Our bottom line: environment first
Updated: Aug 28
How we're approaching decision making in regenerative business
Too much certainty is killing us
Let's talk about certainty. Or rather incredible certainty. And why we all need a lot less of it.
Do you remember the "you can't go wrong in a Volvo" ad?
Making cars safer does not make them "safe". Helping drivers avoid accidents does not insulate them from accidents. Shit happens.
So of course you can have an accident in a Volvo. Intimating that they are so safe that "you can't go wrong" only encourages drivers to believe they can't be harmed. It breeds risk.
It's the same with schools and Covid - don't tell us they are "safe", tell us that they are being managed for risk and monitored, and that we all need to play our part in helping minimise risk.
Government and business use too much misplaced certainty in the face of complex issues.
We don't know everything so we cannot be certain.
What's needed instead is humility and nuance allied to very clear priorities. The reason we're in such a mess right now is that we have neither.
Misplaced certainty is undermining sustainability claims
Delivering "sustainability" is not simple. What's good for the environment may not be good for people or cost too much. The only way to deal with these thorny kind of issues is to have a clear set of priorities and a shedload of humility.
We don't know everything. So we cannot be certain.
But businesses can't cope with uncertainty - it makes everything much harder and scary. So businesses tend to overstate with certainty things that are by no means certain.
In particular making "sustainability" claims that don't stand up.
Take Better Cotton - clothing with this logo may not *actually* have any 'better cotton' in it at all. Why? Because "physically tracing Better Cotton through the supply chain is time consuming and expensive". The premium paid for the item has - instead - gone toward compliance and training programs.
This is a sustainability program focused solely on inputs (farming methods). Yes of course the focus on training and farming methods is a good thing but it does not mean that the T-shirt that you buy is made of "better cotton". It is overclaim and the sustainability industry is full of it.
Fast fashion cannot be reconciled with sustainability.
There is an obvious friction between trying to flog as much stuff, as fast and as cheaply as possible, and trying to work within ecological limits, To resolve the friction you need a clear set of priorities. What matters most? Flogging stuff or the environment? If it's flogging stuff then claims you make around sustainability are bollocks.
Resetting our priorities: put finance back in its place.
We live in a world in thrall to money.
Somewhere along the line, probably in the 1800s, humans started to lose connection with place. We stopped making things by hand and started making things with machines. We moved from working at home to working in factories. We became industrialised.
Little by little "what mattered" changed. "Productivity" meant making more stuff for less cost. Businesses started to pursue the bottom line in terms of numbers.
And then sometime later, in the 1980s, the world went nuts for money. When I was at Uni the definition of a "good job" was one where you could make oodles of dough punting on stocks. Doing boring things like *actually* making things for real was quaint.
Everything became about money. Bigger, better, faster. Make more stuff in order to make more money. As Mariana Mazzucato says - we financialised the real economy.
And in so doing severed our connection to places and all sensitivity to what makes those places healthy. Where once we had worked with what nature gave us we came to see places simply as sources of material to feed our machine.
We became extractive and we did not notice.
Priority: environmental regeneration > humans as agents of regeneration > economics
Time to turn back the clock, to relocate finance where it belongs, as an enabler of doing good things. And to reset our notion of "what matters".
It's not easy - we have to unlearn a lot. So alongside humility and nuance we need some crystal clear priorities - a framework for deciding what the right thing to do is.
For far too long "do good" businesses and enterprises have equated environment, social and business outcomes. Or at least pretended to equate them. But it's by and large bullshit. These aims can't be equal. When push comes to shove something has to give. And normally the only thing that doesn't give is the money. So a manager will bust a gut to hit a profit target, but won't bust the same gut to hit an environmental target.
So for us in Good Growth what matters is the environment - first and foremost. The entire organisation is designed for and in order to restore natural capital. It is our reason for being. This is what we mean by purpose.
Next comes humans - as agents of regeneration for the environment. We see our role as working with the humans in the ecosystem to improve their livelihoods, and therefore their capacity, to work in ways that restore that ecosystem. So much of this involves shifting the economic context in which they operate.
And last of all comes a healthy commercial outcome. Of course we care about profit and business strength. It's just that we would never put financial outcome ahead of environmental outcome.
This clarity has been liberating. And helpful.
Here are a couple of examples of gnarly issues that this sense of priority helps resolve.
1. Why the heck are you operating in degraded places?
The valley we are working with in western Mongolia is pretty degraded. On all the environmental measures - biodiversity, soil, wildlife - things aren't great. (More on this here - not only the valley but the 'ecosystem out' model).
So why operate there? (We've been asked this question many times now)
We're there because it's degraded. We're there because learning how to reverse degradation is going to be vitally important for all of us. We're there because this is where the challenge is.
If we were a normal self interested business we would go elsewhere - where we can get hold of volumes of decent fibre for less hassle and less cost. We wouldn't regard it as our job to deal with the degradation.
But it is our deal. We exist to restore the environment.
2. why not introduce more 'productive' animals?
this one is a real dilemma. There are yak breeds, for example, that might have a higher yield of better quality fibre than the yaks in the valley. If we brought those yaks into the valley they'd produce more money for the herders. And surely that's a good thing right?
But wait - we should be guided by what's best for the place, not what makes our lives easier or what makes more money. Introducing a new breed of yak might bring all sorts of bad environmental consequences - too many of the same species can cause havoc (more on this soon with vines).
If our only consideration is our own commercial end then of course we'll bring in the more 'productive' yak. But if what we care about is the long term health of the place, of the ecosystem, then our decision is guided by what's right for the health of the environment.
That's what really matters.
We have designed the Good Growth Company so that the question of what's good for the environment sits at the head of everything we do. Of course there will be, and are, tensions between commercial outcome and environmental outcome.
Which is why we need to know what really matters most. Planet first. Always.