The twin challenges of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and tackling climate change is forcing business leaders to re-think their strategies for the coming decades. The concept of regeneration - helping natural systems regain their original restorative character - provides some directions to business leaders and policy makers.
In her book ‘Working to Restore: Why We Do Business in the Regenerative Era’ Esha Chhabra chronicles several cases of how businesses around the world are adopting alternative models to enhance profit while taking care of people and the planet. Chhabra picks up some of the big issues of our time - soil, waste, supply chain, workforce, women, travel, health, energy and finance - and shares inspiring case studies.
Intensive, industrial farming using fertilizers and pesticides have depleted the quantity and quality of top soil around the world, posing grave threat to food security. French sneaker brand Vejais has addressed the problem by creating the ‘most ecologically sensitive shoes possible’ while regenerating the Amazonian rain forests, practicing agro-ecology and providing a better quality of life to traditional rubber-tapping communities in Brazil.
Waste- to-wealth has been the mantra for many entrepreneurs around the world. Boats and furniture are now made out of plastic recovered from Amsterdam canals and beer is being brewed from bread waste. While we should raise a toast to that, the challenges of infrastructure and investment in creating such businesses are clear.
How can a business regenerate its own ecosystem - both inside the company and across the supply chain? Inclusive supply chains treat all producers with dignity, provide fair wages and give them a voice in decision making. From growing coffee in Uganda (Falcon Coffee) to creating fragrances in war-torn Afghanistan (7 Virtues), we come across entrepreneurs who are trying to improve the quality of life of their suppliers.
Within the company, entrepreneurs are experimenting with reduced pay inequality, employee ownership and more inclusive hiring practices. Greyston Bakery in New York, offers everyone walking in a job - no CV, no background check. This provides new life to the so-called unemployables like ex-prisoners and disabled candidates who also turn out to be excellent performers in the store or on the shop floor. In the process, companies are showing that traditional success metrics are often limited by our own aspiration and imagination.
It is possible to make business a force for social change. Jewelry making in Kenya or traditional leather shoe making in Peru are led by women thereby revitalising lost community crafts while promoting gender equality.
Tourism is one of the trickier areas for regenerative business. Travelling is human nature but it is also carbon intensive. The transportation and hospitality industry are trying alternative models - eco-hotels (UK), slow travel (Norway) and conservation-oriented wildlife safari (Africa) -- showing the way to regenerate communities while bringing in money.
Regenerating community health requires re-thinking food subsidies and providing citizens with healthy food but new businesses are often pushed back by a nexus of insurance and pharma companies who want to maximise profit at any cost.
Businesses like Thrive Market (the US) and Aravind Eye Care System (India) have shown that it is possible to serve the poor while making market-beating returns. Similarly, in the area of renewable energy, companies like Arcadia (US) and Enercoop (France) have innovated to change the way renewable energy is produced, distributed and consumed.
The finance challenge
All the businesses discussed in the book require capital but the financial system, always looking for short-term returns, is the hardest to change. Patient capital interested in facilitating regenerative systems is rare. Some solutions are suggested - crowdfunding (Groupe SOS, France) as well as alternative banks like Triodos (Netherlands) with more than $15 billion assets under management but we know that co-operative banks and micro-finance have not made the impact one expected of them. Changing the mainstream capital market through ESG (Environmental Social and Governance) framework may help. So, it is surprising to note Chhabra’s silence on this topic.
Working to Restore will inspire the design of regenerative new businesses that can also regenerate communities. However, one needs to remember the quote from one of the Veja founders, “too much of anything is a problem for the ecosystem”. While regenerative business is one part of the solution, conscious consumption is the other part. Even the most sustainable sneaker cannot save the world, if we keep buying pair after pair just because they are sold at a discount or have a nice design or color. No one person or organisation has the answer to the sustainability challenges of today but together, we can, slowly, make working models of a better future.
The reviewer is a Professor at the Xavier Institute of Management Bhubaneswar (XIMB)
Check out the book on Amazon
About the Book
Title: Working to Restore: Why we do business in the Regenerative Era
Author: Esha Chhabra
Publisher: Patagonia Books
Distributor: Penguin Random House India