Restore, preserve and enhance: strategies for regenerative business

Tobias Hahn

Barely a day passes without news of a natural disaster blamed on climate change, or a statement from influential scientists calling on the world’s leaders to take urgent action. Vital ecosystems are pushed to the point of extinction, and while individual action is welcomed and encouraged, businesses are increasingly expected to operate sustainable practices. 

The role businesses play in climate change has been extensively researched but, until recently, the focus was on business actions at an organisational level. Esade’s Tobias Hahn and Maja Tampe propose an original approach that conceptualises business sustainability in terms of regenerative business. Or, as they explain in their recent article in the journal Strategic Organization, “business that enhances, and thrives through the health of social-ecological systems in a co-evolutionary process.” 

Define and adapt 

The concept of regenerative sustainability is defined by du Plessis as: “a co-creative partnership with nature to restore and regenerate the global social–ecological system.” But what does this mean for business? Hahn and Tampe suggest two main principles: a systems-based definition of goals, and an adaptive management approach. Using these criteria, they have developed a range of strategies for regenerative business. 

The ‘restore, preserve, enhance’ scale has been developed for regenerative business strategies

“As our main contribution, we have developed the ‘restore, preserve, enhance’ scale for regenerative business strategies,” they say. And, importantly, the strategies they propose are not a fixed set of categories or rules that businesses must follow to claim to be regenerative. 

“Rather, our argument highlights that firms can use different strategies that vary in the degree to which they incorporate elements of regeneration among the criteria for a systems-based level of aspiration and an adaptive management approach.” 

Business sustainability versus regenerative sustainability  

The traditional approach to business sustainability has been a simple one of making a business case for becoming sustainable. Focusing on the viability of individual organisations narrows the scope of environmental concerns and prioritises business objectives over social-ecological systems.  

Regenerative sustainability, in contrast, aims to restore and regenerate the global social-ecological system with ecological design and business practices.  

Most applications of regenerative sustainability have been in urban planning, architecture, tourism, and agriculture

“What characterises regenerative sustainability is that it is procedural, systemic, net positive, relational, and collaborative” say Hahn and Tampe. “It rejects a mechanistic worldview and addresses the dysfunctional human-nature relationship by entering into a co-creative partnership with nature.” 

To date, most applications of regenerative sustainability have been in urban planning and architecture, tourism, and agriculture.  

“At its heart,” they say, “it adopts a systems approach as it is ultimately concerned with restoring and enhancing the health of social-ecological systems for a partnership with nature.” 

Principles of regenerative business 

The concept of regenerative sustainability should be at the centre of regenerative business, say Hahn and Tampe. “Regenerative businesses should enhance and thrive through the health of social-ecological systems in a co-evolutionary process”.  

They propose two fundamental principles of regenerative business: a systems-based aspiration and an adaptive management approach. 

Systems-based aspiration, they say, has three principles:

  • Sustainability is not focused on organisations, but on the social-ecological system within which the organisations operate
  • Businesses should embrace and embed within the social-ecological system
  • The relationship between business activities and the social-ecological system should be mutually beneficial

“For instance, indigenous people in Alaska scoffed at the idea of natural parks to protect old-growth forests,” explain Hahn and Tampe. “Instead, they preferred to use the forests for economic activities in a symbiotic relationship. 

Regenerative strategies are necessarily targeted to the specific characteristics of the social-ecological systems with which business organisations interact

Regeneration places human activity within ecological limits and accepts the health of the social ecological system. Consequently, as Robinson and Cole point out, “human activity does not necessarily have to be minimised because it is inherently harmful, but can instead contribute directly to both environmental and human well-being.” 

The principle of the adaptive management approach results from the unpredictable characteristics of social-ecological systems. “Regenerative strategies cannot be based on one-size-fits-all solutions but are necessarily targeted to the specific characteristics of the social-ecological systems with which business organisations interact,” explain Hahn and Tampe.  

Restore, preserve, and enhance 

To put these principles into practice, Hahn and Tampe developed a range of regenerative strategies based on three areas: restore, preserve, and enhance

“Conceiving of regenerative strategies as a range acknowledges that businesses may not be able or willing to fully live up to regenerative principles and criteria, yet may do so to varying degrees,” they say. “The three regenerative strategies we propose take social-ecological systems and their functioning as a starting point. However, they differ in the degree to which they fully engage with the notion of regeneration.” 

Restoration strategies follow a systems approach and seek to re-establish a functioning social-ecological system after an intervention, such as mining. Preservation strategies maintain the status quo of an area to preserve biodiversity and eco-system services, as for instance in sustainable tourism. Enhance strategies, say Hahn and Tampe, “fully embrace a systems approach by aiming at a net positive impact on social-ecological systems.” 

“Enhance strategies do not aim at the regeneration of the organisation; they are about the ways that a business can, to quote Robinson and Cole, ‘be a catalyst for positive change within and add value to the unique ‘place’ in which it is situated’.” This place-based approach is also reflected in regenerative agriculture initiatives, whether from mid-sized companies, such as Patagonia, or from multinationals, such as General Mills or Danone.  

Time for change 

“The stress that many social-ecological systems are under and the pressure that human economic activity, and not least business activity, puts on them highlight the need to rethink business strategy,” conclude Hahn and Tampe. 

“We argue that regenerative business provides a key step into this direction and hope that our proposed range of regenerative strategies will help move the field toward theories and practices that reflect the true importance of the sustainability and health of social-ecological systems.” 

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