. But the data shows that these certifications do make a difference.

The Employee Experience

While all of us are consumers in some ways, many of us are also employees and/or employers. Regardless of our roles, we work for organizations and businesses deeply enmeshed in the production of goods and services. Prior to and during the Great Resignation, we have seen Millennials and now Gen Z coming into the workforce demanding meaningful work and work that supports their wellbeing and values. As employees looking for meaningful work, we look for companies that have strong sustainability practices or that are values aligned. And yet, as we enter those companies, we find many are falling short. While we hope to put our heads down, do our job and have healthy work-life balance, the reality is: What’s required of us is to show up to do our work in the world. Scharmer has shared, “We are not just working FOR our organizations, we are working FROM our organizations.” As we do our day to day, how do we stay attuned to what we are truly here on Earth to do, and operate from that place?

The Company Experience

The big question is, where does the responsibility for caring for planet earth and her people lie? Is it in the consumer? The employee? What about the company? Some might say that the leaders in the company should bear the responsibility; those same leaders might say that they are beholden to the shareholders or investors (depending on the size of the organization). Many companies will say that their responsibility lies with the consumer; afterall, the consumer votes with their dollar and the market makes the ultimate decision. Who should take the first step? Will companies wait for consumer action to shift before they begin to produce differently?

Systems Change for Capitalism 4.0

What would Capitalism 4.0 look like if we were in charge? What do we mean by a “regenerative economy?” Is “regenerative” just a new buzz word for “sustainability,” enabling companies to green wash their marketing to another sparkly quarterly earnings report?

Let’s first look at the system change required now. We know what’s not working (business as usual). Most corporate models are rooted in an extractive mode of economic operation and a tick-box method of tracking compliance. The UN Environment Programme shares, “Greenhouse gas emissions, pollution and biodiversity loss are just some of the threats extraction poses to human health and the environment.” These methods force companies to look at small parts of their operations — often in siloes from each other — rather than the whole. They focus on short-term profits rather than long-term impacts. What we need now is not just a logical systems change approach. It’s not purely a data-driven policy change to which companies are forced to adhere. The focus on short term profit gains mean a lack of awareness or attention to the human and environmental impacts. How do we incorporate a viewpoint of the whole?

Our policies become rooted in a mindset shift and putting heart at the center of business.

The type of systems change required now is awareness based. Scharmer, in a recent article wrote that what’s needed now is “Collective Action from Shared Awareness (CASA).” When we have a shared awareness across industries, when we can see and feel what’s not working, we can make decisions benefitting the whole, rather than just the parts. Our policies become rooted in a mindset shift and putting heart at the center of business. I would then argue that consumer demand and market investment follow this awareness based systems change.

What do we mean by Regenerative?

Sustainable is good — it’s helped us get to this point; but I would argue that regenerative is better. Not as a buzz-word, but as a call to a subtly different form of action. Many companies have set sustainability goals looking at how to both sustain themselves and make sure they are operating within guide-rails to do “less bad” to the environment — to not thoroughly extract to the point of decimating landscapes, for example. Now, what if companies and the ways they operate could actually restore landscapes, could welcome the return of inspiration and wellbeing?

Land degradation and deforestation. Photo by Dave Herring on Unsplash

With less than 7 years left until the climate crisis hits a point of no return, we know it’s no longer about doing less bad. Our responsibility now is to restore ecosystems and shift entire operating systems so that we leave our beautiful planet better than we found it. What this requires is a shift in our inner operating system. It’s not merely about accelerating good ideas or having more and more impact projects. In some ways, it’s about slowing down. It’s about buying less and producing less. It’s about pausing to look at what’s really happening, and building the muscle of seeing, sensing and feeling together — cultivating a shared awareness. It’s about building resilience and learning from the rhythm of nature to become stewards of our planet for the generations to come. It’s about acting based on a shared intention and living into our values, in our daily lives and at work.

New York Academy of Sciences: Pale Blue Dot

An Example in Action

Over the last 12 years, I’ve worked with inspirational colleagues at EILEEN FISHER (EF). EF has stepped into the world of regenerative business in a few different ways. They’ve been sourcing wool from a farm collective that utilizes regenerative agricultural practices, which promotes biodiversity and carbon sequestration. They take back gently worn EF clothing from their customers and find new life for those pieces, either by cleaning, repairing and reselling them or by turning them into new garments, accessories or home products. And they are constantly asking themselves: How much is enough?

As Amy Hall (former VP of Social Consciousness and now the Social Consciousness Strategic Advisor for EILEEN FISHER) says, “Shifting from silos to systems isn’t easy. But it is tremendously rewarding. In order to achieve true ecosystem balance on this planet, we need to work together. Getting started is the hardest part.”

A Cross-Industry Regenerative Business Lab:

Amy Hall and I (one of the early creators of Green Eileen — now known as EILEEN FISHER Renew) have gotten so passionate about this effort that we’ve developed a partnership between Eileen Fisher Foundation and the Presencing Institute to bring together a cross-industry Regenerative Business Lab. With a small first cohort and speakers like Otto Scharmer, Eileen Fisher and Carmen Gama, we’ll be diving into practices that cultivate and build the muscles for Awareness Based Systems Change, looking at new research coming out in Spring ’22 on textile waste, and exploring ways to take collective action from an emerging shared awareness.

Our hope is that, through this 11-week program, participants will align around a fresh sense of urgency and purpose in their work, and they will co-create a new vision to address textile waste for their companies. They will lay the groundwork for a new community of like-minded change-makers building a restorative future for our planet.

If you’re interested in learning more, reach out directly to us here.

Thank you to Amy Hall for her contributions to this article, thinking and the industry as a whole.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Antoinette Klatzky

Antoinette Klatzky

Executive Director, Eileen Fisher Leadership Institute. Host/Co-Producer, Women Together. antoinetteklatzky.com