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08/04/2024 Origin by Ocean

Don’t just be sustainable, be regenerative

Niklas Kaskeala urges companies to go beyond mitigating their footprint, embracing business models that heal ecosystems instead.
Don’t just be sustainable, be regenerative

In an era of escalating ecological crises and widening social inequalities, traditional approaches to business sustainability need to be critically re-evaluated. Moving from merely mitigating harm to actively fostering environments and societies that can heal, grow and thrive is not just an ethical choice, it is a necessary evolution for companies around the world. This blog explores the transformative shift towards regenerative business models, why it is imperative and how it requires a deep change in mindset and business practices, particularly in the chemicals sector, which is fundamental to decarbonisation but also fraught with challenges. 

Where traditional sustainability misses the mark

While harm reduction is a necessary step towards a more sustainable future, it falls well short of what is urgently needed to address the deep environmental crises we face today. This approach, which focuses on minimising negative impacts, operates under the illusion that we can carry on with business as usual if we just make it a little less destructive. But the reality is very different. The Earth's ecosystems are not just stressed, they are on the verge of collapse. For example, simply aiming to reduce carbon emissions does not address the already destabilising levels of CO2 in our atmosphere, nor does it address the loss of biodiversity and degradation of soil and water quality that threaten food security and human health.

The chemicals sector, as explored by Voyager VC in their recent article 'Living With Chemistry', exemplifies the complexity of the transition from traditional to regenerative practices. The global scale of chemical production, essential to our modern way of life from fertilisers to plastics, is a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. The sheer scale of the chemical industry underscores the limitations of mere mitigation and highlights the need for a transformative approach to how we produce and consume chemicals.

The transition to sustainable feedstocks is critical to decarbonising chemical production. Biomass, recycled materials and even carbon dioxide itself are great alternatives to fossil-based feedstocks. These innovations not only reduce the carbon intensity of chemical production, but also embody the regenerative principle of turning waste into valuable resources.

Why we need to become regenerative now

The transition from traditional sustainability to regenerative practices is urgent. Studies show that we've already crossed six of the nine 'planetary boundaries'. These are limits that, if exceeded, could lead to major, irreversible damage to the environment. This isn't just an environmental issue; it's a threat to human health, security, and economic stability. Damage to natural systems can exacerbate social inequalities, threaten our food and water supplies, and make us more vulnerable to disasters and disease. We're running out of time to make changes, so we must adopt regenerative practices now.

How to get out of survival mode

Regenerative business models are about changing the way we think. They don't see nature as something to be consumed, but as a living system of which we are a part and on which we depend. The goal is to move beyond simply reducing harm to actively improving and healing ecosystems. This means developing business practices that help the environment and society to thrive, not just survive.

This shift requires rethinking everything from what companies do to how they measure success. It's about innovating across the board, not just in products and services, but in the way businesses operate at their very core. For the chemicals sector, this means moving away from an extractive, fossil-fuel mindset and exploring entirely new, truly sustainable feedstocks. We need to rethink the very foundations of chemical production in order to repay the massive environmental debt the sector has incurred. 

The economic imperative: how do we avoid a collapse of growth? 

The transition to regenerative business models is not just a moral or environmental imperative, it is a strategic economic one. In a world of finite resources, the old paradigms of extractive growth are increasingly unsustainable. Regenerative practices offer a path to sustainable growth that replenishes and enhances the natural and social systems on which businesses depend.

Far from being a cost or compliance issue, regeneration is an investment in the future - a future in which businesses not only survive but thrive by making a positive contribution to the world. The companies that embrace this shift will be seen not only as leaders in sustainability but as pioneers of a new economic era.

As we move deeper into the 21st century, the question for companies, particularly those in the chemical sector, is no longer whether they can afford to adopt regenerative practices, but whether they can afford not to. The companies that recognise this and act accordingly will be the ones that lead, shape and succeed in the emerging regenerative economy, demonstrating that true sustainability goes beyond reducing harm to actively improving our world.


Niklas Kaskeala is a Finnish climate activist and impact leader. He collaborates with Origin by Ocean, offering insights into societal communication and championing a regenerative economy.

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