• At a time when almost every major brand focuses its PR efforts on boasting sustainability credentials, some companies have started to differentiate themselves by talking about regeneration – a concept denoting a more proactive change.
  • Our media analysis found that agriculture, food and fashion were the most commonly implicated industries in the regeneration debate, with players like Nestlé, Danone, North Face and Ralph Lauren being the most influential.
  • Based on our analysis, we suggest that brands can build effective regeneration campaigns by going beyond compliance and leading the way with a positive impact rather than just doing less harm to the planet, while adding societal issues to the ecological mix.

PR people love a good buzzword. Especially one that taps into consumer perceptions of value and promises to affect brand choice, frequency and loyalty. For years, such a word was “purpose” – a term that has already become overused, diluted and vague. And now, as every major brand is jumping on the sustainable bandwagon, “sustainability” is also at risk of becoming so overused that it soon wouldn’t mean much to consumers.

As our recent analysis of the FMCG industry found, many companies focus their PR efforts on specific initiatives – nearly all of them pledge that they have set a target to achieve in a given period of time, e.g. to stop emitting greenhouse gasses by 2050. This makes messaging a bit monotonous and repetitive, and consumers might often find their communications interchangeable. In addition, the pledge-centred strategies could often sound reactive to the numerous research findings blaming corporations for climate change.

And there’s another problem. Since the 17th century, the term “sustainability” has been used to describe conserving environmental resources for human benefit and meeting current and future human needs within environmental limits. This “conventional sustainability”, as some scholars call it, recognises that the unfettered use of environmental resources is detrimental for continued human existence. In this conceptualisation, the focus is anthropocentric and largely on how to enable continued economic development within a context of finite resources.

However, many commentators have started asking whether sustainability can ever be truly “sustainable” if what it means is merely controlling our human urge to deplete nature’s resources. As it takes more and it takes many to prove that this aspect is not mere publicity and with the real-world consequences of climate change, do we rely solely on the promises of the environmentally concerned, or do we take on a new path towards a greener future? Prompted by these questions, a growing body of experts have started arguing that sustainability doesn’t seem to fit the bill anymore, as it seeks only to do less harm to the planet and its inhabitants.

Many see the solution in the emerging concept of “regeneration“, which goes beyond mitigating harm and means actively restoring and nurturing, creating conditions where ecosystems and economies can flourish. In other words, regeneration includes and transcends conventional sustainability, adopting a more holistic worldview, seeing humans and the rest of life as one autopoietic system.

Farming, food and fashion

The media conversation around regeneration is still taking shape, as there aren’t many articles on that topic yet. However, a number of high-profile outlets started following the trend, as we found out analysing 289 English-language articles published in the last 12 months.

We found that the concept of regeneration has been most commonly applied to the agriculture, food and fashion industries:

Regenerative agriculture, a process that aims to reverse the effects of climate change through diversifying cropping rotations, was perceived as the latest buzzword within the sustainability debate. Topsoil regeneration, increasing biodiversity and improving the water cycle were among the developments discussed by journalists.

A number of publications noted that most plans to mitigate climate change focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, while regenerative agriculture aims at drawing down greenhouse gases that are already in the atmosphere, mostly through the cultivation and nurturing of forests, permanent perennial pastures and grasslands.

And as more than one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions come from food production, the Food and drink sector is eager to promote its use of regenerative agriculture. In the days surrounding this month’s UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, several of the industry’s largest food manufacturers re-upped their commitments to tackling emissions, and apply different tools to the problem. The move en masse towards regenerative agriculture demonstrated how many opportunities they see in responding to consumers’ concerns about the sustainability of the global food system. 

Multinational heavyweights, including Danone and Nestlé, have recently doubled down on their environmental protection efforts with the latter committing around $1.4 billion over the next five years to regenerative agriculture across its supply chain. Smaller premium brands are also catching up with their own sustainability schemes. For example, organic chocolate maker Alter Eco, which sources its cocoa beans primarily from Ecuador, Peru, and the Dominican Republic, and manufactures at a carbon-neutral facility in Switzerland, plans to invest up to $10 million to convert its total 20,000 acres of farmland into regenerative agriculture.

Meanwhile, some commentators remarked that for the Fashion industry, which relies heavily on cotton crops for our t-shirts and jeans and the wool and leather from grazing sheep and cows, switching to suppliers who use regenerative practices is one way the sector can start to have a positive impact on the planet. As Aras Baskauskas, the CEO of Los Angeles label Christy Dawn, told Vogue, “The word sustainable is like a dinosaur now… We don’t need to be sustainable, we need to be regenerative.”

Cotton cultivation in particular is one of the biggest sustainability pain points for fashion. Although it’s a natural fibre, it is a particular chemical and water-intensive crop: while it only inhabits 2.4% of the global cropland, it accounts for 22.5% of the world’s insecticide use. Since cotton is the most used non-synthetic fibre in the world, fashion brands see an opportunity to create a positive impact by changing their processes.

Apart from agriculture, food and fashion, there were a couple of other industries implicated in the regeneration debate. For example, the trend called “Regenerative travel” aims not only that visitors take care not to degrade in any way the places they visit, but that they actually improve conditions there. And within the Energy sector, companies like Energy Development Corp. (EDC), the second-largest producer of geothermal energy in the world, have urged consumers to use renewable forms of energy to lessen their carbon footprint.

Early adopters

We used Commetric’s proprietary ‘media conversation impact score‘ metric to identify the organisations with the biggest impact on the media discussion around regeneration.

We determine an organisation’s media impact in the context of a topic by looking at its media influence score calculated in terms of coverage by high-profile media outlets, topic relevancy score measuring its contextual relevance, and media visibility as measured by the number of mentions.

We found that food and drink giants have had a firm grip on the conversation:

Nestlé emerged as the most influential company as it announced it is investing 1.2 billion Swiss francs ($1.29 billion) over the next five years to accelerate the transition to regenerative agriculture across its global supply chain. The company will work with its network of more than 500,000 farmers and 150,000 suppliers to promote practices that enhance biodiversity, soil conservation, regeneration of water cycles and integration of livestock.

The second most influential company, Danone, has been an avid cheerleader for regenerative agriculture for some time. It made headlines this past March when it announced commitments to adopt sustainable agriculture practices on more than 1 million total acres of land. As it continues to expand its regenerative farming program, some media outlets credited Danone with having the most comprehensive regenerative agriculture dairy program in the US.

Similarly, General Mills committed to using regenerative agriculture methods on 1 million acres of farmland by 2030. Taking a different approach, Cargill announced it will pay farmers about $20 for each metric ton of carbon they sequester using regenerative agricultural practices such as no-till or the use of cover crops as part of its new RegenConnect program.

One of the biggest polluters in the world, PepsiCo, got into regenerative agriculture by saying it would restore about 7 million acres of farmland by 2030 — the equivalent of how much land it uses to grow the ingredients for its products. This move would cut at least 3 million tons of emissions by the end of the decade, it said. 

An unexpected regeneration champion, McDonald’s partnered with regenerative agriculture specialists FAI Farms to better understand the impacts, barriers and benefits of farming regeneratively using Adaptive Multi-Paddock (AMP) Grazing for beef cattle. The learnings are being captured and used to develop a learning platform for UK and Irish beef producers making the transition on their own farms.

Another company that earned its influence through a partnership was AnheuserBusch, which teamed up with agriculture firm Indigo Agriculture to save farmers two billion gallons of water and reduce greenhouse emissions by 26.6% in one growing season.

For more on this topic, read our analysis: “How Can FMCGs Turn Sustainability Into a Reputation Driver? A Competitor Benchmark Analysis”

In the meantime, the fashion industry has been perceived as more self-conscious than others about its dire eco-credentials, with concerns over its unsustainable price tag growing. Critics have focused particularly on fast fashion, which involves increased numbers of new collections and quick turnarounds, encouraging overconsumption and the sale of clothes so cheap they are being treated disposably, contributing to water and air pollution.

The discussion around the fashion industry’s sustainability efforts so far has been dominated by a focus on sustainable materials, with brands building their business models on sustainable production and operation, making sustainability a major focus for long-term growth and communicating an eco-conscious attitude by showing transparency, emphasising local manufacturing and sustainable packaging, and collaborating with artisans.

And according to many publications, investing in regenerative agriculture is the latest trend in fashion. North Face, a brand made to be enjoyed outdoors, was one of the first labels to promote its regenerative credentials. Like Anheuser Busch, they partnered with Indigo Agriculture to source cotton fibres from their network of farms using regenerative techniques. Through the partnership, North Face will pay a premium for the cotton farmed by Indigo’s network of suppliers and will start using regenerative cotton with their Fall/Winter 22 collection.

Another major outdoor brand, Patagonia, launched a new campaign to promote the benefits of regenerative organic agricultural practices in limiting climate change. The company has created a new range of cotton T-shirts sourced from farms promoting sustainable agriculture methods designed to build healthier soil to act as a carbon sink.

In a similar manner, the Ralph Lauren Corporate Foundation and the Soil Health Institute launched a regenerative cotton program, aimed at eliminating one million metric tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by 2026. And in January, the luxury group Kering, owner of Gucci and Saint Laurent, co-founded the Regenerative Fund for Nature with the intention to convert one million hectares of land producing raw materials for fashion from regular farmland to regenerative agriculture in five years.

For more on this topic, read our analysis: “Sustainable Fashion: Bringing Green into Vogue”.

A couple of non-profits also managed to gain enough influence, mainly through thought leadership. For example, the Rodale Institute, which supports research into organic farming, was cited as saying that if we converted all global croplands and pastures to regenerative agriculture, we could sequester more than 100% of current annual CO 2emissions.

Regenerative voices

Our analysis found that food and drink companies have successfully put their spokespeople at the forefront of the regeneration debate – especially Nestlé, whose Chairman Paul Bulcke was the most influential spokesperson in the conversation:

Bulcke was quoted as saying that regenerative agriculture plays a critical role in improving soil health, restoring water cycles and increasing biodiversity for the long term. According to him, these outcomes form the foundation of sustainable food production and, crucially, also contribute to achieving Nestlé‘s ambitious climate targets.

His colleague, Mark Schneider, Nestlé CEO, also featured in the conversation for highlighting that through long-standing partnerships with farming communities globally, his company wants to increase the support for farming practices that are good for the environment and good for people. And Nestlé Malaysia CEO Juan Aranols said that from 2011 to 2020, the company had planted one million native trees in Sabah under project RiLeaf to further scale up efforts in restoring riparian zones and forest ecosystems along Sabah’s Kinabatangan river.

The second most influential spokesperson was Anna Pollock, founder of the social enterprise Conscious Travel and often dubbed the grandmother of the regenerative travel movement. She stated that for a journey to be truly regenerative, it must contribute to the well-being of the land, animal and humans of that place. This approach can encompass concepts like being zero-waste, following natural design principles, prioritizing restoration and ensuring that locals set (and enforce) the parameters.

In the meantime, Ben Fargher, vice president of sustainability in Cargill’s North American agricultural supply chain, was cited as saying that agriculture has a unique opportunity to utilise voluntary carbon markets and regenerative practices to address the global climate challenge and better the economic prospects for farmers, “who really are the heroes of our food system”.

PepsiCo chief sustainability officer Jim Andrew plans to expand regenerative farming across 7 million acres. At CNBC’s ESG Impact Conference in October, he said that the investments will make the company’s supply chain more sustainable, but that it also needs to provide incentives to those growing its ingredients “to help reduce risk because farmers are business people.” One such initiative is a gravity-fed drip irrigation system that uses 50% less water than standard flood irrigation.

How brands can build effective regeneration campaigns

Based on our analysis, here are a few ways brands can tap into the new trend:

  • Focus on a positive impact rather than just doing less harm to the planet. By now it’s clear—doing less harm is not going to be enough. Nor are tokenistic nods to regeneration. A truly regenerative approach will be properly yoked to business and brand initiatives from strategy to social justice, guiding decision-making and delivering positive impact across the triple bottom line of people, planet and prosperity. According to a Wunderman Thompson study, 83% of consumers think businesses and brands should focus on a positive impact, rather than just doing less harm to the planet. A more specific action rather than making just a pledge also goes a long way. Take BrewDog, which claims to be the world’s first carbon-negative brewery. It has purchased land in Scotland to create a BrewDog Forest of 1 million trees and restored peatland. In so doing, the brand is carving a reputation as a leader tackling the climate crisis.
  • Go beyond compliance and lead the way. As mentioned, pledge-centred strategies could often sound reactive to new regulations or to the numerous research findings blaming corporations for climate change. Furthermore, there is now a consensus that brands must start to take the lead on the societal problems we face, not least among ordinary people. Those brands that don’t wait for regulators and go beyond compliance will build resilience, for society and themselves. Patagonia, for example, is often singled out for raising the bar. With the bold mission to “save our home planet”, the brand has lived its goals. From pioneering regenerative agriculture to shunning annual sales splurges like Black Friday the brand has been setting the pace for decades. Patagonia has not hesitated in taking a political stance, pledging to sue the Trump administration in 2018 for anti-environment policies, then encouraging customers to “vote the assholes out” via tags hidden in clothing items in 2020.
  • Fix problems beyond your own business, consumers and shareholders. This could even extend to rethinking what a brand does and how it does it, creating a whole new business model. Businesses are seeing the value in working with others across systems, collaborating with stakeholders and even going so far as to set competition aside to pursue loftier goals. Take the pioneering collaboration between Adidas and Allbirds, which aims to co-develop a sneaker with the “lowest-ever carbon footprint.” By sharing technical research, learnings and expertise, they hope to hit the goal faster than by going it alone. The past year has also seen a host of business consortia and collaborations to collectively pursue net-zero goals, like Microsoft’s Transform to Net Zero, or Gucci’s CEO Carbon Neutral Challenge.
  • Add societal issues to the ecological mix. The ‘people’ impacts of sustainability are rising up the agenda. Brands can’t hope to tackle climate change without also addressing the structural inequities that mean some groups – such as, women, BIPOC communities, LGBTQ+ communities and people with disabilities – are disproportionately impacted. Companies need to address the social dimension of global warming, showing that they understand that the most vulnerable people bear the brunt of climate change impacts yet contribute the least to the crisis. As the impacts of climate change mount, millions of vulnerable people face greater challenges in terms of extreme events, health effects, food security, livelihood security, water security, and cultural identity.

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