Regeneration is the New Sustainability: Why Your Company Needs A Chief Regeneration Officer
Every day, we wake up to new headlines of how this planet and humanity is in crisis: climate devastation, pandemics, racial unrest, extreme inequality…. the list goes on and on.
It is clear that the response from the business community needs to change from being one of apathy and disinterest, to one which acknowledges its role in being able to help solve these problems, alongside government, non-profits and civil society.
Towards a Net Positive approach
Forward thinking companies have begun to adopt a ‘Net Positive’ approach to business, drawing on the principles outlined in the Net Positive Project, whose members include AT&T, Dell, Hewlett Packard, Target and many others. They articulate their Mission as “To create a world where companies drive financial success and create “net positive” impacts by putting more back into society, the environment, and the global economy than they take out.”
Andrew Winston and Paul Polman, former CEO of Unilever, write compellingly about this new approach in their book ‘Net Positive: How Courageous Companies Thrive by Giving More Than They Take’. They define a Net Positive company as one that ‘improves well-being for everyone it impacts and at all scales—every product, every operation, every region and country, and for every stakeholder, including employees, suppliers, communities, customers, and even future generations and the planet itself.”
Put simply, a Net Positive company isn’t trying to do less harm – but actively trying to do more good.
Moving Beyond Sustainability to Regeneration
It is encouraging to see how pretty much every major company now has a sustainability strategy in place. But sustainability (defined as “the avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance”) as a goal seems like such a low bar to set ourselves in the face of the crises in the world.
Walmart is one such company whose CEO Doug McMillon has publicly committed to ‘going beyond sustainability’ and taking a regenerative approach. He stated ‘We want to play an important role in transforming the world’s supply chains to be regenerative. We face a growing crisis of climate change and nature loss, and we all need to take action with urgency. The commitments we’re making today not only aim to decarbonize Walmart’s global operations, they also put us on the path to becoming a regenerative company – one that works to restore, renew and replenish in addition to preserving our planet, and encourages others to do the same.”
These commitments included not only targeting zero emissions by 2040 but to ‘protect, manage or restore at least 50 million acres of land and one million square miles of ocean by 2030 to help combat the cascading loss of nature threatening the planet.’
They outline an important principle that companies should seek to follow. It is time to move to an approach where companies move beyond maintaining the status quo to ‘Restore, renew, replenish’ the natural world that they are part of. In other words, we must move from sustainability to regeneration as a mindset for all companies to adopt.
The Role of A Chief Regeneration Officer
Within corporations, the role of a Chief Sustainability Officer has been widely seen as one that is necessary to mitigate risk and reduce liability. It is primarily seen as a ‘defensive’ role, one that helps a company find ways to deal with consumption of resources and improve processes around energy, waste and other externalities.
But I believe that it’s time for a change. I propose that companies should now have Chief Regeneration Officers, whose job is to spearhead how a company creates a net positive impact in the world environmentally.
In other words, to no longer treat environmental issues as a ‘Shield’ (a defensive issue) but a ‘Sword’ (a topic that can drive future growth and profitability through a net positive environmental impact).
Let’s take one example of where a different approach can have an exponential impact: regenerative agriculture. As opposed to conventional industrial agriculture which focuses on aggressive techniques to reap as much benefit from the land, often at great cost to soil health, biodiversity and other factors, regenerative agriculture is defined as a holistic system which gives back to the land.
A regenerative agriculture approach is about building up high quality soil, which improves biodiversity and animal welfare – and perhaps most importantly sequesters carbon on an unprecedented scale which can help combat climate change.
Companies like General Mills, Cargill, and Pepsi have all made commitments around shifting their agricultural production to regenerative – but they only represent a tiny fraction of companies globally. Chief Regenerative Officers whose remits included the rapid transformation of an agricultural supply chain into a regenerative one could have a massive impact.
Unleashing Technologies of Abundance
Regenerative agriculture is just one such area where companies can pioneer new approaches. But it is by no means the only one.
In their book Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think , Steven Koettler and Peter Diamandis (founder of the X-Prize Foundation and Singularity University) argue that the arrival of new ‘exponential’ technologies like clean energy, synthetic biology, and others can lead to a state of ‘abundance’, where we can provide the coming 10 billion people on the planet by 2050 with the same standard of living the most privileged amongst us enjoy.
The role of a Chief Regenerative Officer should encompass the remit to explore all of these new technologies as they pertain to the business model of the company, and find ways to harness their potential to drive financial, social and environmental impact.
This is especially important when we think about the advent of transformational new technologies that have the power to unlock a better life for everyone.
Purpose is not just about ‘giving back’ – but paying it forward
An ancient Greek proverb states ‘”A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”
It speaks to the idea that we must be ‘good ancestors’ – making decisions now that will have benefits beyond our lifespans.
We must move beyond the traditional model of corporate philanthropy around ‘giving back’ and embrace a new approach – one that is about ‘paying it forward’.
Paying it forward to the future generations of corporate leaders and employees who will inherit the companies that we are stewards of today, so that they are positioned for success.
As Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard said, “You can’t do business on a dead planet.”
Perhaps more importantly – as responsible stewards of our fragile planet, we need to pay it forward to our children and grand-children and generations to come.
The task seems impossible, even insurmountable. But I believe we are at a tipping point in business and humanity. And if enough of us take action, we can create change at a scale large enough to not just survive – but thrive as a species.