Dreaming Of A Regenerative Economy?

By Dr. Simon J.D. Schillebeeckx 20 January, 2021

Co-founder Dr. Schillebeeckx explains how Handprint helps restore ecosystems with every purchase

The Covid crisis has made people physically experience their interconnectedness in ways that trade and the internet never have. This has boosted eco-consciousness
Nature has an incredible power to restore itself but given the havoc we wreaked, it will need a helping hand; ecosystems are resilient if we do not push them beyond their breaking point
By enriching the current focus on environmental footprinting and the subsequent aspirations towards zero, we can build an economic system in which growth is genuinely good

2020 has been a transformative year. Much of the world grinded to a halt because of a pandemic that exposed differences in government capacity, quite literally grounded half of the world’s population, and creates immense loss of human life. At once, the planet breathed a sigh of relief. As planes and cars lay idle, carbon emissions fell, and optimists’ dreams of a sustainable future seemed less farfetched. Places like China, the UK, Japan, and the European Union reinforced their commitments to carbon neutrality and a recent study found Hong Kong can reduce its emissions by 90%. While this gives hope, it is worrying to realise that much of the economic recovery plans seem to “forget” the environmental urgency. Indonesia has for instance revoked rules protecting some of its ecosystems from logging to accelerate recovery. Trump’s USA has been accused by Amnesty International of using the Covid crisis to further gut environmental regulation. The truth is, we have less than 10 years left to flatten that other curve.

Worryingly, pandemic recovery plans seem to “forget” the environmental urgency…

…but Covid-19 has done something 30 years of fearmongering about climate change has failed to do… make people feel physically connected

Yet, the Covid-19 crisis has done something 30 years of fearmongering about climate change has not been able to do. It made people feel physically connected. While trade has been globalising for decades, and the internet and social media have digitally connected us to every corner of the world, Covid-19 revealed our bodies’ inevitable entanglements. The tiniest of creatures in a distant country, can wreak havoc to us all. This realisation of physical interconnectedness boosted our ecological consciousness, like David Attenborough on steroids.

We know that our environmental footprint is too high. We need about 1.6 earths to sustain our current way of living. In 2020, the day that we trespassed against the earth’s carrying capacity was August 22. The rest of the year we live on borrowed time. As more and more companies set ambitious plans to neutralise their footprint, we must remember Desmond Tutu’s words: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor”.

So, what is the solution? Climate scientists agree that even if we stopped emitting all carbon tomorrow, the planet would continue warming for decades, simply because of the carbon already stored in the atmosphere. Yet we have amazing natural technologies to scrub carbon from the atmosphere like mangroves. Plastic waste, unsustainable tourism, and overfishing are threatening the oceans, but nature has an impressive capacity to rebound if we give it time and space.

Ecosystems are resilient if we do not push them beyond their breaking point

A few months after stopping tourism in Thailand’s Maya Bay – made famous by the movie ‘The Beach’ – blacktip reef sharks returned in great numbers. Ecosystems are resilient if we do not push them beyond their breaking point. This was evidenced by the Covid crisis as well, as the sudden death of tourism and much economic activity cleared the waters in Venice and allowed Sika deer to roam the streets of Japan.

Human intelligence can be deployed to kick-start the regeneration of nature, the rewilding of biomes, and the restoration of decayed ecosystems. So, how do we rhyme thriving ecology with thriving economy, within a capitalist system that focuses on sales, profit, and growth? Can we imagine a system that inextricably links economic growth to sustainability improvements? Such a system should document, measure, and track not only the reduction of negative impact (i.e. sustainability reporting) but also the creation of positive impact. Such data should be easily accessible, credible, and sharable, so that they can inform decision-making. This system needs an answer to the question “What is better, planting a tree in the Brazilian rainforest, planting a mangrove in the Bay of Bengal, creating a new coral reef, or removing plastic from the oceans?”. To be transformative, this system would need to empower every single person and company to be able to act on this knowledge, no matter their income or revenue.

In my mind, doing this requires pragmatic science to start measuring positive impact, the technology to digitise impact, and business models that integrate these digitised impacts into the sales process of countless companies.

Handprint is developing technologies that empower companies to integrate positive impact in business transactions…

That ambitious agenda is what Handprint is developing: A suite of technologies that empower companies to integrate positive impact in every business transaction. Handprint curates positive impact projects from all over the world, analyses their relative positive impact, and connects companies to these projects. Project performance is socially and technologically monitored, and the resulting images, data, and stories are made available to clients via APIs. In doing so, Handprint enables continuous impact reporting. The data that appear on a client’s website are also trusted, because the client cannot doctor them if they carry Handprint’s stamp of approval. This strengthens reputation and builds trust.

By enabling direct impact, Handprint both increases the quantum of money that reaches local communities as well as decreases intermediary costs. This makes impact more affordable, supporting virtuous growth. This direct impact is seamlessly integrated in sales processes.

Plugins for WooCommerce and Shopify give over 2.5 million e-commerce merchants access to its services. A client can decide what kind of pledge it wants to make (e.g. divert 1% of online sales to a positive impact project), configure the plugin and the pledge on the Handprint platform, and then embed the plugin into its check-out process. The result is a simple but effective way of reminding your customers that you care about something more than profit, at one of the most critical junctions of the user experience, payment.

…a simple but effective way of reminding your customers that you care about something more than profit

This is by no means a silver bullet solution. We need technological breakthroughs in energy and food production and in primary industries to create a truly sustainable economy. But while smarter minds work on that, Handprint can help restore threatened ecosystems, one micro purchase at a time. And the real beauty. While footprint is a story of limitations, degrowth, and scarcity, Handprint is story of endless possibilities, growth, and abundance.

Further Reading

  • The Water Footprint Versus The Water Handprint – Corporate water stewardship is stalling. It is time to adopt a water handprint strategy with its positive and broader impact focus, seen already in the ICT sector, says William Sarni, Water Foundry CEO
  • Questions for A Bottled Water Tycoon – Nongfu Springs is China’s biggest bottled water comapny but a deep dive on its water strategy leaves CWR’s Yuanchao Xu with questions for its founder & water tycoon
  • Fashion Is Dead, Extreme Makeover Time – There have been 20+ bankruptcy filings in the last 6 months between brands & retailers. Surely, being broken can trigger an extreme industry makeover suggests CWR’s Dawn McGregor
  • Fashion Has The Power To Shape A 2℃ World – If fashion were a country it would have the fourth highest carbon emissions behind the US, China, & India. China Water Risk’s Dawn McGregor & Debra Tan question why the industry is not under the spotlight like coal and call for faster disruptions

More on Latest

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  • Cement’s Role In A Carbon-Neutral Future –  Energy Innovation’s Jeffrey Rissman shares how to achieve carbon-neutral for cement production by 2050 with the help of carbonation & potentially becoming a carbon-sequestering process
  • Bankable Nature Solutions: A Case StudyIs there a way to stop land subsidence, create climate resilience & raise farmers’ incomes? WWF’s Thomas Gomersall & Jean-Marc Champagne say the integrated rice & shrimp model does exactly that
  • 8 Brands Called Out For Greenwashing 2020 Businesses are more active in caring about people & planet but some are just greenwashing to sell more products & services. Eco-Business’s Robin Hicks called out 8 of them
  • Impact Of Urban Water Security On India’s Future Cities are projected to contribute USD5trn by 2024 to India’s GDP yet they face different levels of water stress. Kubernein Initiative’s Priyanka Bhide shares ways to address them

Dr. Simon J.D. Schillebeeckx
Author: Dr. Simon J.D. Schillebeeckx
Dr. Simon J.D. Schillebeeckx is the co-founder of Handprint Tech, a Singaporean start-up that empowers companies to integrate positive impact into business processes. He is also an Assistant Professor of Strategic Management at the Lee Kong Chian School of Business of SMU where he teaches and conducts research on the cross-section of digitization, business model innovation, and sustainability. Simon also founded the Global Mangrove Trust, a non-profit organization that builds technology to support mangrove reforestation
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