Sustainability and Regeneration: Friends or foes?

In recent years, the term sustainability has lost much of its original significance and appeal; regeneration has entered the conversation as the crowd favourite to be its trendy new replacement. Except that it is not new at all; the concept of regeneration has been around since the 1970s and originally refers to a set of farming principles that take inspiration from nature. Regeneration is undoubtedly seen as one of the most revolutionary approaches in mainstream conscience for addressing environmental issues, but does it really have to be rivals with sustainability to achieve its goals? Sustainability is generally understood as a concept that focuses on doing less bad to sustain the world for future generations, whether this takes the form of producing less emissions or waste, or less energy use. Meanwhile, regeneration prioritises doing more good over doing less bad. While sustainability and regeneration approach environmental issues from different angles, they are not mutually exclusive, rather just two approaches to guide the journey to where we need to be.

As the conversation tides change, we can push forward with the momentum to go beyond sustaining the planet in its damaged state to restoring it to its natural potential by combining regenerative thinking with the best elements of sustainability. The seven regenerative principles pluralism, protection, purity, permanence, peace, potential, and progress, as conceptualised by Robert and Maria Rodale, form the foundation for regenerative agriculture (regen ag) and can help guide this process. The regenerative principles encompass enough range to not only transform the environmental world, but also the social one—just as sustainability has more to offer than simply doing less bad. Although regen ag dominates conversation around regeneration, regenerative thinking extends far beyond just the agriculture sector. From regenerative design as popularised by Cradle to Cradle to regenerative futurism, we explore how the regenerative principles can be applied across all sectors—starting with the adoption of a holistic approach to measuring environmental performance with life cycle thinking. 

A holistic outlook for PROGRESS & POTENTIAL

Regenerative thinking demands a systems or holistic perspective and when it comes to environmental problem-solving a Life Cycle Assessment or LCA offers an effective way to extend this holistic thinking. An LCA measures the environmental performance of a product using a wide range of indicators and considers impacts across a product’s full life cycle. This means that it can avoid ‘burden-shifting’ and give access to the bigger picture to gauge the regenerative principles of Potential and Progress for products. The environmental data contained in an LCA including water consumption, energy use and climate change (carbon footprint), provide the baseline to measure progress against, and find areas for improvement.

From a holistic point of view, LCA studies have the upper hand among sustainability tools because it has a sound understanding that products, much like everything else in life, exist as part of an ecosystem.

Cradle to Cradle and Life Cycle Assessment diagram

Source: © EPEA GmbH – Part of Drees & Sommer


An LCA offers an extensive data-backed look into the environmental performance of a product whether it be building materials, car parts or a whole train. When the sound data of an LCA pairs with the ambitious and innovative Cradle to Cradle® (C2C) concept, it provides an ideal environment for regenerative design to thrive.

Back to nature’s drawing board for PERMANENCE & PURITY

The C2C design concept reflects most, if not all, of Rodale’s regenerative principles to some degree. Like the seven regenerative principles, C2C also looks to nature and natural ecosystems as its main muse. Founded by Michael Braungart and William McDonough, C2C envisions design to be a ‘regenerative force’. The principles of Purity and Permanence are especially evident with C2C’s emphasis on pure materials tying in with permanent or indefinite cycles so that materials can be used over and over again without loss of quality. All materials used to produce something are redefined in C2C as ‘nutrients’ and stay in either a biological cycle where they are returned without harm back into the biosphere or in a technical cycle where the material is reutilized continuously without losing its value. Cradle to Cradle Certified™ is a certification scheme that incorporates the C2C design concept in its assessment against five categories that address environmental and social areas.

C2C biological and technical cycles

Source: © EPEA GmbH – Part of Drees & Sommer


Good environmental data enables regenerative practices such as those found in the C2C concept to be more tenable for claims against environmental performance. LCAs provide a reliable source for this information. While an LCA is used primarily to measure progress and identify areas for improvement by reducing negative impact, it can be highly complementary to C2C. While an LCA study focuses primarily on reducing negative impact, a product’s environmental performance can be maximized by bringing together the quantitative LCA with the C2C design principles. Ultimately, the holistic approach employed by both tools combined can help to bridge the gap between our current proclivity for sustaining and the need for a regenerative future.

A regenerative future for PLURALISM & PROTECTION

Regenerative principles should not only reshape our thinking around products and services, but also how we think about the future. Regenerative tools for future thinking offer Protection by helping to build an organisation’s resiliency to unplanned circumstances. These tools also reflect the Pluralism principle with their increased focus on the openness to new ways of thinking about the future and consequently, new action pathways for the future. The end result is a more deeply-rooted company that is better able to withstand crises, the value of which cannot be overstated in a year of crises.

One of these tools is the Three Horizons framework which encourages a company to re-examine how they think about the future. The ‘horizons’ in question represent three lenses of looking at the world and explores how they interact or connect over time. The first ‘horizon’ focuses on today’s challenges, the third ‘horizon’ on the visionary view of the future, and the second on the actions that can assist an organisation in the transition from the first horizon to the third.

3 Horizons framework graph



The Three Horizons tool draws out multiple perspectives that can guide the transition from a sustainable today to a regenerative tomorrow, combining elements of both to drive transformative innovation in the process as exemplified by New Zealand based bio-venture Futurity’s upcoming biorefinery.

Bringing it all together for PEACE

To regenerate literally means to grow, but more importantly, grow better after loss or damage. In other words, it is not enough to simply reduce negative impact, we need to restore and further along, create a positive impact. This ties in closely with Rodale’s principle of Peace which is about ending former damaging or destructive patterns to make room for positive replacements. In the energy sector, this will need to be the transition to 100% clean energy. While NZ’s electricity generation is on track with over 80% renewable, a quick look at New Zealand’s emissions profile will make it clear that the energy sector as a whole has tremendous potential for climate action since it was responsible for 41% of NZ’s gross emissions as of 2018.  Transport, manufacturing, and construction provide great opportunities to reduce emissions by phasing out fossil and oil-derived fuel use.

A reduced reliance on finite energy sources can only lead to a reduced negative impact. This doesn’t mean that attempts to minimise negative impact should stop, but it should go hand in hand with continuous innovation to bridge the gap between sustainability and regeneration. Two such innovators in New Zealand are changing the bioenergy and biomaterials scene with pine trees. Co-founded by Dr Gaetano Dedual and Jacob Kohn, Futurity has a biorefinery in the works that will use locally sourced pine trees to create biogas and products that can replace their oil-derived alternatives for applications ranging from plastics to resins and adhesives to energy storage. The duo plan on using sustainably managed trees and utilising the large amount of wood waste from the industry for the biorefinery, effectively improving carbon sequestration and reducing wood waste in the process. Futurity’s innovative approach is strengthened by the use of LCA to measure the environmental performance of their products and open up further areas for improvement.

The road ahead

Inspired heavily by nature, regeneration leaves us with the potential to have a positive environmental environment. But first, we need to shift the target from simply sustaining to regenerating the planet. However, the best way to bridge the gap between sustainability and regeneration will be to combine elements of both concepts when addressing environmental concerns. While it is unlikely to be a linear process, Rodale’s regenerative principles offer a guide for this evolution which will also require continuous innovation backed by reliable data, a holistic approach to environmental problem-solving and a readiness to embrace a regenerative future.


By Barbara Nebel and Femi Perumbally 

This article was first published in NZ Manufacturer magazine, July 2020.