Too many companies are taking the wrong approach to climate change

We need to think less about sustainability, and more about regeneration.

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The corporate sustainability agenda of the last 30 years has failed. The increasing damage to natural ecosystems and the crossing of planetary boundaries seem to track the increase in corporate sustainability reports. 

We were led to believe that big businesses would solve the problem for us. Somehow, we were tricked into thinking that doing less bad would be good enough. Turns out we were wrong.

Relevant Sustainable Development Goals

We seriously need to change the way we think about climate change. We’ve been aware of the pressures facing the world for decades, yet our efforts so far haven’t been successful. 

Despite all of the research, opinions and movements, we’re still on a collision course with a very frightening future. This is not fear mongering. It is the conclusion of the recent IPCC report authorized by 192 governments.

Unfortunately, this summer is making us all confront the stark reality of what our future might look like. From unprecedented flash floods to scorching forest fires, many of us have had a taste of climate instability. 

Not a week after I highlighted the floods in Germany and China to my students – only to receive a “this happens far from us” reply – my adopted home Singapore faced heavy rainfall and flooded streets. 

Such events will only increase in frequency and intensity for the next 30 years. That reality is locked in, according to the IPCC. Our timeframe for effective action is shortening. According to IPCC leaks, we have four years left to turn it around.

Four years. Let that sink in.

We cannot solve the problems of today with the same thinking that created them. I propose seven changes that need to occur quickly in our thinking, our talking and our acting:

  1. From Footprints to Handprints. Our longstanding focus on footprinting implies that companies can only be less bad. What about taking deliberate positive action? Our handprints are the regenerative actions we take to improve the world around us. Through digital tools, every company can integrate and automate micro-contributions to reforestation, ocean clean-ups, coral reconstruction or habitat preservation into daily processes. 
  2. From Reduce, Reuse, Recycle to Reserve, Restore, Rewild. For years we’ve fixated on managing how we use and dispose of items. This has limited our efforts and stymied our imagination. We need to shift our actions to encompass a wider set of activities and targets that have a stronger emotional appeal, such as protecting our favorite natural habitats or rebuilding urban biodiversity.
  3. From Carbon Neutral to Planet Positive. The end goal of our efforts should not be to break even by achieving ‘neutrality’. The terminology doesn’t inspire action, nor does it take into account climate wellness. Shifting towards a more aspirational, planet-positive mindset helps us think about how we can drive exponential impact. The question is not whether growth is good or bad. The question is what do we want to grow?
  4. From Economies of Scale to Economies of Collective Action. Having a notable impact on climate change was once the exclusive prerogative of large companies and governments. Nowadays, digital tools empower smaller organizations and communities to pool resources, know-how and enthusiasm, allowing people to work together towards the greater good. 
  5. From ESG Reporting to Ecosystem Regeneration Feeds. The days of shiny annual sustainability reports displaying out-of-date results are numbered. Investors are demanding a shift to reporting that provides a real-time view on a company’s impact. Again, new technology makes this possible, and those businesses that leverage it to track their positive impact on ecosystems are going to be more investible.  
  6. From Exclusion to Inclusion. Corporate sustainability’s obsession with reducing negative externalities has left about 75% of the working population powerless. These people work in services, in arts, in tech, in pharma, for governments, in academia, in banking, in law, and so on. Their ability to reduce negative impact falls far short of their capacity to contribute to positive impact. This could be a sea change. 
  7. From Corporate Social Responsibility to Climate Justice.  As urgency mounts, consumers are abandoning their preference for companies to solve local problems first. They want companies to invest where they can have maximum impact. Regeneration favors investment in Asia and Africa, and will create massive transfers to countries most at risk from adverse climate effects they are not responsible for. This is the essence of climate justice. 

None of this is to say that we should stop decarbonizing. On the contrary, we also need to galvanize the (spending) power of so many companies and individuals to make meaningful change by changing the meaning of sustainability. This is not greenwashing. This is a watershed moment to restore nature, protect biodiversity and preserve our blue planet.

Doing so is not anathema to capitalism. Companies that embrace this new vision stand to benefit threefold, through improved investor relations, employee satisfaction and customer loyalty.

Technology plays a huge supporting role, making the changes easy to implement and track. By utilizing efficient new processes and systems, regeneration can drive a new era of impact. 

Regeneration First is a bold new mindset that flips the current sustainability discourse on its head. Instead of focusing on negating our impact on the planet, we should be thinking about how we can leave the world a better place than we found it.

Putting regeneration first requires a sustainability pivot that many companies have been craving for. To find out more, download the Regeneration First manifesto here

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Simon Schillebeeckx

Assistant Professor, Strategic Management, SMU; Co-Founder & Chief Strategy Officer, Handprint

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