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Introducing a novel framework for regenerative business

Published onJun 20, 2023
Introducing a novel framework for regenerative business
Natalie Ryan1, Laurel Beesemyer1, Sarah Caulliez1, Jane Waiyaki1, Mandira Nayak1, Rashmi Chakrabarty1, Sarang K.A. Kim1 Doroteya Vladimirova2
1Independent Researchers; 2Net Positive Lab, University of Cambridge
+Equal contribution from all authors
[email protected]


Rampant environmental devastation and social inequities are undeniable impacts of our current global economic system, calling into question the continuation of “business-as- usual”. Regenerative business is an emergent concept that could deliver the urgent transformation required by changing the current paradigm of “doing less bad” to maximizing positive impact for the planet and future generations to continue to thrive. Industry is still catching-up with “conventional sustainability” business practices and there are very few companies exploring regenerative business models. Equally, few definitions of regenerative business exist in the academic literature. There is a need to build new theory on regeneration in the business context. This paper proposes a Framework for Regenerative Business. It reviews and consolidates existing theory on regenerative approaches and principles, and adopts a qualitative case-studies methodology to identify current business practices. Semi-structured interviews conducted with fourteen companies across multiple industries inform the common themes and emergent principles central to the development of the Framework for Regenerative Business. We contribute to advancing theory in the nascent field of regenerative business by providing a foundation from which to develop regenerative business models. Central to the Framework for Regenerative Business is empathetic leadership, that employs six core principles including empowered stakeholder relationships, connection to context and place, circular flows, trust and transparency, innovation and adaptability to ecosystems, and building inner and outer capacity for systems resilience. The interplay of the principles is guided by a meta-purpose, which is cascaded through the value proposition, seeking to create systemic positive impact.


Regenerative business, meta-purpose, net-positive impact, systems-thinking.

Introduction and research questions

Multiple global crises in recent years have made it increasingly evident that our current economic system, which relies on continuous material and financial growth, is not working for a significant part of the world’s population, failing to deliver health, wellbeing, and prosperity (Courtice, 2020). The environmental devastation that has resulted from this unfettered growth (IPCC, 2021) also points to fundamental flaws with the existing system indicating a need to consider the wider impacts of business. 

Conventional sustainability movements - including approaches such as the “triple bottom line” – are not ambitious enough to address the enormity of the environmental and societal challenges of our time (Elkington, 2020). In response, regenerative business is an emergent concept that could address the scale and pace of change required to deliver on climate, environment, and development for a more prosperous future.  It adopts a systems approach that aims to create positive impact for nature and people, and seeks to “enhance and thrive through the health of social-ecological systems in a co-evolutionary process” (Hahn and Tampe, 2020).

New business models are emerging that embody regenerative principles, including a growing movement of start-ups that are trying to move businesses towards a “net positive” impact, contributing more than they take from nature and society. Yet these companies represent a micro-fraction of the global economy, limiting their impact. Scaling this impact will require wider adoption of regenerative principles by the business community, which could be facilitated by clarifying their definitions and how they might be applied. 

This paper explores regenerative business practices through case-studies and attempts to answer the following questions:  

  1. What principles define regenerative business?

  2. What are the regenerative practices adopted by businesses?

First, we review the literature and synthesise existing theories on regenerative approaches and principles. Then, we identify current business practices from case-studies, and present a framework for regenerative business to help companies aiming to adopt regenerative business models.

Literature Review

A review of regenerative business literature has been conducted, using Google Scholar and Scopus Connect. Keywords such as “regenerative”, “regenerative business”, “regenerative enterprise” were used, followed by backward and forward snowballing. In addition, a selection of seminal papers was included that do not consider regeneration per se but inform the research, with concepts derived from the “circular economy”, “biomimicry”, “net-positive” and “purpose-driven” businesses. A review of grey literature completed this search to incorporate the views of business practitioners. In total, 72 articles informed the following review of existing theory and concepts.

Regeneration: A new sustainability paradigm

Regeneration is presented as a new conceptual approach to sustainability, with most thought leaders grounding their theory from specific fields such as permaculture and the built environment (Cole, 2012; du Plessis, 2012; Mang and Reed, 2012; Camrass, 2020). It goes beyond “conventional sustainability” (Reed, 2007; Gibbons, 2020), which uses resource efficiencies and technological “fixes” to minimise damage to society and the environment (Camrass, 2020; Hahn and Tampe, 2020; Re-alliance, nd). 

Regenerative sustainability takes a holistic, ecological approach and necessitates systems thinking. It implies that all systems are nested and part of a whole social-ecological system (SES) (Hahn and Tampe, 2020), whereby “the health of the whole is inseparable from the health of its parts, and the health of every part is inseparable from the health of the whole” (Fullerton, 2015) (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Adapted from Fullerton, 2015 to reflect business embedded in SES

The notion of health is associated with the ability for whole-living systems to flourish and thrive indefinitely (Gibbons, 2020; Upward and Jones, 2016). This dynamic state requires constant rebalancing based on whole systems’ needs and constraints in specific places and contexts (Robinson and Cole, 2015; Raworth, 2017). Regenerative sustainability is therefore considered as a continuous effort rather than an end-state (Cole, 2012; Lush Spring Prize, 2016).

Promoters of the circular economy have adopted the language of regeneration, viewing closed-loop flows as means to restore and protect biodiversity (EMF, 2021; Raworth, 2017; Morseletto, 2020). “Net-positive” also emerged as a concept linked to regeneration. It initially derived from built environment theories that buildings should create value to enable surrounding ecosystems to sustain and evolve over time (Mang and Reed, 2015). In the wider business context, Polman and Winston (2021) argue, that “corporations should strive to become net-positive, improving well-being for everyone they affect – every product, operation, and stakeholder, including future generations and the planet itself”.

Regenerative business as a research topic is only addressed explicitly in a few articles (Hahn and Tampe, 2020; Caldera et al., 2022). Concepts and definitions are fragmented and developed based on worldviews across various disciplines (Mang and Reed, 2012). However, three concepts do emerge that relate to business in the context of regeneration: outer-sustainability, inner-to-outer sustainability, and organisational design and leadership.


Most regenerative approaches address “outer-sustainability”, which is the impact of businesses on SES. They consider “net-zero” as the baseline to differentiate degenerative systems from regenerative ones. Restoring and enhancing nature and communities are core endeavours of regenerative businesses (Braungart and McDonough, 2002; Reed, 2007; Mang and Reed, 2020). Notions around the importance of place and context (Reed, 2007; Cole, 2012), as well as a long-term vision (Cole, 2012) are present in the discourse.

The framework presented in Figure 2 addresses outer-sustainability in regenerative business. It focuses specifically on the categories above the neutral line, arguing that regeneration in the business context is a matter of degrees, both in terms of systems-level aspirations and adaptive management approaches. The framework captures the degree to which a given business model is regenerative and the extent to which identified principles are integrated into core strategy and practices.

Figure 2. Principles and criteria of regenerative business (Hahn and Tampe, 2020)

However, this framework does not explicitly address the role of individuals, leadership or purpose within organisations and systems.

Inner-to-outer sustainability

It is argued that shifting people’s mindset - from humans and business being separate from, to being nested within SES - is the foundation to achieving long-term systemic health (Muñoz and Branzei, 2021). This shift entails enabling people’s growth and self-actualisation, and connecting them with their inner-selves, with others, and with nature (“inner-sustainability”) (Gibbons, 2020; Natural Capitalism Solutions, n.d).

Regenerative businesses contribute by nurturing and balancing eight forms of interconnected capitals, five of which address “inner-sustainability”: social, intellectual, experiential, cultural, and spiritual (Soloviev and Landua, 2013). Soloviev and Landua‘s framework (Figure 3) connects inner and outer-sustainability. It illustrates the role that each capital plays within levels of regenerative enterprises ecologies, starting with the individual, who is empowered to become an active stakeholder in the organisation and larger community.

Figure 3. Principles for regenerative enterprises (Soloviev and Landua, 2013)

Organisational design and leadership in regenerative enterprises

Sanford (2017) focuses on human growth through organisational design, business transformation and leadership, which are required to integrate inner and outer-sustainability. She argues that self-actualisation occurs when humans develop their inner-selves with a sense of shared purpose which connects them with nature and communities. In regenerative enterprises, purpose-driven leadership empowers individuals to develop critical-thinking, autonomy, and space for innovation at all levels within the organisation, supporting positive systemic impact. Soloviev and Landua (2017) revisited their initial framework (Figure 3) to acknowledge the role of purpose within regenerative organisations and networks, supporting Sanford’s theory.

Although the literature broadly addresses living systems-thinking, few other authors make a comprehensive link between the need to integrate “inner” and “outer-sustainability” to develop regenerative systems or explore how different leadership or management structures may affect an organisation’s capacity for regenerative behaviours and outcomes.

Summary of regenerative principles from the literature

Integrating the three concepts discussed above, Table 1 provides an overview of the key regenerative principles that emerge most prominently in the literature. It summarises concepts from multiple publications and authors.

Key principles


Key references

Is adaptive and responsive

  • Regenerative practices are place-sensitive and in constant iteration based on feedback from SES. Within regenerative organisations, roles evolve dynamically in response to needs and constraints.

  • Adaptability and responsiveness are essential to businesses’ health, creating space for innovation and out-of-the-box ideas.

Caldera et al., 2022

Du Plessis and Cole, 2011

Folke et al., 2005

Fullerton, 2015

Hahn and Tampe, 2020

Raworth, 2017/2021

Robinson and Cole, 2015

Sanford, 2017

Slawinski et al., 2021

Builds capacity holistically

  • Enhances the capacity of people, communities, economies, and planet to continuously grow and evolve their vitality, viability, and resilience.

  • Nurtures inner-sustainability via holistic development of individuals within the organisation

Du Plessis and Brandon, 2015

Elkington, 2020

Gibbons, 2020

Hahn and Tampe, 2020

Lush Spring Prize, 2016

Raworth, 2017/2021

Sanford, 2017

Upward and Jones, 2016

Creates and distributes multiple forms of value across whole systems

  • Creates “broadly shared prosperity” by nurturing and balancing capitals across the value-chain and throughout systems.

  • Collaborates for the common good, sharing knowledge and information to improve system’s health (e.g. open-source technologies, distributed capital ownership).

Fullerton, 2015

Gibbons, 2020

Mang and Reed, 2012/2020

Natural Capitalism Solutions, n.d

Raworth, 2017/2021

Soloviev and Landua, 2013

Is purpose-driven

  • Purpose within regenerative organisations is “meta”. It addresses challenges in systems they depend upon and are a part of and creates holistic positive impact.

  • Shared purpose serves human growth and self-actualization. It supports employees’ engagement and retention.

Hurth, 2021

Korn and Pine, 2014

Raworth 2017

Palm and Sieczko, 2021

Polman and Winston, 2021a and 2021b

Sanford, 2017

Soloviev and Landua, 2017

Promotes stakeholder mutuality and empowered participation

  • The connected nature of systems makes the contribution of all stakeholders essential to the wellbeing of the whole.

  • Decentralized leadership helps ensure all stakeholders are empowered and value is co-created for all.

Caldera et al., 2022

Fullerton, 2015

Gibbons, 2020

Hahn and Tampe, 2020

Raworth, 2017/2021

Sanford, 2017

Soloviev and Landua, 2013/ 2017

Is restorative

  • Reverses degradation of SES, returning it to acceptable health.

  • Restoration strategies do not fundamentally change business models; they are a way to continue operating within the current model.

Elkington, 2020

Fullerton, 2015

Hahn and Tampe, 2020

Mang and Reed 2012/2020

Morseletto, 2020

Generates net-positive impact

  • Leaves ecosystems in better condition than their starting point. Necessitates action beyond restoration.

  • Contributes more than it takes from society and the environment by improving well-being for all stakeholders, including future generations.

Elkington, 2020

Mang and Reed, 2015

Natural Capitalism Solutions, n.d

Soloviev and Landua, 2013/ 2017

Upward and Jones, 2016

Polman and Winston, 2021

Embeds circular flows

  • Designs for circularity: Uses renewable energy and materials; minimises waste and resource use, captures maximum value from existing products and materials.

  • Restores via cycling of materials in the technosphere (reuse, repair, refurbish, recycle).

  • Regenerates biological materials: uses only at speed of natural regeneration; harnesses value at every cycle; designs production to return nutrients to living earth.

Bocken et al., 2014

Braungart and McDonough., 2002

EMF, 2021

Raworth, 2017/2021

Seeks dynamic balance

  • Dynamically searches for balance between multiple variables including “efficiency and resilience, collaboration and competition, diversity and coherence”, and small, medium and large organisations.

  • Balances quest for profit with one that aims at supporting, restoring, and sustaining social, environmental and economic systems.

Fullerton, 2015

Mang and Reed 2012/2020

Palm and Sieczko, 2021

Raworth, 2017/2021

Sanford, 2017

Table 1. Summary of regenerative principles


This paper uses a qualitative case-studies based approach to explore regenerative principles and their practical application. It consists of a two-step process of data collection and analysis.

Identification and selection of initial case-studies

An initial sample of cases was identified through a review of business websites, annual reports, sustainability reports and other publications, using the following criteria:

  1. Businesses that use the term “regenerative” to describe their approach to sustainability.

  2. Businesses that may not identify as regenerative but apply some of the principles identified in the literature.

45 business cases were identified of which 28 were selected for further analysis that had sufficient publicly available information on their regenerative practices for comparison with principles derived from the literature. This step enabled a preliminary understanding of the nature and typology of businesses applying regenerative principles and their practices.


To build on the findings above, primary data was gathered through semi-structured interviews using a purposive, heterogeneous sampling method (Etikan et al., 2015). This approach enabled the collection of a wide range of perspectives related to regenerative business and the identification of common themes among various stakeholders and business types. The case-studies sample is comprised of:

  • Large corporations, trying to embed regenerative practices into their existing models

  • Purpose-led organisations, built on regenerative principles

  • Consultants on regenerative practices

  • Impact fund

Companies contacted for interviews met several regenerative criteria among initial case-studies and were identified organically, via the team’s personal networks and those of interviewees.

Fourteen interviews with 17 individuals were conducted, representing a varied sample of business profiles, sizes, sectors, and geographical presence. Table 2 provides details on selected case studies.

A thematic analysis was conducted using both a deductive and inductive approach, first utilising principles identified from the literature, then letting new themes emerge from the interviews. Interviews were transcribed, then coded to reveal 47 initial themes, grouped and synthesised into 14 used to report on findings.





Duration (mins)

Position of interviewees

Company A





  • Group Head of ESG

  • Group Head of Public Affairs

Company B






Company C





Product and brand Director

Company D






Company E





Head of Purchasing for Specialized Nutrition France

Company F

Sports Retail




Sustainable Project Manager

Company G

Luxury goods




Co-founder and Co-farmer

Company H






Company E





Managing Director

Company J






Company K






Company L





Sustainable and regenerative sourcing expert

Company M





Head of regenerative Impact

Company N





  • Founder

  • CEO

Table 2. Case-studies' description

Empirical findings – Regenerative business principles and practices

Our analysis confirmed that the main themes consolidated from the theory were also reflected in the case studies. When we coded the interviews using an inductive approach, we also found themes that had not previously emerged as major variables in the regenerative literature. While relationships were captured through the promotion of stakeholder mutuality and empowered participation (Gibbons 2020; Sanford, 2017; Upward and Jones, 2016), trust and transparency only emerged as an essential aspect in the interviews. Most of the literature did not explicitly link the interconnectivity of individuals with the wider system. Sanford (2017) and Soloviev and Landua (2017) contend that it begins with the purpose-driven individual, who must be nurtured and empowered to act as an active stakeholder within and beyond the organisation. Similarly, interviewees adopted this inside-out approach, recognising that individuals within organisations are the starting point for creating systemic change. Further, the ability of the organisation to adapt and evolve with its context was a key characteristic that emerged from our findings, linking to Hahn and Tampe’s (2020) notion of adaptive management. However, where they approach systemic change uniquely from an outer-sustainability perspective, our findings suggest the inner-regeneration of the organisation and its people reflect those outer strategic aims [Company I, Company G, Company M]. Most companies interviewed are practising a form of reflexive governance, which is addressed only in passing in the regenerative literature (Hahn and Tampe, 2020; Gibbons, 2020). Decision-making is distributive, enabling joint problem-solving and solutions based on context, place, and time. This also allows the organisation to remain relevant by constantly experimenting, learning, and adapting.

The following section presents the central concepts and business practices that emerged from the interviews.

Values, Culture and Governance

Most companies interviewed lead with empathy, putting humans at the centre of the organisation. They share values such as compassion, courage, honesty, curiosity, inclusiveness, and openness. These values act as enablers for regenerative practices and were demonstrated in several ways. One example came from a company who hired a young underprivileged man:

“The British Social welfare system has failed him. And I remember on the first day that Jack arrived, one of our other team members said, who's raising this kid? and I said, you are.” [Company G]

Such values are central to developing trust-based partnerships and guiding decisions in the face of competing priorities:

“We had emails from Amazon wanting to sell our goods [...] I said, I'm sorry I can't work with Amazon […] because you throw away £250,000 worth of unsold goods in the UK every week. You under pay your workers […] So, the benefit of being net regenerative is that I'm never going to be on the wrong side of history.” [Company G]

Some companies were very deliberate in establishing structures aligned with their values. They create flexible self-organising networks that enable a collaborative culture, and tend to avoid the adoption of hierarchical structures:

“On a project you can have people take different roles […] based on their skills and expertise, but also where they want to grow […] and that enables the team to just endlessly merge and change and regenerate overtime until everyone is in the best place for them and for the company.”[Company-D]

Long-term systems thinking

A common denominator enabling these companies to envision their long-term positive impact was their awareness of the complex interactions within a system:

“There are so many systems contributing to this impact, […] carbon, material or whatever. It's difficult to understand what it will actually do to the environment. If we embed it in our algorithms, […] we can solve a lot of the challenges in a holistic and [...] long-term kind of approach.” [Company D]

They acknowledge that businesses cannot be regenerative on their own because they are nested within multiple interconnected systems:

“How do you say that your business is doing well, if the system in which it's nested is not doing well? Unless you can demonstrate that the systems that you're dependent on, and a part of, are improving year on year, you cannot claim to be part of an urgent regenerative economy.” [Company N]

Meta-purpose and value proposition

All start-ups interviewed were founded based on greater purpose, creating new types of disruptive business models that address local or global challenges, and enhance nature and community. What differentiates their value proposition from other businesses is that their products and services are used as vehicles to build systemic change:

“We created Company J because the food system is broken and we wanted to change it, to create a new model where we do things the right way and in full transparency; for the environment, for our producers, and for customers, because today there aren’t a lot of alternatives.” [Company J]

Likewise, the bigger corporations are transitioning their business models, using purpose to remain relevant. They are reacting both to changing consumers’ expectations and the fact that their existence is tied to social and planetary boundaries. An example was provided by Company F who is shifting from products to product-service models:

“It makes no sense for each one of us to have a pair of skis. So how can we follow our purpose with a sustainable model? […] It’s a complete change of mindset because these companies are not sustainable-native.” [Company F]

A company’s commitment to the greater good also attracts and retains talents. Some interviewees stated that they had left former employers because they were “contributing to the problem rather than to the solution.” [Company M]

Context, innovation, and adaptation

Interviewees recognised the need to adapt their strategies to their places of operation. They integrate local perspectives and customize their approaches to meet their needs and those of various stakeholders: 

“If margins and milk yields are more important, then […] we can focus there. […] The project isn’t around low carbon, because that's a meaningless concept for the farmer in India. It’s about increasing milk yields, […] that's helping him to have margin, at the same time you will reduce your carbon footprint. That's what we try to do: per region, per farming system.” [Company L]

They also tend to hire locally to be relevant to place and support communities where they work:

“I consider staff localness to be important. […] Other operators were run by foreigners, while locals needed jobs […] So, we just shifted the business to them, making them the operators, the guides, the drivers. Then everyone else started doing that too, because they were better at it. So, we boosted the local economy and the impact on local community.” [Company B]

Becoming regenerative is a journey that involves continual re-evaluation of practices and objectives. Experimentation is used to adapt and innovate in tune with the surrounding environment, with an openness to learning from failures. This flexible approach is what keeps these organisations relevant in the long run:

“You have to adapt to new contexts, to crises popping-up, to permanently explain where you're at, what’s working, what’s not […] so that we can see where we need to deviate from the trajectory […] it's not like there's a blueprint to follow.” [Company K]

Trust and relationships

Most companies interviewed felt that trust and transparency were critical to the regenerative mindset. The opacity of business practices and sustainability indicators were seen as issues, encouraging green-washing and false narratives:

“If you don't create transparency and traceability, you'll still have brands that potentially can hide and do nothing, more or less what you see in some crops like palm and cacao. […] Traceability is opening-up new steps with respect to regenerative agriculture.” [Company L]

Trust starts with communicating openly on challenges and failures:

“It means admitting things that don't go right and these fantastic failures, as we did in the unfinished Business Report.  It’s also about being open and honest about the things that we don't have answers on.” [Company M]

Beyond this, the born-regenerative companies interviewed integrate radical transparency into their operating principles. Win-win outcomes are achieved by acknowledging that impactful results come from working together. This creates an open and safe environment where cooperation becomes the norm over competition:

Everything is public, including our operating costs and the renumeration of our producers. We build long-term relationships with our partners, co-creating and constantly improving our products together, with no yearly re-tendering. This transparency and mutuality gives our partners the confidence and space to innovate.” [Company J]

Conscious efforts are made inside the organisation to treat employees equitably, encouraging teamwork and internal alignment towards collective goals:

"When you see new members joined the team, they say there's no competition between team members. And that's intentional, because you wanna make sure your colleague shines as opposed to have them go down so that you shine.” [Company D]

Capacity building for resilience

One of the key principles common to these organisations was their understanding that being regenerative starts with every individual having a strong sense of purpose and feeling personally fulfilled and nurtured. This human-centric approach enables the innovative and collaborative mindset that drives systemic change. It begins with building capacity of people within the organisation, so that they can in turn build the capacity of other stakeholders in the system:

“My first metric of success is not customer reviews, it’s staff happiness. Because the rest flows from that […] I ask myself - How much future value can I create in this person? - If you approach people that way, they generate incredible value, because they know you believe in them. […] It's another understanding of human resources, you're not just consuming them, you're developing them, for humanity, not just for your business.” [Company B]

The interviewees had an inherent understanding that for companies to have a positive impact, they should ensure that everything they do has a lasting effect beyond their presence. This is also one of the differentiating points of being regenerative, which ultimately depends on ecosystems and communities becoming self-sustaining in the long run, making these businesses “future-enabling[Company K] rather than future-proofing:

“It's looking at empowering populations where we are located. In terms of increasing resilience, involving them in this transition. It's also helping these populations regenerate in the sense of acquiring new knowledge, new sensitivity. On the environmental side, […] using land that we have […] making it better in capturing carbon, improving habitat for wildlife, and for below ground activity.” [Company A]

Circular flows

Circular principles were recognised as a baseline for all products’ design and life-cycle management, though applying them holistically was challenging. Several initiatives are works in progress, requiring more collaboration and infrastructure development to enable systems’ change:

“It’s a long process. [...] we've given ourselves that time frame because the whole industry will have to [move], and it's still really difficult. The system is not set up for circularity yet, but people are open, it's beginning to change.” [Company C]

Notions of industrial symbiosis were also apparent, with waste products from nearby industries feeding into businesses’ production. Two of these companies have built their business models on this principle: Company G produces luxury goods from end-of-life fire hoses, while Company D regenerates waste from various industries to produce construction materials. A multi-national corporation provides another tangible illustration:

“If you have [livestock], then you need to make sure that what they eat is not competing with food for humans. So, grass preferably for cows, and waste products from the food industry to feed the animals.” [Company L]

Long-term systemic Impact

Creating positive impact beyond the organisation is key to business purpose and strategy. Companies interviewed seek to minimise negative externalities, evaluating their direct and indirect impacts holistically:

“We started systematically tracing back through our entire supply-chain to understand the impacts on water, chemicals, land, people, carbon and waste. […] Where we couldn't get data, we got people to help us estimate our impacts.” [Company C]

They identify areas where they can influence and continuously work towards maximising positive effects. Generating profits is not seen as an end-goal, but a means to scale up impact. A concrete example is that potentially profitable business opportunities are not pursued if they do not meet the expected environmental and/or social outcomes: 

“There's been decisions made in board meetings […] where we've decided to scrap the whole product line despite that teams had worked on it for six months, because none of it has an end-of-life opportunity.” [Company M]

Success is measured in the short-term via efforts towards regeneration, and in the longer-term by looking at impacts on ecosystems. Businesses have developed their own tools to capture data on ecosystems’ enhancements as there is no agreed-upon framework or measurement standard for regeneration:

“We are impact maximisers. People think profit is great because you can measure it. But I can measure the growth of topsoil, an increase in earthworms, [or] a decrease in the amount of fire hose to landfill; I can measure how much money we give back, the number of women who've been given scholarships to train as solar engineers.” [Company G]

Some organisations argued that measuring may go too far and cause companies to lose sight of much bigger and broader ambitions. It is about using common-sense and bringing decision-making back to simple, binary questions such as “Does it restore land or degrade it? Does it promote fundamental human rights or deny them?” (Hawken, 2021).

Framework for regenerative business

We contribute to advancing the theory by consolidating concepts from the literature with empirical findings and presenting them as a framework for regenerative business (Figure 4). This framework clarifies the language around regenerative business and presents the principles in a comprehensive format, providing a foundation from which to develop regenerative business models.

Central to the framework for regenerative business is empathetic leadership that employs six core principles, including empowered stakeholder relationships, connection to context and place, circular flows, trust and transparency, innovation and adaptability to ecosystems, and building inner and outer capacity for systems resilience. These principles are interconnected and enabled by culture and governance. A meta-purpose guides the application of all principles, which is cascaded through the value proposition. We propose that this framework should be applied holistically to generate positive systemic impact.

Figure 4. Framework for Regenerative Business

Discussion and conclusion

The aim of this paper was to answer what principles define regenerative business and what regenerative practices are adopted by business. It did so by identifying and consolidating the main approaches and principles based on theory and case studies. Our analysis confirmed that the main themes that arose from the literature also appeared in practice. The specific language employed by interviewees often differed, but the underlying meaning was consistent.

We contribute to advancing theory in the nascent field of regenerative business by providing a foundation from which to develop regenerative business models. The framework for regenerative business offers a conceptualisation of this emergent business type. Each of the identified principles is confirmed by practice and supported by separate bodies of research within and beyond the regenerative business landscape. Our research fills a gap in bringing all these principles together and in arguing that they are inextricably intertwined. Regenerative business intentionally applies each of these individual principles continuously. Yet there is no “blueprint” or one-size-fits-all solution for becoming regenerative as there are numerous manifestations of each principle. The emphasis is on how those manifestations interact to generate systemic positive impacts within and beyond the organization. 

One striking observation was the humility of the interviewees with regards to this journey: no company claimed to be fully regenerative. The challenging nature of this process is largely due to the incompatibility of the current extractive system with regenerative business models. It is optimised for increasing consumption, growth, profit-maximisation and globalisation, which is reflected in most business-as-usual models. In contrast, some of the companies interviewed appeared to be growth-agnostic in this traditional sense. They focus on maximising their positive impact on the environment and society by growing their networks and partnerships, and by expanding their influence to disrupt the current system and advocate for the advancement of regulation. This larger understanding of how value is created demonstrates a transition away from profits as the ultimate indicator of business success, suggesting that regenerative models could be pivotal in the paradigm shift whereby businesses become nested within, rather than being separate from, SES (Hahn and Tampe, 2020).

The transition towards regeneration will require investment to enable the expansion of these models. Scaling-up impact requires banks and investment funds to understand the value of regeneration vs conventional sustainability. This points to a need for certifications to convince other stakeholders to invest in regenerative practices. It also requires a shift from a short to long-term framework for understanding return on investment, since the systemic impacts of regeneration are seen on a much longer-term horizon. Our interviewees suggested that the closest standard in use today is the benefit corporations (B-Corps) certification. Although many of these companies use the B-Corp framework as a baseline, it does not explicitly link to regenerative practices. They are developing their own frameworks and indicators for regeneration, leading to fragmented efforts. The common explanation was that there are few means of accurately measuring environmental, let alone social impact. The context-specific nature of social matters makes them more challenging to quantify. This also presents an opportunity for more businesses and civil society to cooperatively develop new standards that move beyond B-Corp.

There is an opportunity for regenerative models to take greater market shares over traditional offerings through branding and communication, further educating consumers so that they adhere to regenerative value propositions. Storytelling is also needed to “accelerate meaningful action[Company F] within the business community, whereby regenerative businesses serve as aspirational examples to other companies. They demonstrate that virtuous models can be successful across various contexts and industries, and are more capable of addressing social, environmental, and economic potential in harmony.

This study shows that regenerative businesses may be understood not only through their purpose, but by their generosity. They are magnanimous in circulating various forms of wealth to create the possibility for new opportunities where they are situated and beyond through their networks and coalitions. Regenerative businesses address systemic challenges as part of their value propositions, in alignment with planetary and social boundaries. All the businesses interviewed admitted to challenges and imperfections, while converging on a unifying theme: dedication to the notion that businesses may be a force for good. They aim to be guiding lights for other organisations within and beyond their industries by demonstrating their capacity to deliver both systemic positive impact and profitability.

The following limitations of this study need to be mentioned. There are currently few businesses that may be considered regenerative, and many appear to be start-ups with limited reach. Therefore, it is difficult to have a long-term perspective on what types of impact regenerative business models would bring over time, and how they might do so, which could affect our research outcomes. The qualitative case-study approach also did not allow for a more rigorous quantitative assessment, though this was not a priority.  Another limitation was that, while we chose our initial cases based on certain criteria, we may have introduced bias into the results by snowballing new cases based on recommendations from our original interviews that might favour successful cases. Finally, the cases were somewhat limited geographically with most being European, which may have influenced our results. While the examples we used are case-specific, we expect that many of the general patterns observed are applicable across a variety of contexts.

Areas for future research include:
1. Investigate standards and frameworks being developed by organisations that help them better track their regenerative capacity and areas for improvement.

2. Further analysis of how regenerative business models create, deliver and capture long-term systemic value beyond existing sustainable business theory.
3. Longitudinal and comparative examination of regenerative businesses in the context of their socio-ecological systems and co-evolution over time.
4. The capacity, challenges, and opportunities for large, incumbent organisations to become regenerative over time.
5. Test the validity of our regenerative framework with a broader set of cases and develop a more extensive tool to better enable businesses seeking to become regenerative nodes within their contexts.


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