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Product, Service & Design Innovation
Microsoft, Twelve, Vertical Harvest Paint Powerful Picture of a Regenerative Near-Future

Day 3 keynotes regaled SB’23 San Diego attendees with a peek at regenerative, circular and win-win-win social-purpose business models.

On day three of SB’23 San Diego, the plenary kicked off with a lively introduction by Roma McCaig, Vice Chair of the Sustainable Brands® Advisory Board — who likened the evolution of the telephone from rotary to smartphones to the rapid, ongoing evolution of the better-business movement.

The power of regenerative business to heal the world

The first guest in the plenary was Esha Chhabra, who chatted with McCaig about her book, Working to Restore: Harnessing the Power of Regenerative Business to Heal the World. Chhabra described working as a journalist and growing disillusioned and wanting to contribute to solutions spaces, and eventually deciding to write a book that captured the stories of inspiring regenerative businesses through an entrepreneurial lens. And she did just that — Working to Restore examines 30 companies around the world doing business through a regenerative lens.

The case studies include:

  • Marius Smit, founder of Plastic Whale — the first company to build boats entirely out of plastic waste removed from our oceans and waterways

  • Sébastien Kopp and François-Ghislain Morillion, cofounders of Veja — a footwear brand whose mission it is to make the most ecologically sensitive shoes possible—

  • Konrad Brits at Falcon Coffees — a trading company leading the way with a “collaborative supply chain” by investing in the local farmers who grow and harvest coffee beans

  • “Chief Toaster” Rob Wilson and Tristram Stuart at Toast Ale — who partner with Wold Top Brewery to upcycle surplus bread into an award-winning IPA

  • Scott Fry and Martha Butler of Loving Earth — a supply chain company that sources cacao from indigenous communities and brings their people and practices to the forefront.

Chhabra said many of the companies she interviewed don’t use the word “sustainability,” because they “don’t want to be seen as working to maintain the status quo.”

The powerful combination of vertical agriculture, inclusive employment and upward social mobility

Nona Yehia

Next up was Vertical Harvest co-founder and CEO Nona Yehia, a daughter of Lebanese immigrants, who — after surviving the civil war in Lebanon as a child, emigrating to the US and becoming an architect — has dedicated her life to building infrastructure for healthy living, food and community-building in cities.

“Hope lies in the local,” she said.

Yehia believes infrastructure is key to fostering better human connection and founded Vertical Harvest — which builds indoor vertical farms in urban centers — with this mission in mind. Food, she says, is the strongest connector between humans; and health and is a defining 21st-century issue.

The company built its first farm in Wyoming, has a new one in Maine, and will open another in Detroit next year. In addition to offering these communities hyper-locally grown, nutritious produce; the company hires from within the communities — extending employment opportunities to differently abled and developmentally challenged locals; and integrates with existing infrastructure such as affordable housing to help foster a greater sense of community in urban centers.

Yehia challenged the audience to ask themselves: “What’s your medium for change? What kind of table are you setting? Who will you bring to the table? What does it look like at the end?”

Powerful partnerships mainstreaming next-generation materials

Image credit: Lonely Whale

Next, Estée Lauder Companies (ELC) Chief Sustainability Officer Nancy Mahon announced the launch of the Tom Ford Plastic Innovation Accelerator — dedicated to scaling seaweed-based alternatives to conventional, hard-to-recycle, petroleum-based plastic films and polybags.

The latest phase of an ongoing collaboration between ELC, its Tom Ford Beauty brand and Lonely Whale, the Accelerator will facilitate the scaling and market adoption of marine-degradable, seaweed-based alternatives to conventional, fossil-fuel-based plastic films developed by three materials startups — Sway, Zerocircle and Notpla — that won the Tom Ford Plastic Innovation Prize earlier this year.

The power of transforming CO2 into critical chemicals and materials

Heidi Lim

Next, Heidi Lim, Director of Product Ecosystem at carbon-transformation company Twelve, gave a look at how her company is leveraging the countless opportunities presented by turning carbon emissions into chemical building blocks.

Twelve’s technology takes captured carbon-dioxide molecules and turns them into new chemicals that can be used in existing supply chains, in place of their virgin-fossil-fuel-based counterparts. Lim calls the process “industrial photosynthesis” — it uses renewable energy to split CO2 and water molecules into carbon-based and hydrogen-based molecules; the byproduct of the process is oxygen.

The potential of carbon transformation is vast; it is already being used to create a wide range of products — including plastics, fuels, textiles, footwear and even food — and holds great promise in closing the loop on fossil fuels.

Twelve has partnered with a number of leading brands — including Mercedes, Microsoft, Pangaia, Shopify, Tide and various airlines; as well as with research organizations such as Munich Re and NASA.

Watch this space to see the potential of carbon transformation to revolutionize the way we produce and consume goods.

3 simple but powerful rules for global brands to start regenerating locally

Kaitlin Chuzi

Next, Kaitlin Chuzi — Director of Biomimicry at Microsoft; and Seth GaleWyrick, Senior Principal for Engineering & Design at Biomimicry 3.8, aimed to distill the likely intimidating prospect of creating a regenerative data center. The two explained the concept of biomimicry and how their two companies are working together to make their shared vision of designing data centers that go beyond being sustainable to integrating seamlessly into the surrounding environment and fostering healthy biodiversity — filtering air, cleaning water and providing habitat for plants and animals. They acknowledged that this vision is not yet a reality, but they believe that the technology is on the horizon and the work continues.

Chuzi and GaleWyrick outlined three simple rules for managing the complexity of creating regenerative systems through biomimicry:

  1. Let nature lead
  2. Find theadjacent possible
  3. Co-create with willing partners

They also shared an example of how Microsoft is applying these principles in a data center project in North Holland, Netherlands —working with the local community to create a sustainable data center that also provides benefits to the community.

The presenters concluded by stating that they believe that regenerative data centers — and a regenerative approach to business, overall — are possible; and their two organizations are committed to working with others to make this vision a reality.

The power of sustainable, local economic development that ensures the health of public lands

Hilary Franz, Commissioner of Public Lands at the Washington Department of Natural Resources, closed Wednesday’s keynotes by shining a light on the environmental and social injustices being perpetuated by our current systems. She highlighted the disproportionate impact that climate change has on low-income communities and communities of color, and the importance of creating solutions that benefit both people and the planet.

Franz shared her vision for a future where we can heal both the land and our communities. She spoke about her work with the Washington Department of Natural Resources to restore 2.5 million acres of diseased forests in Washington state — a project that is creating jobs in rural communities while also helping to sequester carbon and improve air quality.

Franz also spoke about the importance of investing in renewable energy sources. She cited the Kettle Falls project, which converted a former coal-fired power plant into a biomass facility that will generate enough clean energy to power 13,500 homes per year — reducing the area’s reliance on fossil fuels and creating jobs in clean energy.

Franz's message was one of hope and possibility. She believes that we can create a more just and sustainable future by working together to address the environmental and social challenges we face.