Regeneration: The Next Step in Sustainable Supply Chains
We are living in an era of complex challenges. In the last decades, the world has realized and accepted that our production and consumption systems, the very same systems that created an unprecedented level of development and wealth, have surpassed the environmental boundaries of a healthy planet and corrective actions need to be taken urgently. The recent COVID-19 crisis is a warning sign, it has shown us of how insufficient the collective approach has been. Macro-factors such as climate change, soil infertility, polluted air and ecosystem degradation demonstrate to us that, even with vaccines, we will be living in an illusion if we don’t understand the real cause behind the crises we are facing.
It took some time, but the private sector has finally taken tangible action. Today, most responsible companies have implemented well-defined sustainability strategies and tangible projects to reduce the negative impacts that industrial systems generate. But at the same time, a small but growing group of experts and innovative companies have concluded that these actions are not enough. We see that so much damage has been done, that simply reducing further injury will not help our life-supporting ecosystems to heal. The time has come for a renovated approach that will take us beyond a net-zero environmental impact.
What does regenerative really mean?
“Sustainability” has been a buzzword for some time now and nowhere more than in the supply chain industry, often perceived as one of the largest contributors to environmental issues. A clarification for the cynics, “Regeneration” is not a just new word to replace the now overused term “sustainability”. It is a new way of thinking, a completely new level of ambition.
Essentially, it means that we need to abandon any complacent satisfaction in becoming “less bad” and start taking action to become “more good”, aiming for truly net positive impacts. This means pushing our impact reduction efforts beyond zero, finding ways to restore, renew and replenish our environment while strengthening society. This is the path to regeneration. In other words, regenerative means putting back in more than we take from the world. It is the inevitable next step when moving from degenerative systems that pollute and waste resources to models that restore nature and support communities.
The idea of regeneration has its roots in agriculture, which has been one of the most detrimental driving forces on the natural environment over time. Land-use change, soil degradation, water over-extraction and runoff from chemicals have all degraded farmlands and the surrounding environments. Add the multiplying impacts of climate change and the future looks quite bleak. However, many farmers are now adopting regenerative farming practices that enrich soil health, which in-turn draws down carbon. They also see value in biodiverse systems, reducing conventional inputs and adopting a more holistic approach to farm management. This shift in agriculture offers a solution that is both economically productive and ecologically sound, and it has inspired others to follow their path.
In our supply chain sector, the challenges are just starting to be explored. Being regenerative would ultimately demand that producers, manufacturers, transporters and distributors would firstly eliminate their negative impact on our planet and societies (for example, by reducing the production of waste and emissions) while also taking action to have a positive impact, making the world a better place than it was the day before.
In essence, regeneration means transforming the economic paradigm that followed the industrial revolution and building a new industrial system that, rather than consuming resources and producing waste, would consume existing waste and produce resources. It is a truly revolutionary Copernican shift, exciting and challenging in equal proportion. Ironically enough, this new paradigm puts the Earth back to the center of our (economic) system.
Becoming regenerative is extremely challenging, but the initial steps are promising and demonstrate the we can make this vision a reality. At my own company, Brambles/CHEP, we have recently adopted a strategy to pioneer a regenerative supply chain and have translated this vision into tangible commitments and objectives. Let’s explore how we can apply the regenerative idea to different sustainability areas:
Forestry - In a company dependent on forest-based products, such as our case, the focus has historically been on limiting lumber consumption by minimizing waste and maximixing the useful lives of each product, through our circular, share and reuse model. Over the last few years, Brambles continued this journey by promoting sustainable practices and buying only certified timber. In 2020, 100% of the wood we used for pallets was sourced from certified sustainably managed forests. In practice this means that the forest resource is balanced between harvesting and regrowth, ensuring forest cover remains constant over time. While this is a great achievement, regeneration demands we go further. We can and must go beyond zero deforestation. To meet the Paris Agreement and drawdown carbon from the atmosphere, we will need to restore forests to near pre-industrial levels. This means that, in addition to ensuring zero deforestation, we shall now move towards reforestation and afforestation and create new economically viable sources for timber, growing the number of trees in the world as we operate. We plan to achieve this by enabling the growth of two trees for every tree used to produce pallets, having a net positive impact on the planet. As we like to say, we will ensure “one new tree for our pallets and one new tree for the planet.”
Waste - Another key element for a regenerative supply chain, which is especially relevant in the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) sector, is the reuse of waste. Efforts have - and are being - made to avoid the production of waste, especially single-use plastic, and the related pollution problem. But new technologies have created opportunities for innovation: we can now positively contribute to solving the plastic problem by using existing plastic waste to make durable, reusable, long-life products. This is what we are aiming to do with our ambition of using 30% upcycled plastic in our new reusable packaging platforms by 2025.
Carbon emissions - The road ahead is clearer in some areas than in others. For example, the world is still struggling to find a path to reach zero for carbon emissions, so reducing the negative impact is still the priority. But this is hard to implement. A net carbon-capturing global effect is still far from reality with the current technologies. Therefore, it is necessary to accelerate the creation of new solutions and technologies that will cost-effectively sequester carbon and (quite amazingly) produce oxygen to help restore the atmospheric balance. As per many sustainability areas in the past, the "how" was not available, but we have seen that given the right support (government incentives, capital investment and social expectations), humanity has found the right answers and tools to reach the difficult targets we set ourselves. The recent development of a COVID-19 vaccine in an incredibly short timeframe has demonstrated the ability to reach the unthinkable when the right priorities are established.
The social side of regeneration - The idea of a net positive impact and the regenerative mindset does not only apply to the environmental dimension. It should be the guiding principle to create a new level of ambition in other areas, such as a business culture which reflects society. For inclusion and diversity, it is not only about securing gender-balanced workforces in a particular company, but about catalyzing change across your industry and beyond. The supply chain has historically not been a sector that allowed for diverse talent to thrive. Having a positive impact would mean reaching beyond our four walls, to promote the systems, policies, procedures and setting the examples to inspire or help others, such as our suppliers, to do the same.
For safety, it is not just about preventing physical accidents in the workplace, but also about ensuring that companies support and empower their employees and their families to enhance their wellbeing – be it physical, mental, emotional, social or financial.
Collaboration is a vital ingredient for the Regeneration movement.
These are just some examples of what regeneration means in practice and some particular actions relevant for the world’s supply chain. As we are seeing, the road to a regenerative world will not be easy. The size of the challenge is significant and will require levels of creative collaboration rarely seen before in our history. The urgency and scale of change needed will require all sectors -private, public and NGOs- to come together with all their stakeholders to work more closely than ever before.
As promising and exciting as these pioneering initiatives are, we need to acknowledge that Regeneration is still in its infancy. We are just at the start of a creative conversation that will bring the solutions to build truly lasting regenerative supply chains. We have the opportunity to transform the principles of the production systems that have been operating for more than two centuries, and create a new one that will bring us back within the boundaries of a healthy planet.
The time has come to establish a new relationship with our planet, one that cleanses and regenerates water, soil and air, the true origin of life itself. An approach that finally addresses common well-being and the collective responsibilities of humankind. Everyone has a role to play in this regenerative revolution. Will you be part of it?