In my previous article, I wrote about the need for the world to shift its focus from sustainability towards regeneration. At the core of the argument was that sustainability is focused on “doing less bad” whereas regeneration is focused on “making things better”. Given the speed at which we are stripping the world of its resources, doing “less bad” is no longer good enough and we need to find disruptive solutions that will undo the damage we have done and start regenerating our world.
When John Elkington coined the phrase “triple bottom line” in 1995, his intent was to challenge business leaders to re-think capitalism from a purely money focus to a more holistic view that includes people and planet. Unfortunately, 25 years later he was disillusioned with the manner in which business leaders had embraced the triple bottom line, and the slow pace at which the business world was evolving to become sustainable, so he issued a public recall of the triple bottom line, claiming it had become mere window dressing with business leaders using it to balance trade-off’s rather than doing things differently. He said that “the triple bottom line was never meant to be a mere accounting tool but to rather provoke deeper thinking on how to revolutionise capitalism and its future”. He says that “CEO’s and business leaders will move heaven and earth to hit their profit number but the same is not true for their people and planet targets, meaning that the triple bottom line has failed in its endeavors to bury the single bottom line”.
“If cancer is life run riot, then plastic-clogged oceans, obscene wealth divides, the undermining of democracy, and climate-induced societal collapse are symptoms of our current form of capitalism running riot”.
One of the key reasons for his decision to recall the triple bottom line was that he felt the concept was suffering from what he calls the “placebo effect”. In essence, he claims that the main impact of the triple bottom line is to make businesses appear to be doing good, which makes us feel a little better, while the real problems remain out of sight, out of mind, and as a result, out of control. Nick O’Donohue, an investor that has advised the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation says that “as long as Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives aren’t fundamentally core to a business, they are unlikely to ever scale or provide lasting solutions to critical social challenges”.
Elkington does acknowledge that the triple bottom line has made capitalism more responsible and less destructive, but he says that it now has to become “radically more economically inclusive, socially just and environmentally restorative” and the only way to achieve this is to for the business world to shift its focus from sustainability to regeneration.
Unfortunately becoming regenerative is not a simple task.
Sustainability is about incremental improvements on existing business practices, processes, products and services making them less damaging to the environment and better for people. Regeneration requires organisations to go back to basics and re-engineer every aspect of their entity so that they can not only undo the damage of the past but also play a role in making things better. This requires suspending the current metrics by which we measure success and introducing a radically new form of capitalism that truly does measure success based on profit delivery, social impact and environmental regeneration.
Regenerative organizations understand what their core purpose is and constantly disrupt themselves so that they can deliver against this purpose. They don’t start at the end product and then find ways to deliver it better to consumers, but rather start at the very beginning and look at how they can make better products from scratch that are far better for their customers, the planet and their shareholders.
Regeneration is a mindset, an ethos, a culture. It requires large amounts of effort to get going but can transform organisation’s when embedded into their core.
If John Elkington had not introduced the triple bottom line, the world would be in a far worse state than it is currently, but the pace of change has not been fast enough and the core metric of business success is still largely the profit number, so Elkington was justified in his plea to have it recalled. Capitalism does need a radical overhaul and incremental improvements are no longer good enough. It’s time for business leaders to heed to his original request “to provoke deeper thinking on how to revolutionise capitalism and its future” and its especially time for the business world to shift its focus from “doing less harm” to “making things better”. In other words, from sustainability to regeneration.
Our future depends on it.