Going beyond Sustainability. The shift to Regenerative Capitalism & Post-Growth.

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So once we created a sustainable world and achieved all the Sustainable Development Goals we can call it quits right? Unfortunately not. Achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development goals would be already a tremendous achievement. But we all know that if truly want to give humanity a chance to thrive on this planet, we need to go beyond “sustaining” and start regenerating. Regeneration is a bit of an up and coming buzzword. But what does it actually mean? And how is it different from sustainability?

Regenerative vs. Sustainability

Sustainability is possibly simultaneously the most overused and most important word around the globe. But what does sustainability actually mean? And is it enough? 

Let’s take a couple of steps back and revisit the most common definition of sustainability.

“Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs”.

Brundtland Committee

If you want to dive deeper into the term “sustainability” you can hop over to our first Sustainability Jargon Buster.” 

Other frequently used definitions are; 

“Avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance.” – Oxford Dictionary

“The idea that goods and services should be produced in ways that do not use resources that cannot be replaced and that do no damage to the environment.”

Cambridge Dictionary

The term sustainability is simply made up out of two words “to sustain” + “ability”. So it actually doesn’t mean more than the ability to keep up. The question is, what do we want to keep up? We believe that the goal should be to keep up “life”. Life on this planet, not only the life of humans but of all living organisms, other animals, insects, fungi, plants and so on. 

So actually (sorry Brundtland committee) Should it be “Meeting humanity’s the present needs of all living organisms without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. 

One thing that the term “sustainability” doesn’t take into account is the amount of resources we have already depleted and polluted since the industrial revolution. To correct the damage so far we have to start looking at regeneration. 

The meaning of Regeneration

The term regeneration in its simplest definition is “the action or process of regenerating, the renewal or restoration of animal or plant tissue.” Other definitions take a broader approach to regeneration; “To form, construct, or create anew, especially in an improved state; to restore a better, higher or more worthy state; refreshed or renewed.”, “To improve a place or system, especially by making it more active or successful.”. 

Regenerative development is “the use of resources to improve society’s wellbeing in a way that builds the capacity of the support systems needed for future growth”. If this definition makes you a bit squeamish then we are on the same page. It once again only revolves around humans and even ends in focussing on growth. 

A more holistic definition of regeneration or regenerative design is; 

“​​a system of technologies and strategies, based on an understanding of the inner working of ecosystems that generates designs to regenerate rather than deplete underlying life support systems and resources within socio-ecological wholes.”

(Source: Mang & Reed 2021, Regenerative Development & Design) 

Regenerative design and development aren’t possible without whole systems thinking. We can only create resilient systems when we understand how these systems interact with nature and society. 

To recap, Sustainable Development aims to create a future society that we can keep up over a longer period of time. Regenerative development goes beyond this and aims to create a future in which societies and businesses restore, renew or improve the ecosystems they interact with. 

Regenerative Economics & Regenerative Capitalism

A regenerative economy is a system that works to regenerate ecosystems, living organisms and capital assets. 

“The universal patterns and principles the cosmos uses to build stable, healthy, and sustainable systems throughout the real world can and must be used as a model for economic-system design”.

J. Fullerton, 2015

Regenerative Capitalism is constructed out of eight principles, described by John Fullerton in his 2015 paper on Regenerative Capitalism. Let’s explore them one by one to get a good solid understanding of what this concept actually entails.

1. In Right Relationship; 

Principle 1; “Understand that the ecosphere is composed of nested systems, living and nonliving. Recognizes that the human economy is embedded in both culture and the ecosphere and must operate in a dynamic and cooperative relationship with them, respecting cultural needs and planetary limits.”

We have all seen nature documentaries where a lion is changing an antelope over the steppe and it’s therefore not strange that many of us think that different species are mostly competitive. But many species actually thrive due to cooperation with other animals. Take for example the Egyptian plover bird and the crocodile. The plover birds dining area is the spread open mouth of the crocodile. The bird feasts on the leftovers between the crocodile’s teeth and the crocodile get free daily dental care. Win-Win. 

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In business, we are also slowly seeing a shift in thinking, from win-lose to win-win. Ever heard of the phrase “Collaboration is the new competition”?.  If we want to accomplish the Sustainable Development Goals and complete the transition to a sustainable or regenerative economy, we need to embrace collaboration and systems thinking. 

“Today’s systemic challenges require collaboration. One company can only go so far alone until it hits a barrier, and then collaboration needs to happen for practical reasons”.

(Hendrik Alpen, Sustainability Business Expert). 

Look for example at the Sturdy shoe company Timberland, they are partnering up with Environmental services company Terra Genesis to create the first regenerative rubber supply system for shoes. 

“Business leaders are waking up to multiple benefits of focusing on collaborative advantage rather than a competitive advantage. Regenerative systems are defined by collaboration and win-win-win solutions, rather than competition and zero-sum games creating winners and losers.”

Daniel Christian Wahl, author of Designing Regenerative Cultures  

2. View Wealth Holistically; 

Principle 2; “Defines wealth in terms of the well-being of the ‘whole’ rather than only what is reducible to money.” 

In most countries around the world, we have limited the concept of wealth to “money”. But wealth goes beyond this, measuring the more holistic well-being would lead to a better understanding of how healthy, happy and sustainable nations are. Several countries around the world acknowledge that we have to look beyond GDP and teamed up in the WEGo-group, a group of countries that value well-being over GDP growth. A massive paradigm shift is needed to embrace the concept of holistic wealth over simple GDP measuring. This ties in with the shift from shareholder to stakeholder economics. Where instead of only focussing on monetary growth for shareholders the aim is to create value for all stakeholders. 

3. Innovative, Adaptive, Responsive; 

Principle 3;  “In a world in which change is both ever-present and accelerating, the qualities of innovation and adaptability are critical to health.”

Humans are problem solvers at heart. Always looking for better, faster or easier ways to tackle an issue. Engineers develop more efficient ways to store renewable energy and business developers create sustainable and creative business models benefiting people, the planet and profit. Innovative, adaptive and responsive, the key is in human’s ability to solve problems. 

“Regeneration goes beyond resilience or sustainability. Whatever is resilient, restored, robust, or sustainable resists or recovers from shocks and stays the same. Shocks make a regenerative business better. It rebounds and has the capacity to do more and be more.”

Carol Sanford, author of The Regenerative Business

4. Empowered Participation; 

Principle 4; “All healthy living systems are self-organizing and operate through continual negotiation with one another and in constant ‘conversation’. So too, a healthy human economy requires the empowered participation of individuals and groups.” 

Principle 4. Empowered participation is closely connected to Principle 1. In the right relationship. Both principles emphasise that the world we live in is built up out of systems and that we need to participate and co-create within those systems. We are seeing multiple shifts within society in the direction of empowered participation. Companies are transforming from hierarchy into flatarchies, a corporate organizational system that focuses on empowering all employees to play a direct role in the success of an organization. Decentralized systems like Decentralized Autonomous organizations are exploring ways to more equally distribute power and a voice over a larger group of individuals or entities. All these

‘New’ concepts are seeking ways to create win-win situations rather than win-lose.

5. Honours community & place; 

Principle 5.; “Each human community consists of a mosaic of peoples, traditions, beliefs, and institutions uniquely shaped by long-term pressures of geography, human history, culture, local environment, and changing human needs. Honouring this fact, a Regenerative Economy nurtures healthy and resilient communities and regions, each one uniquely informed by the essence of its individual history and place.”

Alone we go faster, together we get further. Collaboration leads to fruitful long term communities, solutions and infrastructures supporting ecosystems or human needs. A lot of progress in social and sustainable development can be made locally. Driven by tight-knit communities or small and medium businesses. How can you locally make a difference? In this case, the challenge is not to think big but to think small. 

6. Edge Effect Abundance; 

Principle 6.; “Creativity and abundance flourish synergistically at the “edges” of systems, where the bonds holding the dominant pattern in place are weakest. For example, there is an abundance of interdependent life in salt marshes where a river meets the ocean. At those edges, the opportunities for innovation and cross-fertilization are the greatest. Working collaboratively across edges is transformative for both the communities where the exchanges are happening and for the individuals involved.” 

Or in other words, embrace the power of diversity. Diverse employees with diverse perspectives lead to more creative and innovative businesses. And more importantly, diversity moves people to be more considerate and inclusive, leading to healthier and safer business environments and societies. 

7. Robust Circulatory Flow; 

Principle 7; “A regenerative material economy mimics the metabolic process found in resilient living systems, up taking what we now discard as ‘waste’ in an ongoing, productive, circulatory, and value-enhancing flow.”

The whole concept of waste is designed by humans. In the rest of nature waste simply doesn’t exist. If we want to live on a finite planet with finite resources it’s crucial that we design waste out of our societies. The circular economy is aiming to do exactly this;

“A circular economy is based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems.”


Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Hop over to our jargon buster on the circular economy to dive deeper into this topic. 

8. Seeks Balance; 

Principle 8; “Being in balance is more than just a nice way to be; it is actually essential to systemic health. Like a unicycle rider, regenerative systems are always engaged in this delicate dance in search of balance. Achieving it requires that they harmonize multiple variables instead of optimizing single ones. A Regenerative Economy seeks to balance: efficiency and resilience; collaboration and competition; diversity and coherence; and small, medium, and large organizations and needs.

The road to creating a regenerative economy is not going to be without bumps, but luckily we have a great guide, nature. We need to keep looking closely at the systems, symbioses and values the rest of the nature around us applies and follows to keep the right balance. And most importantly. We need to stop thinking that we are “above” nature, there is no such thing. 

Post Growth

The term post-growth was first introduced into the field of economy in 2009 in the Harvard Business Review by American Politician James Speth. 

In a post-growth economy, the environment, communities and the public sector will not be sacrificed for simply GDP growth. We will part ways with the idea that never-ending economic expansion is an excuse for not taking action on both urgent and long term social needs. In a post-growth society, the focus will be less on consumerism and true pricing will be applied to most products (in developed countries). Society will actively work towards improving the overall quality of life of all citizens. 

“Being less focused on getting and spending is helping consumers rediscover that the truly important things in life are not at the mall. Materialism, we now know, is toxic to happiness.”


HBR, 2009, James Gustave Speth

Degrowth 

The term degrowth refers to an economic situation during which the economy and GDP do not increase or even decrease. Degrowth is different from recession as it’s a voluntarily chosen path. Degrowth is built on three principles founded in the 1970s. 

  • Most of the resources humans use are dependent on limited ecosystems. 
  • Every time we use a non-renewable resource we jeopardize the long-term survival rates of the homo sapiens. 
  • Infinite growth on a finite earth is simply not possible. 

“Degrowth means transforming societies to ensure environmental justice and a good life for all within planetary boundaries.”

Degrowth.info

And just like that, we arrive at the heart of true sustainability. Degrowth might have its name working against it (and oh, boy, does everybody have an opinion about it) but it does get right to the point.

Because capitalism, which places more importance on the individual than on the collective, and has accumulation, ownership, and profiting from capital as its central principles, requires continuous growth in profits. Those in the end, have to come from continual (material) increase in economic production, sales and consumption of goods and commodities. Which is exactly what we need to stop doing, if we want to halt climate change, biodiversity loss, and keeping humanity safe.

But how? And what does that mean for society and the economy you say? Well, we’ll have to appreciate the difference between well-being and financial prosperity and redefine what it is that makes life worthwile. And it means we’re going to need to build a new system. One that seeks to maximize well-being while minimizing consumption. Fortunately, it’s already happening. Patagonia for example is explicitly telling customers to ‘not buy so much stuff’, thereby already setting a standard for the apparel industry. Last July, the UK passed the “Right to Repair” act, a great stimulant to have products designed for longevity and modularity, instead of obsolescence.

Extractive, destructive, profit-driven business as usual is over. Regenerative, value-driven business is in.

As the pressure of climate change increases, consumers will change their consumption patterns more and more in line with these Degrowth principles. Businesses that successfully innovate and adapt will come out more resilient and ready for the future — but we have to shift perspective: instead of necessarily selling more, it means selling better, and growing in a way that satisfies consumers while staying well within the boundaries of Planet Earth.

What amazing times we live in, wouldn’t you agree? What wonderful opportunities to do things better. That’s what innovation is all about. Do you want to join us on the journey of building a happy and prosperous future? Are you looking to transform your business into a regenerative business? Or are you interested in finding out more about how this could work for your organization? Don’t hesitate to drop us a message, we are in this together! 

Happy Sprinting, 

Minou & Pamela

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