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  • Writer's pictureZsofia NAGY

The big sustainability question revisited

Updated: Nov 15, 2023

In the last few weeks, the amount of opinions about how we should approach the clearly needed societal and economical transformation started to increase again.

Some of my fellow sustainability professionals expressed their disappointment (as I did many times earlier), that it seems that different groups have an interest in pitting different professional groups against each other (e.g. regeneration against sustainability, or circularity against sustainability etc.).

So let's put a few things into context and clarify these different terms once again.

I aim here to help us see that these should not and simply cannot be used against each other as all of these components are intertwined, they belong together and should be used appropriately, in context and based on what is truly needed.

Let's see what these different terms truly cover.

I'm going to deviate from the currently accepted academic definitions - those one can find in my earlier works as quoted information - as I want to make sure these are simple enough to avoid misunderstandings:

Regeneration and regenerative economy

If we look at nature and we apply the rules of how nature expands and contracts over its cycles, then it becomes clear that there is a generation and a regeneration phase.

Even clearer (see drawing here as well):

  1. Generation: Spring and Summer

  2. Regeneration: Autumn and Winter

For those having only 2 seasons, the same happens, just in a different rate of cyclicality.

The key to allow and enable generation is to also allow and enable the regeneration phase (which is true in both 4-seasons and 2-seasons cases) and the cyclical recurrence of these after each other. Otherwise we exploit and exhaust nature. Similarly we exhaust our resources, which is also applicable for businesses and their use of resources (natural, people, artificial).

Generation and regeneration
Four seasons

Therefore, we simply cannot expect continuous growth from businesses either, without acknowledging that expecting continuous growth inherently includes exploitation and exhaustion (just like it was pointed out in the Doughnut Economy approach by Kate Raworth).


Simply, as all of those "resources" mentioned before (natural, people and artificial) are all directly connected to and based on what nature on this Earth provides to us all.

Natural resources:

Quite frankly, if this is a question, how these are connected to nature, we have a problem.


We eat/drink food that's provided by nature, we use natural resources to shelter/wash/maintain/secure/clothe ourselves etc-etc. We need natural energy sources also to keep us alive (sunshine for example). People also have daily and periodic (macro & micro) cycles where they need to regenerate themselves to enable them to give their best performance.

Artificial resources:

Even artificial resources are based on natural resources (=robots cannot be built without mining minerals from Earth either, right?). More seriously, all of our concrete, steel, plastic etc. based tools/buildings/infrastructure are built from natural resources and with the use of energy coming from natural resources.

None of these are available without a limit, if we don't allow regeneration phases to happen and if we don't regulate ourselves as humanity.

What do I mean by regulating ourselves: in population and in behaviour. Particularly as we are the apex predators of this planet, so we cannot expect other species to regulate our population directly, only indirectly. As an example, if we don't have enough food or clean water, that will regulate our numbers and behaviour to a certain degree, but without a full climate collapse, these only restrict us to a point, as we find and consume other resources further.

So if we don't regulate our behaviour, which includes consumption and over consumption of available resources, then we exhaust these and inflict a change in nature that might not be reversible beyond certain points and can cause climate collapse.

I usually use an analogy when it comes to labelling continuous growth. It is like cancer, ever growing at the expense of the mother ecosystem (our own biological system as human beings). Truly remarkable analogy and it is true, when we are discussing human behaviour including how we are running businesses.

Circularity and circular economy

Once again, starting from nature here with the analogy. Nature always circulates every resource it produces as long as it can be utilised, to the full extent of its life-cycle and then again what remains in its secondary use etc. - as long as it reaches the end and then restarts the regeneration cycle, which allows new resources to enter the circulation and recirculation.

Example: leaves of a tree in circulation

  1. They provide nutrition to the tree and its fruits as primary use.

  2. Then they provide shade and living space to species living in/around the tree, also as primary use.

  3. Then they provide coverage to the ground foliage in autumn, when they start falling to protect from early frost (the roots of the tree) and regulate the heat-exchange as they go through the seasonal changes.

  4. Then they provide nutrition for the soil and back to the tree during winter, as they go through bio-degradation (composting).

Do you see the alignment already in how natural resources circulate through the cycles? 😊

If we take the cradle-to-cradle (or full circularity) approach what nature does, we understand that when we take resources from nature to use in our businesses, we need to transform/use/utilise these in a way and in forms, which can be then returned back to nature and can provide back into the regeneration cycle to give us further resources to use.

Build, utilise, retire, re-utilise
Use then recycle

If we continue to transform natural resources into resources/tools/infrastructure that cannot be recirculated and regenerated at the end of their lives, then we use nature as a trashcan.

That's how we arrived at a point today, where we polluted and keep polluting so much that it started impacting and threatening human lives as well, as nature cannot recirculate and regenerate the artifacts/artificial objects we make.

So if a business is not doing what you can see on the drawing above here in this section, or we don't do these in our private lives, then it is not circular and it pollutes and causes natural resource degradation due to the pollution it causes.

In order to allow sustained change to happen, we need to re-design our economic systems from the ground and apply not only cradle-to-cradle methods but also biomimicry and design out waste from the get go.

Sustainability and sustainable economy

Now let's take a look at the dictionary definition of sustainability. It basically just states that we can sustain certain activity (or activities) without deterioration up to a certain amount of time.

Ironic, isn't it?...up to a certain amount of time. This alludes to the fact that there is a limitation in every system, including our nature-based systems as well.

Meaning that we cannot just grow and overuse resources without repercussions.

If we really look at what we explored so far in this article, then it becomes clear that sustainability in itself is nothing else, but a cyclical stability of regenerative and circular processes and that's what humanity needs to adhere to, if we want to sustain our existence on our Planet Earth.

The below are my depictions of these cycles of half-sustainability, or where we currently are, based on what companies are doing. You can see that the oscillation represents the VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) world we live in, due to the amplitude of the swings between prosperity and hardship. The amplitude of these swings are growing due to the climate instability (from our polluting activities) and the instability of wealth distribution that's also growing.

Volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous
Resources used - VUCA

Therefore, if we apply these to businesses and economic setup, then it is certain that there can only be a certain time period where we can expand on our resource use (even if we properly circulate these!), then it needs to be followed by a contraction of resource use to allow regeneration of resources after an over use. The larger the expansion, the larger the contraction will be.

If we stabilise these cycles and we don't overuse resources with such an amplitude, then it becomes a sustainable economic setup where regeneration and circularity are part of the systems design.

Less volatility
Stabilisation in the use of our resources

That's why businesses need to strive for stability instead of continuous growth, where their use of resources and how their products and business setup are designed, corresponds to the laws of nature: regeneration and circularity.

Otherwise we'll always end up in cycles of indulgence followed by cycles of crisis, or as I put before in cycles of prosperity then hardship and given the level of pollution, these would always be heavier over time.

To sum it all up:

💚 Nature always generates then regenerates in cycles.

💚 Nature always uses everything in circulation as long as what nature produces is no longer useful (to the zero literally) along the generation/regeneration cycle then starts a new cycle of both combined.

💚 Therefore nature is always sustainable, as sustainability is a repetition of these cycles.

Businesses need to strive for:

⚖️ Targeting stability, instead of continuous growth (there can be growth cycles, but not only growth) in business strategies

⚖️ Setting ethical profit levels, where the cost of natural and human resources are fairly factored in and not externalised completely

⚖️ In business continuity plans, the repeated expansion & contraction phases need to be factored in and managed prudently. This will give shareholders also stability and security of their earnings.

Are stable businesses boring? Might be, but I don't share that opinion.

If anyone tells me it is easy to manage a stable business, I call on you to show me how easy it is. Many tried and failed already (and we have proof of that - let's not blame the environment for those failures please!).

Keeping stability over a longer period of time requires more skilled leadership than anything else in business.

Building up a company that's relatively stable from the get go is even harder.

The critical questions that stand in front of us as humanity are:

Can we unlearn what we do so far in the extractional and transactional economic setup and learn building healthy societies and economic setups in alignment with nature?

I sure hope we can. The ingenuity of humanity is undeniable, let's use it for our own wellbeing!

…and finally: stop arguing who's right in defining what needs to be done or which terminology is right!

All of these need to be done.

We need to apply all of these laws of nature and tools to get to a sustainable future.


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