‘Regenerative’ has become the latest trend — a label that’s stuck on anything as a way of making it sound positive and reassuring. To guarantee genuine progress, we need a universal set of principles underpinning regenerative economics and a standardised way of quantifying success.
“Regenerative” is the new “sustainable.”
Globally, mentions of the word have gone up by 43 percent in online news stories and 282 percent on social media in the last year. Increasingly favoured by brands and companies to describe their positive approach to environmental challenges, regenerative is being stuck on everything from architecture to fashion, tea, travel, skincare and even leather.
But what does it really mean? Originally, it was mostly used to describe an approach to agriculture. Regenerative farming is about producing food while restoring degraded soils and depleted wildlife populations and plant species. In this context, the use of the word ‘regenerative’ makes sense — it’s about keeping living ecosystems in balance. Metrics exist to measure tangible outcomes, like an increased percentage of organic matter in the soil or an upswing in insect numbers. We can track change.
Things become trickier when we apply the term ‘regenerative’ to human systems. What does a regenerative economy look like and how do we judge its success? As things stand, the term remains too broad-brush to be able to answer these questions in a consistent and meaningful way.
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When applied to economics, it bears many similarities to the idea of a wellbeing economy — which is about healing, recovery and recuperation. However, the use of the word ’wellbeing’ offers much greater clarity because an existing suite of metrics exists to enable measurement of both healthy people and a healthy planet.
For example, the World Health Organization provides global figures on life expectancy and mother-and-child mortality rates. Likewise, for the animal world, the International Union for Conservation of Nature updates a red list of wildlife at threat of extinction. Plant and tree species numbers can similarly be tracked; no equivalent exists for the descriptor ‘regenerative.’
To guarantee genuine progress, we need a universal set of principles underpinning regenerative economics and a standardised way of quantifying success. Otherwise, the ‘regenerative’ epithet will lose its meaning and become just another empty badge exploited by greenwashers and climate deniers alike.
For those of us working in communications, this means — as ever — being careful with our use of language. We mustn’t decide that the word ‘sustainable’ is no longer important or relevant. Its meaning is critical but remains widely misunderstood with many aligning it to the environment only — when it’s about building an inclusive and resilient future for both people and the planet.
The United Nations defines sustainable as ‘meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs;’ and we won’t achieve that without the repair, renewal and regeneration of our natural world.
We can’t let ‘regenerative’ become the latest trend — a label that’s stuck on anything as a way of making it sound positive and reassuring. Those who want to use words such as ‘sustainable’ and ‘regenerative’ must always ally them with real substance, thought and impact. Words are important and what they stand for matters to us all.