Forum for the Future’s James Payne explores the need for businesses to adopt ‘just and regenerative’ approaches capable of addressing both social and environmental issues

Despite long-overdue but arguably growing recognition of the interconnected nature of the world’s challenges, some businesses are continuing to take a siloed approach to addressing their social and environmental impacts, treating them in their strategies as separate.

This happens when topics within a business and across its value chain – such as paying a living wage, protecting and strengthening human rights, supporting diversity, inclusion and equity –  are seen as purely social issues and are addressed in isolation. This means the very fact that natural resources, healthy ecosystems and stable climatic conditions underpin the wellbeing and livelihoods of billions of people goes largely ignored. At the same time issues like climate change mitigation, supporting biodiversity and moving to a more circular economy are seen as purely environmental issues, with insufficient attention paid to how addressing them impacts people.

This siloed approach needs to be a thing of the past – but is it? There are encouraging signs; the recent Glasgow Climate Pact noted in its preamble the importance of the concept of climate justice and the need to promote human rights, the rights of indigenous peoples, gender equality and intergenerational equity when addressing climate change.

Much of current climate justice conversation focuses on a deep unfairness: that the very people who have contributed least to climate change often suffer the greatest loss and damage, while also having to foot the costs of both mitigation and adaptation to what are now inevitable impacts. This is key and highly relevant for governments.

For businesses however, another climate justice conversation is more salient and urgent: how can both mitigation and adaptation measures be implemented in ways that really work for people, and how can businesses ensure that the urgent transitions needed in their operations and operating contexts are just and equitable?

Embracing a different mindset

The mindset of addressing issues in silo inevitably creates blindspots about the wider impacts a narrowly focused intervention may have. It encourages a paradigm of trade offs: development or climate action, protecting nature or securing farmer livelihoods. If instead of this, a business adopts ‘shaping a just and regenerative future’ as its guiding star, this encourages a mindset that looks for latent possibilities and untapped potential.

A just and regenerative mindset leads to more creative approaches to addressing challenges and exciting synergies that are good for both people and the environment can begin to emerge. But how does a business achieve this laudable aim? It’s about caring for the overall health of the greater whole that your business is part of and recognising that building capacity to thrive – among both people and natural systems – is a primary metric of your success.   

So what does this look like in practice? 

An important principle of a just and regenerative approach is that it is based on a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the conditions, history and lived experiences that shape each context that you operate in. So solutions must be context-specific.

For a food business this might mean new business models for your value chain that regenerate soil and support the development of new financial markets; markets that pay for carbon sequestration and ecosystem services in a way that distributes value fairly to primary producers and builds their capacity to become more resilient and even thrive. This would mean involving everyone in the value chain to co-create that new market mechanism or business model – including farmers or primary producers, with a particular focus on traditionally marginalised voices.

This goes much further than narrowly focusing on maximising efficiency or minimising cost. Instead, it’s about intentionally seeking out positive synergies that help both people and nature thrive. It does this by building the underlying capacity of living systems (like communities or landscapes), thus creating a self-sustaining, positively-reinforcing cycle of greater and greater fairness and vitality.

This just and regenerative mindset represents a fundamentally different way of thinking and acting. In Forum’s work with businesses, we’ve identified four common mindsets when it comes to sustainability.

Some companies are still stuck in a narrow ‘risk mitigation’ mindset, but increasingly as things like net-zero targets are set and attempts are made to avoid unconscious biases, more companies are moving to ‘zero harm’. While ambitious, zero harm’s focus on eradicating harm can miss opportunities for positive impact. Beyond this, a ‘do good’ mindset is about achieving zero harm, but also creating positive impact; the watch-out here is a paternalistic or even colonial mentality that knows what is best for beneficiaries and scales programmes to ‘do good’ in a way that’s blind to local context. In contrast, our fourth mindset – ‘just and regenerative’ – seeks to authentically co-create interventions with the stakeholders involved, identifying latent potential, tackling root causes and building the health, capacity and vitality of all living systems.

A new edge for corporate sustainability

Forum for the Future believes this is the new edge of practice and exploration for trailblazing businesses. As such, inspiring examples that fully embrace every aspect are hard to find. But the seeds of exciting opportunities are evident in many places. From how well-established trailblazers like Interface’s Factory as Forest and Net-Works programmes bring together social and environmental impact, to Nespresso’s Reviving Origins programme that supports coffee growers to adopt sustainable agriculture practices in post-conflict zones such as South Sudan to build resilience, livelihoods and ecosystems/soils.

Elsewhere, consider Brazilian cosmetic brand, Natura’s work to influence forest preservation on over two million hectares of the Amazon. The business is building the capacity of more than 34 indigenous communities to supply them with 39 responsibly foraged bio-ingredients, thus providing income, improving community resilience and supporting the protection and stewardship of the rainforest.

Our social and environmental crises are escalating every day and the role of businesses in tackling them is rapidly evolving. Businesses have the opportunity to lead, or get left behind. The guidance on stepping up is there; it’s now time to use it.

James Payne is associate director for transformational strategies at Forum for the Future.

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