Sustainable Development

Regeneration: Why businesses are moving beyond sustainability and thinking about regrowth

London Skyline and Primrose hill park panorama on a sunny September day. Sustainability is a great thing — but businesses are increasingly looking for ways to give back and regrow. That's where regeneration comes in.

Sustainability is a great thing — but businesses are increasingly looking for ways to give back and regrow. That's where regeneration comes in. Image: Getty Images

Navi Radjou
Author, The Frugal Economy
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  • Businesses are increasingly seeing the value of going further than sustainability, and leaning into regeneration.
  • Nearly 80% of US consumers prefer “regenerative” brands to “sustainable” brands.
  • But for businesses to capitalize on this trend, they must ensure they're hitting the regeneration triple mark: regeneration of people, places and the planet.

Sustainability is out, regeneration is in. According to a 2019 survey by ReGenFriends, nearly 80% of US consumers prefer “regenerative” brands to “sustainable” brands. Gen Y and Z consumers find the notion of “sustainability” too passive. They want to buy from regenerative businesses that embody and practice the three noble qualities found in all living systems: renewal, restoration and growth.

Regeneration goes beyond sustainability by creating a deeper and wider socio-economic impact.

Sustainable brands strive to just do less harm to the planet. Regenerative businesses go beyond sustainability and vie to do more good to society and the planet.

Specifically, regenerative firms seek to boost the health and vitality of people, places and the planet simultaneously in a synergistic manner. In doing so, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that regenerative businesses can achieve far better financial performance and impact than their sustainability-focused peers.

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Regenerating the planet

In the Amazon, we find an example of how regeneration works in practice. The murumuru is a palm tree that grows in the Amazon forest. The Amazon’s Indigenous tribes chop this palm tree down and use its wood to produce and sell items such as brooms.

As it happens, we can obtain a highly moisturizing butter from the seeds of this palm tree, which is very efficient at repairing and renewing damaged hair. The value of these seeds is seven times greater than that of this palm tree’s wood. As such, people in the Amazon can generate seven times more economic value by preserving the murumuru tree than cutting it. Businesses are taking notice.

Natura, a Brazilian cosmetics firm, is collaborating with Amazonian Indigenous people to ethically source murumuru butter for a variety of hair care products, using their traditional farming techniques. This mutually beneficial collaboration means Indigenous communities are regenerating themselves and the planet along three complementary dimensions: economic (by increasing their income), socio-cultural (by preserving and utilizing their traditional agricultural expertise) and environmental (by safeguarding the biodiversity of the Amazon and its forests).

Regenerative business practices and strategies are gaining momentum.
Regenerative business practices and strategies are gaining momentum. Image: Navi Radjou

Regenerating places

And there are other examples, too. Near the city of Saint-Malo, France, global sports retailer Decathlon implemented a “Store as Nature” that it designed intentionally to revitalize local biodiversity, by creating an environment favourable to the development of endemic (regional) fauna and flora.

In this experimental site, which extends over a natural surface of 30,000 m2, green spaces represent over 54% of the landscape and include 2,589 vegetations including 141 trees, 6 semi-natural habitats, as well as beehives and “insect hotels”, nesting boxes and eco-grazing areas.

Decathlon plans to deploy 14 other Stores as Nature by using the same “nature positive” development approach, with the goal of “renaturing” 10% of its property stock in France.

But it’s not just natural ecosystems that can benefit from prioritizing regeneration. Human ecosystems, too, stand to benefit. Regenerative businesses also strive to boost the health and vitality of individuals and communities, especially in aging societies.

Regenerating people

Take Japan, a country that is aging rapidly. 30% of its population is already over 65. The average life expectancy of its citizens is 84 years. Sadly, longevity doesn’t promise vitality.

Meiji Yasuda is Japan’s oldest largest life insurance firm. During COVID-19, the firm realized that its true mission should be to boost people’s vitality rather than protect them from death. In April 2020, the firm launched MY Mutual Way 2030, a 10-year plan to evolve the life insurance firm into a life regeneration company. This strategy calls for prolonging the healthy life expectancy of its clients and vitalizing local communities across Japan where the firm operates.

In the past, the firm’s sales representatives would consult clients to explain insurance products and services. Today, the agents act as wellbeing coaches who encourage customers to adopt and maintain wellness routines and avoid loneliness by partaking in social activities.

Meiji Yasuda is investing in new partnerships and technologies to promote preventive healthcare in Japan. For instance, it teamed up with the National Cerebral and Cardiovascular Center in Japan to develop new digital tools that can help its clients anticipate and prevent cardiovascular problems.

As part of its “community vitalization” initiative, Meiji Yasuda has partnered with 900 municipalities across Japan to make public resources and local health services available to its clients. It also teamed up with J.League, the Japanese professional football league, and Japan Ladies Professional Golfers' Association to host sports events in a number of locations.

The human and economic benefits of regeneration

To get buy-in from internal and external stakeholders, businesses should explain how their triple regeneration strategy – the synergistic revitalization of people, places and the planet – could yield great economic and social value for all stakeholders.

Visionary food companies and apparel makers like Danone, General Mills, Eileen Fisher, Illycaffè and Patagonia are investing in regenerative agriculture. They are doing it not only because it drastically reduces water use and emissions, boosts soil fertility and improves animal welfare but also because it enhances the livelihoods of financially-challenged farmers. For instance, US farmers can increase their profitability by up to 120% by transitioning to regenerative agriculture.

Promising place-based economic development initiatives — showcased in the upcoming book The Frugal Economy — exist in disadvantaged communities across the US that use a holistic approach to regenerate people, places and the biodiversity altogether. By joining these initiatives, businesses can accelerate their own transition to a regenerative model.

For instance, Reimagine Appalachia (RI) is a multi-stakeholder coalition that aims that revitalize abandoned coal mines and restore the natural ecosystems in Appalachia, specifically in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky. RI is supporting the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative, a triple-regeneration project that aims to restore the natural environment while also creating jobs and economic opportunities in the region.

Given the climate urgency, it is time that businesses think and act beyond sustainability. They must evolve into regenerative businesses that renew, restore and grow people, places and the planet synergistically.

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