"Regenerative" vs "Sustainable"

Excerpt Transcript from ORION Podcast episode: How Can We Embody Change? | Rob Greenfield

We couldn't say it better than Rob and Laurel, so we published this excerpt from their conversation.
(excerpt starts at 21 minutes 13 seconds and ends 31 minutes 22 seconds)

Laurel: You mentioned a word, Rob, that was like Ding ding ding! Regenerative. Can you please tell us what your definition is of "Regenerative"?

Rob: Sustainability is a big word and the idea of sustainability is that you can keep doing what you're doing without depleting the resources. So, the idea of something sustainable is that you can basically do it sort of forever. I mean, nothing on Earth happens forever, so that's not really the truth behind it. But the idea is that it can be sustained - so the amount that you're harvesting from that land, it will keep coming back and it'll keep being there so your kids and the next kids and the next kids will be able to go harvest say, wild onions, for example. Harvesting too much depleting the resource 'til it's gone would not be sustainable because then those onions aren't going to be there anymore. So that's what sustainability is. Now the problem is that today we are not really in a place where sustainability is enough. Because we don't want to sustain what we're doing right now 'cause what we're doing right now is completely unsustainable.

What regenerative means is to regenerate. So if a lizard, you know, there's lizards where if you try to catch them by the tail, their tail falls off. Right now, we've got a lot of tails that have fallen off and we don't, you know, the idea is that you would want the tail back on the lizard. So what we're trying to do, you know, with what regeneration is, we've depleted our soils, our soils are destroyed. We want good soils. Many of our forests have been chopped down - they're gone. We want forests back in those places. Our oceans are polluted. We want those be clean, free of plastic, free of, you know, toxic run-off, and algae blooms that are created from too much nitrogen in the water. So to regenerate is actually to look at the real problems that we have and do things in a way that bring things back to a state of harmony. Whether it's our soil, our water, our air, our way of interacting with the world with other species.

Laurel: That's fantastic. I mean, you mentioned that you're trying to be impeccable with your word. I'm hyper-focused on trying to be that way. I come from a very technical background in sustainability, climate planning, renewable energy planning, so, like, the details are super important to me. And Jessa always says "We're gonna meet you where you are, we're gonna meet you where you are." because that practical language is super important for people to absorb it. And so when we talk about sustainability, we usually think its, you know, long lasting and resilient to change or it's the triple bottom line of maximizing value for people, planet, and profit. Because that's what I was taught in college and it's simple to understand the three things.


And we are in the movement for helping businesses become regenerative, and educating people on what regeneration means. And to us, it's consistently adding value to everything that you touch and everything that touches you or your stakeholders. Creating values for your stakeholders, and the environment is always elevated to the level of a stakeholder in your business. We're getting there, and we're evolving, and the more we use it - like you mentioned algorithms - like, our world starts to expand to involve all these thought leaders in the realm of regeneration. I'm so grateful to be connected to, and I'm so glad that you mentioned it, one of the first times that we heard of regeneration was when we interviewed Darcy of Dr. Bronner's who is, you know, a part of the regenerative organic agriculture certification and ROC and everything around that made my heart sing. When you mentioned soils, I'm really into that.

You've done a lot of work on how to grow your own food, forage your food for a year, and you know a lot about soils. Are you into the regenerative organic agriculture movement, and if so, what are some of the things that are you resonating with you very strongly?

Rob: Well, I'm definitely into it. I don't have experience growing food on large scales. I would never consider myself a farmer remotely even though people like to throw that word around. I've grown a fair bit of food and I know how to grow a fair bit of food, but I'm just a gardener. And I don't even necessarily consider myself a gardener. There's a lot of gardeners who are a lot more knowledgeable and experienced than I am.

To follow up on Dr. Bronner's, they are a truly exceptional company and we need a lot more companies like Dr. Bronner's. So of course some of the products that Dr. Bronner's has have negative implications via shipping, some growing methods, things like that. But they are really putting so much funds into the regenerative movement, into regenerative agriculture, shifting agriculture. They are a really really great company.

Laurel: We love them.

Rob: Yeah, cool.

Laurel: Yeah, they're a certified B corp, and we have our application. There's a huge backlog, which a great thing, companies wanna be certified B Corps. I think it's about 6 months, but we've been pending for a year and we love to vocalize B Corps. Now everybody sees the B with a circle on it. We always use Dr. Bronner's as our poster child.

Rob: Cool, yeah. I think B Corps are... it's one of the few labels that I really believe in. There's so many labels. I don't believe in, you know, USDA organic. I mean, I believe that it is that label but I don't believe that it's anything that you should be able to look at and feel like "Oh yea, I'm doing something good" because most USDA organic is, I don't want to say meaningless, but it's not even close to the picture that people imagine on the package.

One thing I want to mention is that something you mentioned before about making sure that the actions are all sort of regenerative and in that they leave the place better. An interesting thing that I see that I think about a lot is that we have this sort of thing where we like to isolate things and we focus on what we want to focus on.

So for example, you know, let's say you have one of these programs where it's like you buy a pair of shoes and then someone else who doesn't have shoes gets a pair of shoes. Like Tom's for example. So then you're like, "Oh man, we've put shoes on like, a million people who didn't otherwise have shoes. We've done something great." But what you really have to ask is who's making those shoes? And are you decreasing their quality of life in a way that is equal to the increase of quality of life that you've given elsewhere? And a lot of what nonprofits and businesses like to do is they focus on what's visible as their positive impact but then they kind of, like, leave all these negative things aside and avoid talking about those.


The way that I try to design my work is that I'm not stealing from one area to give to another area. So, where are the materials coming from to build the gardens for people? Are they actually coming from people that are working in pretty wretched conditions and I'm contributing to that? For example, buying cinderblocks from Home Depot or Lowes - which I do sometimes. But you know, who's paying for the increase in quality of life? I think that's one thing that's missing a lot and that is, like, glossed over a lot and it's a really important thing to look at if we're talking about real regeneration in our work, our businesses, and our nonprofits, and our lives.

Laurel: I agree. I think that stakeholder capitalism or a regenerative economy is one that is not a zero sum game where somebody has to lose for another entity to win. I think it's win-win-win-win. We talk about this all the time, about how it's creating wins for every component part of it. Thinking about how the fungi, the bees, and the ants have survived for billions millions of years. And how do they do it? Well, they just create value out of waste and opportunities. Nothing is wasted, including economic waste. Or a negative externality or a positive externality. It's all neutralized or absorbed within the system itself.

I recently read an article that said the prescription or the medicine for our broken economy isn't corporate social responsibility or big companies doing "better" for the environment - it's more capitalists that think like we do. Like you, Jessa, and me, that go "Ok, I'm going to start more businesses to solve a problem and create value, but from a holistic perspective." Not like a "this one thing" and "this is what I'm having".

So thank you for sharing your insight. You might not be a regenerative farmer, but you're a regenerative thinker. Thank you for adding value.

Rob: Yeah and just to add to that. That idea is correct if the businesses are actually regenerative, but very few businesses, very few initiatives that claim to be regenerative are. They're few and far between. So there's marketing and then there's what we're really doing, and then there's understanding what we're doing. And that's a really important thing.