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“Sustainability is so 2019.”

Updated: May 6, 2020

// Steve Diller

A client tossed the comment at me not long ago. We’d been discussing their relationship with their customers (the main thing I’m usually exploring with clients). Intrigued, I asked what she meant. She replied that the sustainability concept assumes that our goal is to maintain our relationships over time, and that we do no additional harm in the process. “What makes anyone think that’s good enough? It’s like having a goal of getting rid of pain points. It goes without saying I don’t want people to suffer from doing business with me. But if that’s all I’m after, I’m basically saying it’s sufficient to stop hurting people. It’s not.”

She’s right, of course. “Sustainability” seems to ultimately mean that we maintain a position in the market over time. Most businesses, of course, would love to do just that. And for many, organizational constraints (siloed management teams, or an unwillingness to acknowledge fundamental change in a market’s needs), make a “sustainable” approach satisfactory. While it’s true that there’s frequently an environmental and social dimension to discussions around corporate sustainability, the primary concept seems to be about a trade-off– maintaining the business over the long term and in exchange, doing no harm to key stakeholders. A surprisingly low standard of performance, often treated as enlightened thinking. And one rooted in the idea that a “kinder, gentler” approach to extracting value from customers, an impoverished version of the “win-win” of market transactions celebrated in economics textbooks, is the best we can manage in the “real world."

As our practice has developed over the years, Scansion has concluded that a business objective of minimizing damage to customers, society, and the environment simply can’t work. Not only because it’s ethically questionable (though it is) but because it’s such a low bar that it can’t deliver even on its own terms. Sustainability, and its cousin, pain point reduction, can’t deliver the differentiation companies require to be competitive. In other words, sustainability isn’t sustainable. Increasingly, customers and communities demand better.

The idea of “regeneration” offers an alternative vision. Originating in an ongoing agricultural revolution, it recognizes that only progressively healthier soils and ecosystems can support us all in the long term, and extends the concept into other business categories. But it’s also an idea rooted in that economic concept of “win-win” that says that each party to a transaction should be demonstrably better off for having engaged in it. With an added recognition that the “parties” include the broader community, and the ecosystems upon which all economic transactions depend.

A “regenerative” approach sets a higher objective than sustainability does, by acknowledging that if you operate in a competitive market, your goal can’t simply be to make the extraction of wealth from other parties as painless as possible.  Instead, you need to leave all of them enriched, more capable, and healthier than you found them. Or they’ll go elsewhere. They’ll bad-mouth you in social media. And they’ll support policies designed to force you to change.

Regenerativity is being adopted as an official corporate objective in surprising places, by companies as varied as Citigroup and Tesla, Salesforce and your neighborhood health food store.

We’ll explore the nuts and bolts of how to run with it in blogs to follow.


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