Can Regenerative Economics and mainstream business mix?


As companies push sustainability further and further into their existing models, those with real ambitions and the eyes open widest are also starting to hit the limits of what ‘less harm’ sustainability thinking can achieve.


The companies aiming for 1.5 degree pathways, or for truly sustainable ways of operating understand that ‘less unsustainable’ is only step one in the process and that our business and economic thinking needs to work out better ways of working – not just less bad ways.

Companies looking for new model thinking

To a degree, the circular economy has provided a big leap forward beyond the old linear models. But pioneer companies are also now butting up against the limitations of circularity and closing loops too. And by the way, this is not to criticise circularity or closed loops! These are of course essential steps but in the old expressions they are increasingly being understood to be ‘essential but not sufficient’.

So where are businesses and leaders turning for new insight and methodologies that push the boundaries further? 

There seem to be two emerging bodies of thoughts that are closely connected and indeed entirely complementary that are starting to ping onto the radar of bigger and bigger businesses.  

These are Doughnut Economics, developed by Kate Raworth, and Regenerative Economics.

For now I just want to point to Regenerative Economics (I will come back to Doughnuts at a later date) not because its more interesting but simply because it seems to be gaining traction quickly and we have had several clients asking us for more insight and understanding of what it involves, why it is different, is it just another new sustainability buzz word?


What is Regenerative Economics all about?

There are various slightly different takes on regenerative economics in the world and, as is often the case with what start as philosophies or academic schools of thoughts, the differences are quite nuanced and not always relevant to the more mainstream practitioner. The owners of each of the bodies of thought are also quite protective of their principles, and don’t all agree with each other which is no doubt a challenge. 

The best (ie least esoteric) definition I can find for regenerative is ‘creating the conditions conducive for life to continuously renew itself, to transcend to new forms and to flourish amid ever-changing life conditions’. And if even that sounds a bit too holistic and hippie-ish for you then I’d agree – and I come to this point later.

The key names/books I’d point to if you’re interested in learning more would be:

  • John Fullerton Capital Institute – John is a former JP Morgan MD and so comes at this subject with more pragmatism than many. They have published some really useful insight papers and are forming partnerships and collaboration that are starting to make waves.

  • Hunter Lovins – founder of Natural Capitalism Solutions and author of Our Finer Future.

  • Carol Sandford and her book The Regenerative Business

  • Giles Hutchins – author Regenerative Leadership

  • Daniel Christian Wahl – author of Designing Regenerative Cultures

What all of these approaches have in common is that they look at regenerative economics in more total system-based ways, bringing in the wider dimensions of people and place/communities as being central to how regenerative economies need to work, rather than being focused on the narrower space of regenerative agriculture/soil and resource use. which is slightly easier to grasp and now being trialled or put into practice in many places around the world.

This area of regenerative agriculture is a logical place for businesses to start though as the regenerative principles can fit so naturally with food system businesses. This is why we are already seeing big global companies like Danone and General Mills and others make commitments to regenerative agriculture practices and even, in the case of General Mills, start to launch products produced using regenerative methods.


The challenges

As I see it, there are two big challenges for regenerative right now:

The first is how it moves from the purity of academic thought into the messier realities of big business without either being over-diluted to the point of not being effective, or potentially becoming just another buzzword that gets hijacked or misused by businesses trying to wear the badge. (I’d argue that this is exactly what has happened to circularity).

The second is how does it gain the attention of business and gain traction while it still comes across as a bit too ‘mindful’ and hippy-ish.

Somehow it is going to need to square this circle. There seems to be huge potential for and interest in the principles Regenerative puts forward. But make no mistake, it is not about improving the current business models we have with increments of less harm. It requires starting from scratch and operating completely differently and creating a system with very dynamics, inputs and outputs.

We’re keen to explore this challenge and to help to work out how to get regenerative thinking into the boardroom. As part of this we are holding a breakfast event in London on Friday 8 November where we will be bringing various parts of the puzzle together, from authors to businesses trying to work with regenerative thinking.