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Two Steps Forward

Why ‘regeneration’ is generating business buzz

In a world where everything from buildings to oatmeal can be dubbed "regenerative," does the word really mean anything?

butterfly transformation


Regeneration seems to be enjoying a renaissance, or maybe a reinvention.

The word is everywhere these days, vying to nudge "sustainability" aside in favor of the next trendy term. (Sustainability, for its part, long ago edged out "environmental" and "socially responsible," even though they all mean different things.)

It wasn’t that long ago that regeneration (and its adjectival cousin, "regenerative"), in the sustainability realm, was appended primarily to agriculture and its kin. Without tilling much soil, you can quickly find references to regenerative ag, regenerative farming, regenerative ranching, soil, crops and cattle. There’s even regenerative organic agriculture, which sounds like someone is trying to double-dip, but so be it.

But the latest crop of regeneration has extended far afield. Just about anything can be — and increasingly is — dubbed regenerative: architecture, brands, buildings, capitalism, communities, companies, cultures, design, economies, energy, fashion, landscapes, leather, oatmeal, packaging, products, travel and urban development.

Buzzwords can be a crutch — etymological comfort food, simple terms that refer to complex phenomena.

So, what’s the problem? After all, regenerating something seems better than simply sustaining it, so why not pick a word that’s both aspirational and inspirational?

Because words matter. And as companies step up to address an increasingly broad range of social and environmental challenges — and aim to be seen as a leader on issues about which a growing chunk of the public cares deeply — how they label their commitments, initiatives and achievements can mean the difference between glory and greenwash.

Bacteria, you and me

What, exactly, is regeneration? It is a primary attribute of all living systems. In biology, it refers to the process of renewal, restoration and growth that makes cells, organisms and ecosystems resilient to disruption or damage. Every species is capable of regeneration, from bacteria to you and me.

In medicine, regeneration is vital to modern care, from tissue grafting to surgical implants, cell therapy to tissue engineering — all are part of the regenerative medicine toolkit. Its understanding and use dates to the 18th century.

Among sustainability nerds, regeneration is often synonymous with "repair" or "restore." That is, a regenerative company or product is one that not only doesn’t despoil natural resources and ecosystems, but actually contributes to their sustenance. A company, for example, might sequester more carbon dioxide than it emits into the atmosphere, or cleanse more water than it pollutes, or plant more trees than it harvests, thereby being a net-positive contributor to ecosystem health.

Oh, right: "net positive" — another buzzword on the ascendency, regeneration’s next-door neighbor.

But isn’t “regenerative” (and “net positive”) simply what sustainability is about, or should be? After all, the classic definition, borne of the Brundtland Commission in 1972, defined it as the ability to meet the needs of the present "without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." In other words, creating a resilient, self-recovering system that can continue, and thrive, indefinitely.

Being a sustainable company means having no negative impact on the earth’s biosphere. The things it extracts, burns or otherwise consumes in the course of doing business can be done forever without depleting the planet’s critical resources, from forests to fresh air.

That, in a nutshell, is being regenerative.

To be sure, regeneration has its place in sustainability — in design, for example. Regenerative design "describes a process that mimics nature itself by restoring or renewing its own sources of energy and materials," according to Colin Rohlfing, director, sustainable development at HDR, the global engineering and design firm. "It emulates natural systems for the continuous renewal of societal and ecological functions."

In that sense, regeneration is part and parcel of the circular economy, where materials flow continuously, with little or no waste or loss of quality.

We’ll be hearing a lot more about regeneration (and restorative and net-positive outcomes) as companies recognize that merely being sustainable probably won’t get us where we need to go. Its use is destined to grow in a world that feels increasingly depleted — our natural resources, of course, but also our minds, bodies and spirit. Who couldn’t use some regeneration right about now?

That is, unless the word is overworked into submission — a term that can be applied to anything and, therefore, means nothing at all.

For now, beware the buzzwords. They can be a crutch — etymological comfort food, simple terms that refer to complex phenomena. To the extent they are abused to the point of obfuscation, they will undermine what needs to become the new business as usual.

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