Professor Pablo Munoz discusses his research on businesses that are helping to regenerate ecosystems.
We have come long way since the notion of sustainable development was formally supported by the United Nations in 1987. Coming from a state of absolute denial, businesses began to embrace the idea that it was indeed possible to run a business in a more environmentally friendly way.
But it has been slow progress. Facing reputational issues, some at first felt encouraged to pay to contaminate - a polluting business, for example, could continue operating as usual by buying carbon credits or just paying extra taxes or fines. It was seen as convenient under a cost-benefit logic. Others, with an eye on the bottom line, observed that investment in green technologies and practices could pay off in the form of lower costs and risks. Ultimately, green technologies have increased operational efficiencies, and there has also been a growing number of environmentally minded customers willing to pay extra for the reassurance of using and contributing to cleaner products and services. Firms then began to measure their social and environmental performance and quickly realised that one seemed to go hand in hand with the other. An overwhelming number of studies were published in the early 2000s with answers to the thus far elusive question: Does it pay to be green? The answer, of course, was a big fat yes. We all happily welcomed the win-win-win situation that firms focused on the triple bottom line were achieving.
This is a story full of hope, but 30 years on the climate of our planet is still changing and all the progress above seems inconsequential in the face of wildfires, floods, hurricanes and droughts caused by rising temperatures throughout the world. Headlines claiming the "highest temperatures on record" have become the new normal in our daily news. In this new era, and for the first time, humans are leaving permanent geological markers in the stratospheric record of the planet. This period is known as the Anthropocene.
What can we do?
Some lunatics are launching rockets in the hope that technology will allow us to abandon the planet that human progress has helped to destroy. Others, pragmatists, are focusing on climate mitigation and adaptation, under the assumption that the point of return is long gone. We are faced with either reducing the pace of deterioration by further increasing efficiencies or simply modifying our way of living and adapting our progress to suit the new climate normal. For example, instead of trying to reverse trends, winemakers are buying land in cold regions because grapes will soon be grown there.
Linear thinking, siloed understanding of the world, and human-nature dualism are at the core of anthropocentrism. We put humans, and human organisations, at the centre of everything and situate the biocapacity and natural resources we and our organisations need on the periphery. While we are part of nature, we have been progressively detaching ourselves from it, creating cognitive, experiential and emotional valleys between the human world and the world of other living and non-living things. Such distance has resulted in unaware humans developing fears of non-predators, such as spiders, snakes and even nettles! Those humans living in deep connection to nature, fearlessly and embracing nature as nature, are seen as outliers.
But it's these outliers who appear to have the answer. For the past five years, my colleagues and I have been studying the outliers of the business world - those organisations taking decisive actions to bring life back to degraded ecosystems and regenerate nature. To regenerate is to hold "the capacity to bring into existence again". It is not only about revitalising or reactivating a system in a better state or condition; it is also about changing the system into something new and improved. Regenerative organisations are interconnected with nature. Working together, organisations and nature create value and help restore life in vulnerable ecosystems. By doing so, they contribute to the creation of resilience and wellbeing in the communities supported by these ecosystems.
This is the case with a sheep-farming business in Southern Patagonia using holistic management techniques to restore the depleted Patagonian grasslands. They don't use pesticides, fertilisers, or artificial grazing methods. They only work with nature, imitating the movement of wild herds and letting nature lead the way instead of trying to dominate it. In terms of protection and restoration, their approach has proven successful, increasing pasture productivity and carrying capacity by 300% in three years, improving biodiversity and carbon capture capacity in almost 100 % of the soil. We also discovered a biodynamic winemaker in Chile using an army of chicken, sheep, peacocks, llamas and horses to fight pests and soil erosion and increase the quality of their wine. They have received multiple awards, not only for their commitment to sustainability but also because of the quality of their products.
There is also a fascinating tourism business in Colombia regenerating coral reefs and mangroves. By using a highly scalable business model, since 2018 almost 12,000 coral fragments have been planted by the firm, in collaboration with communities and clients. These climate-smart organisations are pioneering new ways of doing business by situating ecological systems at the core of their organisation. These businesses, normally neglected by mainstream management, are directly tackling the sources of climate-related problems and effectively reversing the direction of the still conflicting business-environment relationship. The above cases, and ten more, are presented in our book Stories of Regeneration, to be released in November 2021.
The change towards regeneration is difficult to visualise since it represents a fundamental shift in perspective. A cattle rancher in Northern Patagonia told us that "sustainability is no longer enough. If people become sustainable or begin to recycle, we are not going to make it, we must regenerate". Management practice is slowly engaging with this idea. We have witnessed the unthinkable: that life in natural ecosystems can co-exist with the business world and indeed flourish. Human organisations just need to take a step back, realign with nature and let it take the lead.