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Product, Service & Design Innovation
Struggling to Scale Up Sustainably? Ask Nature

I hope every entrepreneur and business leader takes a moment to see if Mother Nature has already created what they're trying to create or achieve in the marketplace.

Among the many ways for a business to respond to our climate crisis, there's one approach that may seem far-fetched: Herding chickens.

But efficiently guiding masses of the birds is just what California’s Pasturebird does. The trick lies in putting wheels on the animals' coops and easily rolling them from one patch of land to another. The birds move in conjunction with their mobile homes, grazing the earth and fertilizing it with their droppings as they go. The company claims the result is not just healthier chickens, but also a healthier soil ecosystem better able to capture and store carbon dioxide — one of the most notorious contributors to the environmental chaos we see in the news every day.

Big deal, you might say. What are a few thousand chickens going to do? But for businesses to evolve into truly sustainable operations that can protect and preserve our tiny home while affordably meeting human beings' needs and wants, we must not cynically dismiss nature-based solutions akin to Pasturebird's — but explore and support them more widely and deeply. With a global population of 8 billion people today and 10 billion expected in 2050, the principles behind this type of approach offer a path toward harvesting the gifts of Earth's ecosystems without throwing them dangerously out of balance.

The underlying concept I implore everyone to explore is simple: Nature already knows. The Earth has had billions of years to develop efficient and environmentally sound methods to support living things while keeping ecosystems in balance. You don't always need to reinvent the wheel. Sometimes it's valuable to take a moment to recognize that as one of the youngest species on the planet, we may not have all the answers. Despite everything we may have achieved with the Green Revolution, we still need to listen, watch, and learn. Raise chickens in a more clever way, for example, and you might have a way to regenerate the land while selling eggs and protein. Bison can double your plant diversity while putting meat on people's plates. Mangrove trees can protect coastlines while supporting wildlife and fishermen. Wolves can bring your national park back.

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We may not understand every detail of how nature pulls off its incredible balancing acts, but that doesn't mean we can't work with it. Harmony, not absolute control, is the goal. Not that I am proposing this is the correct response to every situation — given the scope and complexity of the challenges, it cannot and should not be. We need an "and/and" mindset that is open to all innovations that collectively move us closer to a more balanced relationship with our planet; and different approaches will be able to scale to different degrees. Whether new or traditional, small and smart local solutions can and should work hand in hand with big solutions at the regional, national and global level.

How to accomplish this is less clear than why. It can be difficult, involving basic scientific research. But the rewards make it worth the effort. On the way to co-founding and becoming CEO of Meati Foods, a company dedicated to sustainably feeding the world, I spent years exploring Mother Nature's toolbox — hunting for a hyper-efficient way to provide a high-quality alternative protein that people would love. We settled on a species of fungi that met all the requirements of holistic sustainability in the food industry: remarkable nutrition, flavor adaptability, consumption safety, growth efficiency, a simple ingredient list, and amenability to scaling in a controlled indoor environment — all of which comes together to generate consumer satisfaction, affordability, supply chain robustness, and mass distribution that should help mitigate the food system's impact on the environment.

As you investigate nature-based business solutions, many factors and calculations to consider will be unique to your industry. The devil, of course, is in the details. But at a high level, these are some of the most important concerns to keep front and center:

  • Energy in, energy out: In the most abstract terms, landing on a sustainable method of production comes down to weighing the costs of everything going into making something with the benefits coming out. Be thorough. On the costs side, examine all three scopes of a life cycle assessment (LCA). Ask how efficiently your nature-based approach converts raw materials into something useful. On the benefits side, don't forget the less-efficient practices you may be displacing — thus, preserving resources integral to the environment's health. For example, if plant-based alternative meats took the place of animal-based options even just a day or two a week across the globe, we could "spend" more of our land, water and air on sustainability goals by simply leaving them alone.

  • Go small to go big: Some of nature's most remarkable processes aren't as easy to see as chickens, bison, or trees. You may need to delve into the world of basic scientific research and microscopes to find a solution that works for you. The cellular processes of fungi and fermentation are proving to be an adaptable, efficient, and powerful route to meeting our needs while protecting the planet. Mycelium — the vegetative body of fungi that is sometimes referred to as "mushroom root" — has been used to produce more sustainable protein sources by Meati, Nature's Fynd, Quorn, MycoWorks and others. Fungi are also showing up in clothes, digesting plastics, batteries, construction, packaging and even computer chips. Other interesting examples of micro-to-macro solutions include Impossible Foods' heme that relies on fermentation; and the controversial but important growth of meat from animal cells, which the FDA has already supported.

  • Adaptability: If identifying and understanding an efficient, existing natural process is the first step to scaling up, then the next step is ensuring it can be guided to achieve your big-picture outcome — whether the large-volume generation of products on a predictable schedule, ecosystem remediation, the reduction of less-efficient resource consumption, or a combination of all three. Fungi, for instance, happily grow in a variety of conditions — allowing them to be crafted into products that can be realistically incorporated into the mass market. Another example might be regenerative agricultural practices — such as crop rotation, no-till farming, and biological pest control — being implementable in different types of farming operations all over the world, scaling the impact of the practices by spreading them throughout a loosely connected network.

  • Culture matters: Given an array of choices — and if no judgmental eyes are present — many consumers will choose individually pleasing options at the moment of purchase over collectively "righter" ones. If people don't love what you’re making and they have another alternative before them, all the impressive planet-saving power in the world will go nowhere. For instance, despite the environmental benefits of plant-based alternative meats, they have experienced a downturn due to challenges with taste, texture, nutrition and affordability. There is an element of trust in these calculations and making sure your product delivers what is promised. Invest energy in doing proper LCAs that back up your environmental claims; and make sure to earn stamps of approval from regulatory bodies such as the FDA. After all, without the support of all the individuals and institutions that pave the way toward the public welcoming something seemingly new, even the most innovative and sustainable product won’t succeed.

While nature-based solutions cannot solve every problem human beings face, they can be an incredible addition to our collective toolkit. I hope every entrepreneur and business leader takes a moment to see if Mother Nature has already created what they're trying to manufacture. It may be that the answers to our questions about building a sustainable future are already right in front of us.