Build a regenerative business

John Elkington, the ‘godfather of sustainability’ – and the man who coined the concept of the Triple Bottom Line – sets out the guiding principles he believes every business now needs to follow.
regenerative business graphic

Whether launching something new or adapting an existing business, it needs to be regenerative – that’s according to author, entrepreneur and pioneer in sustainability John Elkington. ‘This is more than a fad. Regenerative businesses represent a huge opportunity for ambitious startups to lead the way in the recovery from the pandemic,’ he says. His new book, Green Swans: The Coming Boom in Regenerative Capitalism, takes an optimistic, affirmative view on what’s next.

But where to start? ‘Rather than following a straight “how to be regenerative” list, set up your business according to a set of principles,’ he says. That won’t be easy, but small businesses have agility on their side. ‘Regenerative businesses can become Green Swans*. They’ll have greater resilience than companies using current business models,’ he adds. Here he and Louise Roper, CEO of Volans, a company which preps businesses for implementing change, outline three guiding principles to follow. 

Critique your value

‘How can your business model – the way you supply your product or service – be inextricably linked to contributing to the health and wellbeing of the whole? That is if you stop supplying your product or service, the world – people, the biosphere as a whole – will be worse off. 

‘This is different from saying, “I provide a life-saving drug, ergo my business is regenerative” – it’s about both what you are providing and how you are providing it. Your business model, or models, must be designed to create value and restore natural and social balance. And, if they are to help drive regenerative (aka Green Swan) outcomes, then they must be designed with an eye toward their potential for exponential scaling and replication. If you can meet this requirement, the business is likely to be both responsible and resilient in whatever the future throws at you. It can be difficult to know what your impact is going to be. A great resource to get started is the B Lab Impact Assessment.’

Go circular 

‘Every business has a flow of money, materials and information flowing through it. They key is to look at these and aim to create a circular business. Focus on how to design out waste from your production process and packaging, as well as considering what your customer does with your product in use and when finished. 

‘A great example of a circular business is London-based Toast Ale, who use bread that would otherwise have gone to waste from delis and bakeries in the brewing process. Toast Ale has taken on the broader mission to end food waste – by actively sharing the recipe for their pale ale both to home brewers and other startups across the world, they are encouraging this model to be copied rather than working for their own world domination.

‘What happens to your product during and after use? Can you (or someone else) take back the packaging – or even the entire product – and refurbish it to ensure no materials go to waste?’ 

Look for collaborators within the value chain

‘A lot of the questions mentioned will necessitate collaboration throughout your value chain – be it suppliers of materials, partners in production, packaging, distribution, sales or local councils that can recycle your packaging. Often it involves getting in touch with either the local community, competitors or people in a different business altogether who work in the same physical location or with the same material as you. Or even your own customers. Who can you collaborate with to ensure that your business, at every point, is doing the most it can to restore environmental and social balance in that place? 

‘That is much easier said than done – it will mean encouraging your team to not just collaborate with the partners you found during set up, but to continue to look at new ways of working. It means you need them to have time and a wish to go exploring, not just have their head down. As a startup, what can you do to achieve the building of a culture that encourages curiosity, experimentation and collaboration inside the company as well as out?’ 

Learn more

The Impact Podcast have several 30-minute shows on various aspects of social enterprise. Look out for #158 on applying a social impact ecosystem mindset. 

Carol Sanford is another of the world’s leading authorities on regenerative businesses. Free downloads of chapters from her books are viewable at

* WTF is a Green Swan?

The concept of a Black Swan came about in 2007, referring to surprise major events that have a huge, generally negative impact on economies. A Green Swan is a mutation, referring to a profound market shift, catalysed by a Black Swan challenge, brought about by changing paradigms, mindsets, policies, business models and technologies. A Green Swan delivers exponential growth in the form of economic, social and environmental wealth creation. 

This article was first published in Courier Issue 35, June/July 2020. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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