Acclaimed environmental journalist Esha Chhabra explores how regenerative businesses are moving beyond sustainable practices to actively restore natural ecosystems and human dignity. Whether it’s supporting female farmers in Ghana or reducing food waste in the UK, Chhabra demonstrates how regenerative entrepreneurs are succeeding and struggling to induce positive change. It’s time to rethink business as usual, writes Chhabra, and her nuanced reporting about this innovative space charts the way.
- Regenerative enterprises seek to restore nature and human dignity through their innovative business models.
- Soil quality is rapidly declining, but eco-friendly business practices are helping to rebuild it.
- By reusing and repurposing waste, regenerative companies create a circular economy.
- Establish inclusive supply chains by supporting both producers and buyers.
- Employee ownership can boost productivity and profits, while reducing economic inequality.
- Regenerative ventures that support vulnerable women improve family and community outcomes.
- Eco-friendly tourism preserves biodiversity and creates local jobs.
- Regenerative health care prioritizes holistic well-being over industry profits.
- Environmental innovators are encouraging consumer demand for clean energy.
- Impact investors understand the unique needs of regenerative businesses and commit to promoting positive change over the long term.
Regenerative enterprises seek to restore nature and human dignity through their innovative business models.
Conventional businesses tend to downplay social and environmental costs to maximize shareholder profit. Regenerative businesses, on the other hand, prioritize social and environmental agendas as their primary purpose. By giving primacy to challenges like gender inequality and food waste, they generate profits that are transparent to consumers and shared with stakeholders.
“Business is a powerhouse that can steer the economy and consumer behavior, and the impact all that has on Mother Earth, in a direction for the better.”
Business has the power to affect the enormous challenges facing humanity, including social justice, climate change, water shortages and famine. But it will take more than lip service made up of mission statements and inspirational quotes.
The leaders of regenerative companies are rethinking business from the ground up, challenging the notion of profit-making as the corporation’s primary purpose. Regenerative entrepreneurs instead seek to uphold the values of transparency, simplicity, compassion and equity, while tackling global problems such as soil quality, health care access and renewable energy.
Soil quality is rapidly declining, but eco-friendly business practices are helping to rebuild it.
Everything from cotton and leather to timber and livestock depends on fertile soil. Unfortunately, intensive farming and chemical fertilizers strip nutrients from the soil, making it less productive. By 2017, one-third of the world’s soil had been depleted. But eco-friendly farms and businesses are mitigating the worst effects.
“So many of the things we consume every day are grown in soil, not manufactured in factories.”
The footwear company Veja makes eco-friendly shoes from organic cotton and wild rubber. It sources the cotton from Brazilian farmers who grow it alongside beans, corn, sesame and other crops, providing their own families with food while avoiding intensive mono-crop agriculture. The farmers also avoid pesticides, leading to healthier ecosystems, more fertile soil and less need for irrigation.
Veja’s wild rubber is sourced from Amazonian trees that would otherwise be cut for logging or cattle. Its eco-friendly practices not only help improve soil quality but also allow Veja to sell two million shoes a year. The company earned $115 million in sales in 2020.
By reusing and repurposing waste, regenerative companies create a circular economy.
Conventional business encourages consumers to buy products repeatedly, so there’s little incentive to create durable merchandise. Regrettably, this linear thinking produces significant waste. Globally, consumers buy about 20,000 plastic bottles per second; yet only 14% of all plastic gets recycled.
And according to the UN, 33% of the world’s food is thrown away. Companies that consider the entire lifecycle of a product and reuse what’s already been made can help reduce those numbers. In a circular economy, businesses account for the complete production process, including disposal.
“To change the world, you have to throw a better party than those destroying it.” (Toast Ale CEO Rob Wilson)
More than 40% of the bread produced in the UK goes to waste – often perfectly edible end pieces cut off to make sandwiches. Toast Ale takes those ends and mixes them with malted barley to create an award-winning beer. It finds ways to reuse nearly every ingredient: Its hops are used as garden mulch; spent grains feed local cows; and water filters through reed beds into local farmland.
To further its mission of reducing food waste, it openly shares its recipe online, so brewers in other countries can also turn their uneaten bread into delicious beer. So far, the recipe has been downloaded over 50,000 times.
Establish inclusive supply chains by supporting both producers and buyers.
Inclusivity isn’t just about appreciating a diverse group of colleagues in a corporate office; it also translates into respect for and inclusion of everyone who contributes to supply chains, such as farmers, for example. Despite a multi-decade rise in coffee exports, coffee farmers have seen their earnings cut in half due to artificially low prices and rising production costs.
Farmers’ insurance and social security costs, for example, and the price of soil and water pollution are not accurately reflected in coffee prices. This leaves farmers without a sustainable livelihood and contributes to deforestation, crime and the loss of indigenous knowledge. Inclusive supply chains must look out for the people who contribute to them.
“If we want to have these supply chains in the future, we need to take care of the people who make them happen.” (coffee trader Konrad Brits)
For example, Rwanda Trading Company (RTC) has built a collaborative supply chain focused on four goals: make a profit; demonstrate cost transparency; include the full value of its products; and share profits in a way that reflects the contribution of each part of the business. RTC offers agronomy training to 30,000 farmers, helping them learn to manage water and improve soil health.
Employee ownership can boost productivity and profits, while reducing economic inequality.
In most organizations, senior executives earn far more than employees, despite all workers making essential contributions to the company’s success. The resulting workplace inequality affects the broader economy. Although the United States has the world’s biggest GDP, it also has the highest rate of poverty and levels of economic inequality among comparably advanced countries.
One solution: Give employees ownership in a company. Currently, about 8,000 to 12,000 US companies have employee stock ownership plans, or ESOPs. And a 2017 Rutgers University study found these companies enjoy a 4% productivity boost and a 14% profit hike.
“To achieve more economic inclusivity, the United States needs to find an economic model that works for its diverse population.”
Technicians for Sustainability operates on an employee-ownership model. It installs solar panels and, along the way, helps manual laborers increase their incomes. CEO Kevin Koch started with a profit-sharing system where 20% to 40% of company profits were distributed to employees based on hours worked, length of tenure and value-added.
Then Koch introduced an ownership model where employees can purchase shares in the company and earn dividends, allowing them to build wealth and contribute to a positive workplace culture.
Regenerative ventures that support vulnerable women improve family and community outcomes.
Unequal access to resources not only impacts gender equality – one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – but it ripples out to affect access to education, food, income, health care and more quality-of-life issues. When women have resources and support to farm organically, for example, they create healthier soil that retains more water.
Organic farming provides a buffer against erosion and drought; it also allows farmers to save money on fertilizer that they can instead spend on their family’s health and children’s education. And the investments pay off: A study of 350 micro-finance institutions found that women repay loans at higher rates than men.
“Regenerative businesses celebrate the strength, wisdom and resilience of women, instead of shying away from it.”
Divine Chocolate empowers Ghanaian women through the sale of fair-trade chocolate. Although based in the UK, the company is 44% owned by Ghanaian cocoa farmers. Most work at Kuapa Kokoo, a cooperative of 100,000 farmers, about one-third are women, who are encouraged to take on leadership roles.
Each year, the company invests 2% of its sales in literacy programs and other women’s empowerment projects. Women who’ve learned to read and write have the opportunity to record company transactions, an extra source of income they tend to invest in their children’s education.
Eco-friendly tourism preserves biodiversity and creates local jobs.
Tourism employs 10% of the international workforce, but it also produces about 8% of global climate emissions. Its climate impact is likely to rise, so the tourism industry needs to find ways to provide jobs while protecting biodiversity. Eco-friendly options – including bio-based fuel for planes and decreased linen usage in hotels – can help reduce tourism’s carbon footprint.
“The challenge for the tourism industry, be it in East Africa or other areas of natural beauty, is to find a balance between humans and nature.”
Singita seeks to balance jobs, tours and conservation. The South African-based safari and conservation company provides luxury trips and uses the revenue to fund conservation efforts and improve local livelihoods. Currently, it has over a million acres under management, and employs locals in anti-poaching efforts.
Singita is moving to solar power for its lodges, and it sources 80% of its food from nearby villages. Its trips are expensive – with rates starting at $1,500 a night. The high prices keep the tourist numbers low, the climate footprint small and the profits large enough to fund its long-term conservation mission.
Regenerative health care prioritizes holistic well-being over industry profits.
Health care challenges vary globally; developing countries struggle to provide basic care, and the United States wrestles with soaring prices and limited access within a profit-driven system. Despite the Affordable Care Act, 10% of Americans remain uninsured. And although Americans spend significantly more on health care and pharmaceuticals than people in any other developed country, they have the lowest life expectancy and the highest infant mortality rates.
With a focus on short-term treatments, the profit-driven system often fails to solve patients’ long-term health problems. A more holistic approach, including a focus on proper nutrition, would help.
“Ideally, health care should go beyond providing medications to helping people lead more holistic lives.”
Dr. Andrea Feinberg of the Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, Pennsylvania, adopted a “farmacy” approach to improving patient health. In 2017, she began providing nutrient-dense foods, simple recipes and nutritional training to patients, first in pilot studies and trials.
Not only did patients’ overall health improve, but the center saved money. Emergency room visits dropped by 25%, hospitalizations by 45%, and medical claims by 66%. Despite these positive outcomes, Feinberg struggles to obtain funding and support from Medicare and drug companies whose primary focus is profit.
Environmental innovators are encouraging consumer demand for clean energy.
In 2018, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that global temperatures will increase by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius unless the world takes action within 12 years. While some nations, such as Scotland, rapidly adopted renewable energy, others, like the United States and China, continue to emit high levels of greenhouse gases. Despite the lack of universal progress, however, many cities, towns and businesses are creating a demand for cleaner energy.
“It should be a no-brainer that our energy sources need to be diverted from fossil fuels to cleaner options.”
Washington, DC-based Arcadia, led by Kiran Bhatraju, makes it easy for homeowners to support solar and wind energy. The company uses renewable energy certificates, or RECs, to show homeowners where their energy currently comes from and then provides renewable options. Instead of installing expensive home solar panels – whose high cost can deter proprietors – Arcadia helps homeowners switch to electricity derived from community solar panels set up on buildings in their own neighborhoods.
These solar panels may be placed in schools, apartment buildings and even private homes. As more people make the switch to renewables, they collectively drive demand for wind farms and solar projects – which is Arcadia’s main goal. The company has expanded into all 50 states and has more than 300,000 customers.
Impact investors understand the unique needs of regenerative businesses and commit to promoting positive change over the long term.
Although some regenerative businesses are able to bootstrap their way to success, many others need outside financing. However, most external investors expect rapid growth and fast returns, which isn’t how regenerative ventures operate. To maintain their company’s integrity, regenerative entrepreneurs often must grow their business slowly.
Many depend on personal finances for seed money, and it often takes 10 to 15 years to mature the business. The right impact investors understand the needs of regenerative enterprises and focus on investing for positive, long-term impact.
“Just as all consumption has an impact, including the most planet-conscious efforts, so do all investments.”
Dutch-based Triodos Bank funds social and environmental projects, including solar and wind projects and small-scale farmers in emerging markets. To ensure accountability to the bank’s 35,000 shareholders and promote transparency, Triodos publicly displays all loan recipients on its website. It also publishes a 250-page annual report that includes details like how the bank’s activities support the UN’s SDGs. Currently, Triodos Bank manages $15 billion in assets.
About the Author
Esha Chhabra is a lauded journalist, who covers the ascent of authentically sustainable, purpose-driven brands. She has received numerous fellowships from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Chhabra’s work has appeared in The Guardian, The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Atlantic, among many other outlets.
In her latest book, “Working to Restore: Harnessing the Power of Regenerative Business to Heal the World,” Esha Chhabra offers a groundbreaking exploration of the intersection of business and environmental sustainability. I had the privilege of reading this book, and I am excited to share my comprehensive review with you.
- The concept of regenerative business: Chhabra introduces the concept of regenerative business, which focuses on creating economic value while restoring the natural world. She argues that this approach is essential for addressing the climate crisis and achieving environmental sustainability.
- The role of business in environmental degradation: Chhabra provides a detailed analysis of how business activities have contributed to environmental degradation, including deforestation, pollution, and resource depletion. She highlights the need for businesses to take responsibility for their environmental impact and work towards restoration.
- The benefits of regenerative business: Chhabra presents several benefits of regenerative business, including improved brand reputation, increased customer loyalty, and improved bottom lines. She also highlights the potential for regenerative business to create new markets and drive innovation.
- Case studies and examples: The book includes several case studies and examples of companies that have successfully implemented regenerative practices, such as Patagonia, Interface, and Unilever. These examples provide valuable insights into the practical applications of regenerative business.
- The importance of stakeholder engagement: Chhabra emphasizes the importance of engaging stakeholders in the regenerative business process, including employees, customers, suppliers, and communities. She highlights the need for transparency and collaboration to ensure that all stakeholders are aligned and invested in the regenerative mission.
- The role of technology: Chhabra discusses the role of technology in enabling regenerative business, including the use of circular economy principles, renewable energy, and digital platforms. She argues that technology can help businesses to streamline their operations, reduce waste, and improve transparency.
- The need for systemic change: Chhabra acknowledges that regenerative business is not a quick fix for the environmental crisis, but rather a long-term commitment to changing the underlying systems and structures that have led to environmental degradation. She emphasizes the need for systemic change and collaboration across industries and sectors.
- Comprehensive framework: Chhabra provides a comprehensive framework for understanding the concept of regenerative business and its potential to address environmental sustainability.
- Practical insights: The book includes practical insights and examples of companies that have successfully implemented regenerative practices, making it an informative read for business leaders and entrepreneurs.
- Well-researched: Chhabra’s research is thorough and well-supported, providing a solid basis for her arguments.
- Complexity: The book can be dense and complex at times, which may make it challenging for readers who are not familiar with the topic of sustainable business.
- Lack of concrete solutions: While Chhabra provides valuable insights into the potential of regenerative business, she does not offer concrete solutions to the challenges of implementing these practices in a complex and often resistant business environment.
In conclusion, “Working to Restore” is a thought-provoking and informative book that provides a comprehensive framework for understanding the concept of regenerative business and its potential to address environmental sustainability. While the book is well-researched and well-written, it may be challenging for some readers due to its complexity. Nevertheless, Chhabra’s insights and examples provide valuable insights for business leaders and entrepreneurs looking to make a positive impact on the environment.