Since 1977, Carol Sanford has been forging the path for the regenerative business. Carol has the innate ability to see the inner workings of a business and align systems to better benefit industries, social systems, cultural beliefs and governing practices. Her vision for industries is rooted in tangible success for all levels of the business: from finance, business development sales, marketing, IT, to operations. In the classrooms of leading business schools including Harvard, Stanford and MIT, this vision is taught through her books, The Responsible Business and The Responsible Entrepreneur. We interviewed this experienced thought leader to learn more about the innovative process of regenerative business.

What is a regenerative business?

Regenerative business thinks about systemic change in how it does business, working to create greater capacity for all living beings, thus promoting each realizing its essence.

That means that a regenerative business works:

  1. With each life form as a living whole, not breaking it into parts (e.g., water programs separated out from a life shed);
  2. From potential, not ideals (no best practices across systems, no end states);
  3. Recognizing reciprocity as natural and does not foster competition (no rewards to incentivize);
  4. Realizing each being as having a singular essence, not categorizing where it fits with others (e.g., works with each customer as unique and discrete);
  5. With living system as nested one in another, not as parts (e.g., humans are nested in nature);
  6. Nodally to increase vitality of a whole, not with human-centered priorities (e.g., they look for acupuncture points for intervention rather than programs to cover everything or be efficient);
  7. Developmentally, not manipulatively or extractively (e.g. growing each being for its own direction rather than get the most out of it/them).

Regenerative business is a paradigm shift.

It is not another name for sustainability, renewal, restoration, resilience, or other higher-intention efforts. It starts in a different place and goes in a fundamentally different direction. A business has to start looking for and pursuing wholes, potential, reciprocity, essence, nested wholes, and nodal points. The “do good” paradigm primarily pointed out what we must do less of and in what arenas we can do better, mostly offered through programs on sustainability, fair trade, and other well-intended improvements.

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Tell us about an organization that has created a successful regenerative business.

Regenerative business is not a state to achieve, but a way of working. Many businesses have incorporated some of it and none have done it all, all the time. We live immersed in out-of-date paradigms that are hard to shed.

Merida Meridian does not think of its work as fair trade, which is a partial way of looking at a practice. It looks at renewing and restoring a village of craftspeople who know how to weave and dye textiles, giving the elders back a respected role and passing on their knowledge and wisdom to younger generations. It not only creates extraordinary textiles, but reweaves the culture of villages that were losing them. Fair trade is good, but it is partial and only helps the direct workers.

Why have they been successful?

Many businesses are pursuing and experiencing regenerative process, and many more will be taking them on over time. The Regenerative Business Alliance is offering an annual Regenerative Business Prize.

Until the entire paradigm shifts for all businesses, there is no use in talking about any one business being a successful example. For example, Neill Corporation, the major distributor for Aveda products, which are earth-friendly products, offers salon owners ways to bring meaning into the lives of employees and customers, as well as to renew their experience of work and life for employees and suppliers. With how they work, they get healthier, not just by giving benefits, but by learning how spirit works and can be developed in a work system, with owners, and stylists bringing that renewed spirit to customers and their partners. Success is a Western idea, not an idea in nature. It is a bad idea to look for successful examples. That is why the summit we are conducting is about moving whole industries at one time, not one business at a time.

What are some common mistakes that you see from startup businesses?

Far too often, startups copy the same old paradigm practices, like incentives and rewards that work against individual creativity and growing systemic health. They do this because they have been brought up in families, schools, and jobs that are structured based on gold stars and ranking people relative to one another. They have no idea of essence in each being. Then the new business is surprised that as they grow, people are less motivated and they have to keep upping the ante of incentives. That model is based in the study of rats, not of whole human beings working in community. Startups focus on the product or service and not on the way they will work. It is so easy to copy the traditional forms and not notice that their way of working is creating culture every day, and it is invisible.

Share a bit about the Regenerative Business Summit?

To shift a paradigm, you need to work on shifting industries essential to life. At the summit we work with six business streams that pervade all life or for anything that seeks to be alive, like individuals, families, communities, and natural systems. These include food, shelter (including habitats and buildings), transactions (for resources and exchange, e.g., energy, finance, communication platforms, insurance), adorning (how we fit with tribes and belong), recreating (how we find meaning and renewal including education, health, media), and communing (connecting with what is beyond humans as sacred and encompassing, beyond one’s own ego).

How do you work with businesses and individuals to help them make the shift to a regenerative business mindset?

It requires an education process, not a consulting or project effort that imposes preset systems and structures. The leaders, those with fiduciary responsible for the business, sit in a room and learn together, simultaneously preparing to carry out decisions made after entering a different way of working. They work to create a different mindset and to shift their worldview. They learn to use a different mind. That takes working on the business with different frameworks, systems language, and reflective processes. So we work on redesigning the way they learn, the process they use for decision-making, and the full experience of how they can work to produce enlightened disruption.

What is the difference between Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and regenerative business?

CSR was an effort to stop problems that focused on doing less harm, a reasonable ambition, and with very high intentions. It is about doing less harm than we normally do, and even doing good if we can (mostly a human-centered directive). It does not bring a new mind, in fact the same mind that created the problem CSR is speaking to is used in trying to overcome it. They work on smaller and smaller aspects and parts, creating new ideals to replace the extractive ones, shifting where the incentives are focused, etc.

Written By

ILFI Staff

The International Living Future Institute is committed to working toward a future that is socially just, culturally rich and ecologically restorative.