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We are the new Copernicans

We're in the midst of a new Renaissance, demonstrating that regenerative businesses are more successful businesses.

Adapted from the VERGE Weekly newsletter, published Wednesdays.

Changing a society’s governing paradigm is no easy undertaking.

Take Copernicus and Galileo, who dedicated their lives to the unenviable task of debunking the notion that the sun revolved around the earth just because the medieval church proclaimed it. Today, we no longer question that theory, or whether democracy is a better form of government than plutocracy.

Now, in the early years of a new millennium, we find ourselves in the midst of another renaissance — a pivotal inflection point in the history of civilization. This time, however, the belief system we need to overcome is the idea that perpetual economic growth is the key to prosperity — or even possible.

There’s a new paradigm emerging. A fundamental shift away from the extractive brand of capitalism that has put the nine planetary boundaries on which humanity and life on earth as we know it depend in grave jeopardy. Emerging in its place is a more regenerative economy — one that restores those systems, while demonstrating that economic prosperity, security and sustainability go hand in hand.

That’s why I found myself especially fired up by the interview we just published with Hunter Lovins about her new book, "A Finer Future," and the in-depth paper it references, by John Fullerton, on regenerative capitalism (PDF). Specifically, the compelling case they make that regenerative businesses are more successful businesses, and that we’re ultimately headed in the right direction, albeit not as quickly as we need.

A fundamental shift away from the extractive brand of capitalism that has put the nine planetary boundaries on which humanity and life on earth as we know it depend in grave jeopardy.
The idea of business as a force that regenerates rather than degenerates ecological and human systems is by no means new. Visionaries such as Ray Anderson, Carol Sanford, Bill Reed and many others have been championing, and implementing, it for decades — including Lovins (a la "Natural Capitalism," circa 1999).

Lovins recounts in the interview her experience sitting with Anderson back in 2001, at which time his bold vision — to redesign Interface’s core business to eliminate any negative impact on the environment by 2020 — was unprecedented, even outlandish (here's a GreenBiz Reads, our weekly book excerpt, from Lovins on the subject). Even then, however, it was as much about building a better company as it was about social and environmental responsibility. "Everything I’m doing to make Interface a more sustainable company is enhancing shareholder value," Anderson told Lovins at the time.

Today, unlike during Anderson’s era, this is no longer a radical idea. We’re seeing evidence that businesses that align their core strategy with sustainability — and increasingly towards regenerative outcomes — can be more profitable.

Case in point: Companies that lead in measuring and managing their carbon footprint have an 18 percent higher return on investment than the laggards, and a 67 percent higher return than companies that performed as if climate were not a material issue, according to a 2014 study conducted by CDP. The rapid adoption of Environmental and Social Governance (ESG) Criteria has evidence to back it up, too — publications ranging from Bloomberg to GreenBiz are all telling the data-driven story of why ESG is good for business, in addition to people and the planet. There’s even a new ETHO Climate Leadership Index, which has proven the climate-smart companies in which it invests consistently outperform others in the S&P 500.

As Lovins put it, "There are now well over 50 studies showing that companies leading in ESG criteria have, take your pick: the highest stock value; the fastest-growing stock value; well outperform the market; outperform their peers; and have more engaged workforces (a better-engaged workforce will give you 16 percent higher profitability, and 18 percent higher productivity)."

While the data are clearly on our side, time is not. Now is our moment to reimagine and redesign a regenerative economy that works for all — and, like any proper paradigm shift, it takes work.

As Fullerton poignantly put it, "We are the new Copernicans." So, let’s get back to work.

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