The Curiosity and Caution of Regenerative Business Strategy

“In my lifetime, I’ve witnessed a terrible decline. In yours, you could and should witness a wonderful recovery.”Sir David Attenborough, COP26

A new emerging narrative

Over the last six months, we have seen an increasing number of businesses talking about regenerative concepts, and incorporating these into sustainability strategies. Clients from tourism to FMCG are asking Edge “What could a Regenerative Strategy look like for our business?”

This year’s global Sustainable Brands conference theme was Regeneration. In the opening address in San Diego, participants were asked:

  • How can we build businesses that move away from reductionist mindsets?
  • How can we build businesses that contribute to a thriving environment, people and places? 
  • Even if a business is designed to give back, as we grow, are we becoming part of the problem rather than the solution? How do we grapple with the paradox of growth?
  • What if factories could be part of the solution? What if our infrastructure was indistinguishable from the wild systems it sits within?

A clear message from San Diego, and the accompanying Australian panel which Edge hosted (view here) was that companies and consumers recognise that minimising harm is no longer enough. We are seeing a move away from sustainability activities that sit adjacent to core operating practices, to a world where positive environmental and social outcomes, regenerative thinking and biomimicry are embedded within the functions of business.

Just like living organisms, businesses need to transition from early stages of rapid growth to a stable period of longevity, and ultimately contribute to the systems that sustain them. As I was reminded recently when trying to grow tomato seedlings on my windowsill – if the only goal is to suck nutrients to reach the sky, a plant will get top-heavy, deplete its resources, get ‘leggy’ and topple over. Plants need to draw on, be influenced by and contribute to the ecosystem around them to thrive. As does business.

A new buzzword?

Terms associated with regeneration are appearing across a raft of new business strategies and initiatives – sometimes used to describe a mindset or approach to business, sometimes related to specific practices such as no-till farming or recycling methods, and sometimes used as a substitute for sustainability.

Our friends at The RSA (royal society for arts, manufactures and commerce) have been undertaking a multi-year project looking into regenerative thinking and design, and exploring the question “What does it really mean to aim for a future that is regenerative?” They have found that far from simply being a new piece of jargon, regeneration, when used in its fullest sense, marks a fundamental shift in thinking and action.

Regenerative thinking is grounded in a living systems view of the world, recognising the interdependence of issues and the need for us to re-evaluate our relationships with one another and the world we are part of. It can be used to describe both a way of thinking and acting, and an emerging paradigm. (RSA, 2021)

It is the process of moving from a state of extracting, through sustaining, and into restoring and replenishing the systems we rely on to thrive.

Image credit: RSA Regenerative Futures by Josie Warden

What does this mean for corporate strategy?

With a rich history of academic and design thought, there is no shortage of regenerative definitions, collaborative discussion and literature. But what does this mean for a company that wants to genuinely engage with this concept?

What could a regenerative business strategy look like?

What does it mean to transition from a focus on sustainability to regeneration?

These are some of the questions we are asking at Edge at the moment, and we are excited to have some bold clients who want to explore this with us through their strategy design.  

To create a practical, authentic and meaningful strategy process, we know that we need to proceed with caution. The last thing we want is for the transformative strengths of regenerative thinking and practices to become jargon that distorts the conversation and opportunity for genuine change. We must create space for learning, lean into complexity, make time to genuinely collaborate, and have patience. We also know that we need to practice what we preach – we need to connect and partner with others in this space, to be open with our learnings, and draw on the wisdom and inspiration of others.

As we start to embed regenerative thinking and actions into projects, we know we will move from a focus on process and outcome, to a focus on principals – where a strategy is less about broad initiatives, and more about building the capabilities, interconnections and continual learning within a business. Central to these principals will be understanding the nested situation of a business; connecting its strategy to the places, people and environment it interacts with.  We will also need to hold ourselves to living in the potential – to focus on areas of opportunity and creativity.

The most heartening and inspiring change from a strategy development perspective, is that regenerative thinking provides a comprehensive space for understanding diverse impact and value. It weaves together sustainability, indigenous wisdom and self-determination, social impact, meaningful employment, place-based action, nature-based solutions and supply chain interaction. It provides a framework to hold all these threads in one place, and allows us to start to see business streams as truly interrelated – to think about value from a much more holistic perspective.

At Edge, we are excited to continue to learn, listen, test and reflect on how this emerging work can achieve better outcomes for people and the planet, while using science, strategy and storytelling to build momentum for a regenerative future.

To hear more about our work, or join the conversation, please reach out!

This article was written by Rhianna Dean, Senior Consultant at Edge Environment.

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