In 'Working to Restore,' writer Esha Chhabra highlights 30 companies around the world that embody a truly regenerative approach to business.
Esha Chhabra’s new book, Working to Restore: Harnessing the Power of Regenerative Business to Heal the World, is all about hope, ambition and showcasing what’s possible when it comes to businesses helping to solve the world’s biggest environmental and social challenges.
Centered around nine key themes — from soil health and women’s empowerment to travel, health and energy — and zooming in on 30 different companies, the book comes hot on the heels of the IPCC’s latest update. Chhabra’s book acts as something of antidote to the 8,000-page AR6 document that details the devastating consequences of soaring greenhouse gases and the increasingly deadly and irreversible risks associated with failing to turn the tide on global warming.
Drawn from more than a decade of journalistic reporting, Chhabra chooses to highlight the firms using their power to bring about lasting change, using a regenerative approach and mindset, and proving that business models that do not prize growth at the expense of all else can flourish.
“We’ve reached a point now where people really want to hear about solutions; they’re getting turned off by all [the negativity],” she tells Sustainable Brands®. “The IPCC reports infuse more anxiety and stress. So, that was my intention with this book. Climate anxiety is a real thing, but it doesn’t have to be something that stops us in our tracks.”
I recently spoke with Chhabra to unpack more of the insights she shares in her book.
There’s a crucial word used in the title of your book: ‘Regenerative.’ It’s become a trendy word — had you decided to use it in the title when you started on the book in 2018?
EC: Yeah, it was the beginnings of the regenerative agricultural movement. The word I was trying to get away from was ‘sustainability,’ and really shift towards restorative. It’s about companies restoring this imbalance that has been created. That concept made far more sense in my head. It’s about restoration and regeneration — bringing new life into something.
There are plenty of regenerative projects and initiatives going on out there. But can we say that a truly regenerative business even exists yet?
EC: I think the principles of it do, yes. This concept of a business actually creating some kind of positive change — uplifting communities, uplifting people within the workplace, possibly regenerating some kind of ecosystem in the environment. I think that’s the intention with this word and what constitutes a regenerative business.
What’s your favorite example among the 30 businesses you highlight?
EC: Veja is the one that really stands out. It’s an incredible story of two entrepreneurs that started with about €5,000 each and went to Brazil with this crazy idea of making a shoe. That was 15 years ago — and they’ve turned it into a very successful business by doing some incredible ecological work. They are sourcing rubber from the Amazon and therefore keeping these trees upright, which many people would otherwise have leveled [for] cattle farming. It was incredible to be able to talk to the rubber tappers and get their stories.
Their business model, which is still pretty crazy in the fashion industry, means they’re manufacturing everything in Brazil. They refuse to put a lot of money into marketing. They don’t really work with influencers and celebrities in the traditional way that fashion companies do. Instead, they put that money into their supply chain, so they pay people far higher prices than you would see typically; and they’ve done it in a very quiet kind of way with nobody really noticing. And it’s really only in the last five or six years that we see their shoes everywhere. It’s blown up. They don’t have investors because they want the freedom to experiment and do some of these things that people might say are crazy or not profitable.
I love that story — and the fact that you’ve not featured any startups and instead chosen to look at legacy businesses. When you look at the 30 firms, are there any common characteristics of the people running those businesses?
EC: The common thread is that they’re led by people who are very mission oriented, more than the average person — more than even people that I find in the sustainability space. These are individuals who are really driven in a way that’s a mixture of activism and a belief that, as humans, we really can do something better for our fellow mankind and for the planet. There’s almost an element of spirituality in it, and it’s coming from the top down.
There’s definitely a unique fire in many of the entrepreneurs that I met. They’re not doing this because this is a way to make money — they’re driven by something else; it’s their life’s purpose to be doing it. But it does pose the question about how to scale and replicate these businesses.
"These are individuals who are really driven in a way that’s a mixture of activism and a belief that, as humans, we really can do something better for our fellow mankind and for the planet. There’s almost an element of spirituality in it, and it’s coming from the top down."
When I spoke with Sébastien Kopp, the co-founder of Veja, he said we don’t need huge international companies that are mission driven or a larger version of Veja. We need many, many, many companies that are more medium sized to create a ripple effect around the world.
You’ve organized the book in different chapters focusing on areas of impact. You kick things off by looking at soil — the quality of which has huge implications for climate, human health, and the way we’re going to sustain life on Earth. How would you summarize that opening chapter?
EC: When I started writing the book, soil was having a sexy moment. Soil is fundamental to everything, and that’s hard to convey to the average consumer. That’s why I wanted to make it front and center. It’s also something that people don’t connect to their clothing or the many things they consume on a daily basis.
The regenerative ag space is still trying to figure out how to communicate carbon sequestration and the data and science behind it that is connected to soil health. In this chapter, we not only included food examples, but also companies like Gallant International — which is running one of the largest regenerative organic cotton programs in the world. It’s an important link for people to understand that fibers also come from farms.
The chapter on women’s empowerment is another big one. Are we seeing enough attention and resources thrown into supporting women from some of the big brands out there?
EC: The awareness and the money have definitely shifted in the last five years. What I tried to do in that chapter was look at companies that are also trying to include women in traditionally male-dominated industries. Artisan work, for example, is often connected to women. It’s easy to do at home, the systems are set up so that women can take supplies home. There’s a lot of home goods businesses that rely on women craftsmanship.
But when you look at something like SOKO — an ethical jewelry company based in Nairobi, Kenya — they’re doing stuff that women don’t typically have the skills for or are not taught the skills for. So, to see them being able to now incorporate women in this traditionally male-dominated industry — and also to do it in Kibera, which is one of the biggest slums in Nairobi — was really lovely to see.
What’s the one area of impact that gives you the most hope in terms of this regenerative approach becoming more easily adapted?
EC: I feel like in food, there really is an understanding of how to do this. It’s a question of getting the funding and support, and getting the ability to scale it up. There’s so much more chatter as to how we regenerate not just the soil, but also the wildlife and the biodiversity.
There’s also a chapter in the book that looks at equity in the workplace. I give an example of a solar company and how they've created a model for their employees that are installing solar panels, and including people with disabilities in the workplace. I think that's something that’s really interesting, and I’m seeing far more companies think about that now. Companies are really understanding that if they want to retain their employees and they want to have good morale, they really have to look after them and involve them in a far more meaningful manner than just doing a few events every month.
Your book is full of hope and solutions. What do you hope to achieve with it? Who do you want to read it and what do you want them to do as a result?
EC: I really want this book to touch mainstream audiences. I really want people who might be thinking about environmentalism or thinking about how they can have a career with purpose to feel like this book is a resource for them and to be inspired. And it doesn’t have to be just young people; I feel like there are people in their late 20s and 30s who might want to change their career.
It’s hard not to be inspired by some of the people I met in this book. I mean, they’ve really taken on financial risks. They’ve done some wacky, crazy things and they’ve been called crazy for doing so. You can pick up the book and read a chapter on its own; you don’t even have to read the whole thing. And you can walk away feeling like, you know what, if I’m really interested in health, I could think about health through this lens. Or if I'm really interested in fashion, I can think about fashion through this lens.
Having been writing about these subjects for the last 10 years, I feel like I live in this bubble and many of the people that I interact with live in this bubble. So, how do we break beyond the bubble? How do we get this message to really affect thousands of people? That’s the goal of the book.