Every industry is a system, and every industrial system is extractive, whether it be energy, food, agriculture, pharma, transport, clothing, or healthcare, among others. Extraction takes resources from the living world, which causes harm. The result is less life. Extraction is thus degenerative. Every industrial system is a direct cause of global warming, not only because of greenhouse gas emissions but because of the damage to soil, water, oceans, forests, air, biodiversity, people, children, workers, and cultures. Harm is not the intention of companies, but in order to become regenerative, a company must first recognize that it is innately degenerative. This is not an accusation; it is a biological fact, and represents a huge opportunity.
The focus by industry on climate is directed to greenhouse gas emissions caused by production, transportation, and operations. That makes sense, because industry accounts for 30 percent of global energy consumption. In China it is about 50 percent. Greenhouse gas emissions are created by an extraordinary variety of activities, from machining to smelting, rail systems to refining, air freight to office towers. Energy-intensive processes involve chemical, physical, electrical, and mechanical procedures. The external impacts of industry include air and water pollution, toxic emissions, poverty wages, loss of biodiversity, deforestation, destruction of Indigenous cultures, and advertising that encourages overconsumption of cars, electronics, travel, alcohol, tobacco, fast fashion, and junk food.
Some of the biggest companies in the world announced in 2020 that they’re committed to becoming regenerative companies. They will need to determine what that means for every aspect of the business.
The worldwide business community, although initially slow to respond to the need for significant action on climate, biodiversity, and social justice, has been moving more resolutely in recent years, with its primary focus on boosting efficiency, reducing energy use, utilizing more renewable energy, eliminating toxins, recycling, employing circularity to decrease waste, and purchasing carbon offsets.
In the past, improving carbon footprint metrics focused on specific processes, functions, and outcomes within a business. If a specific product is harmful or unnecessary, how it is made, how it involves the circular economy, or how much energy is supplied by renewables is irrelevant. The top line of every profit-and-loss statement will determine the future of humanity, not the bottom line. Does it emit or sequester carbon? Does the top line cause loss of life, habitat, and natural resources, or increase life, habitat, and the regeneration of nature? Does it foster or degrade social equity? The expertise of the modern industrial world is not in question. The goals and assumptions are in question. We have one job to do on this planet: to protect and enliven it for the future. Either a corporation is doing this or it is not.
One company can serve as an example of why focusing on its parts and pieces can obscure its overall impact and the deeper issue of whether its products or services are needed. PepsiCo operates the largest trucking fleet in the world, including 11,245 tractors, 3,605 trucks, 18,648 trailers, and 17,000 pickups. The top-selling products transported in those trucks are Pepsi, Mountain Dew, Lay’s potato chips, Gatorade, Diet Pepsi, 7UP, and Doritos, all known, even in polite company, as junk food. Junk food is defined as food that has low nutritional value, is sold in convenient packaging, and needs little or no preparation. It contains high amounts of fat, salt, sugar, and starch, which cause chronic disease including obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, hypertension, and more. Despite overwhelming evidence that sugary drinks are harmful to young children and teens, PepsiCo continues to increase its promotion of soft drinks on social media, websites, apps, television, and at sporting events. Black and Latino children see twice as many soft drink ads as White children. Ads use Black and Hispanic celebrities such as Michael Jordan, Penelope Cruz, Jennifer Lopez, Nicki Minaj, LeBron James, Cardi B, and Serena Williams. Pepsi works with other soft-drink companies to prevent bans on extra-large sodas or soft-drink taxes. Pepsi is committed to using 100 percent renewable energy in its U.S. direct operations. The question for Pepsi and many other companies is: Renewable energy to what end?
[PepsiCo] can serve as an example of why focusing on its parts and pieces can obscure its overall impact and the deeper issue of whether its products or services are needed.
To credibly address the climatic crisis, there needs to be a corporate shift beyond initiatives, commitments, offsets, and endorsements of social justice. A solar-powered soft-drink factory does not address the root cause of the climate crisis. Pepsi’s commitment to climate ignores the well-being of children. The immensity and inertia of giant food companies creates a sense that they are locked into making products that are inherently detrimental. Maybe, maybe not.
Some of the biggest companies in the world announced in 2020 that they’re committed to becoming regenerative companies. They will need to determine what that means for every aspect of the business. Cynicism is understandable, given the practice of greenwashing. But underneath these commitments are people, just like the person reading this page. People who have children, families, and communities, people who see the looming crisis writ large. Many large and thoughtful corporations are adopting better standards for measuring their performance. In my book, we examine the challenges and what can be done. There is no point in tiptoeing around the causes of global warming. We are either in a crisis or we are not. At the same time, there is no gain in blaming and shaming either. We know what needs to be done. The question is how do we come together, get it done, and make it right?
From REGENERATION edited by Paul Hawken, published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Paul Hawken.