Regenerating the Environment and the Economy: Conscious Businesses Take on Decolonization
At a time when the world faces multiple intersectional crises, movements towards regenerative solutions offer opportunities for systemic change. The upheaval of the last year revealed the depth of social inequities, especially in the United States, where a capitalistic system puts profits ahead of people, creating ripple effects around the globe.
Amid these crises, more companies and organizations are seeing the need to take the lead and do their part to ensure a healthy planet for the future by addressing social and environmental systemic flaws. Shifting to regenerative farming principles and practices brings a host of environmental and social benefits that restore our connections and relationships with nature and reshape our systems to better serve all people. Addressing a history of colonialism can restore independence and power in communities.
Alexis Bunten, PhD, who is the Co-Director of the Indigeneity Program at the three-decade-old non-profit organization Bioneers, says understanding decolonization first requires an understanding of the historical systems of power and oppression. “That’s a settler-colonial context in the case of the U.S.,” she says. “Those systems of oppression through colonial capitalism have affected the ways that we live our day-to-day lives to our detriment, and not just us as Native people, but to every American’s detriment.”
For businesses and other organizations, decolonization can involve a spectrum of actions, Bunten says, from breaking down vertical hierarchies to recognize and honor the talents and contributions of each individual, no matter their job title or standing, to valuing quality over quantity through practices that encourage worker engagement, collaborative partnerships, and community benefit.
In these and other ways, businesses and organizations can begin to address systemic colonization and adopt regenerative practices and policies, while shaping new systems that work for all people and for the planet’s future — and encourage others to do the same.
The Business Approach to Regeneration and Decolonization
Among the companies that have incorporated regeneration and decolonization efforts into their business model and mission is Guayakí, a California-based business that imports organic yerba mate from South America for its beverages. Through its relationships with farmers and others in Indigenous communities in Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil, where the yerba mate used in Guayakí’s products is grown, Guayakí (a Bioneers sponsor) helps ensure families living there can resist the pressure of surrounding deforestation and stay on their land.
Guayakí Co-Founder Alex Pryor says these “horizontal” relationships reflect the regenerative, collaborative traditions of Guayakí’s suppliers.
“What facilitates the dialogue is the traditional way of drinking yerba mate through the gourd and how that’s shared with each individual in the circle. It’s an ancestral ceremony that comes from the Guarani,” Pryor says. “Anything that you consume has a profound effect on you, particularly a plant that is considered a mother plant. When we work with the communities, we use that same principle — that the yerba mate plant spirit embodies when we drink it in ourselves, and in our communities, and in our relationships.”
By celebrating and honoring the long-held values of its supplier communities — including the sharing of yerba mate in a gourd as a sign of friendship and the conservation of rainforest in Paraguay — Pryor says Guayakí brings the spirit of yerba mate to its customers and other stakeholders while using storytelling to spread the word about the importance of soil health and the value of the Atlantic Forest. In addition to celebrating supplier communities, Guayakí’s four pillars of regeneration include partnering with our values, taking responsibility for our environmental footprint, practicing conscious leadership, and celebrating communities and cultures.
“The yerba mate is a tree that grows in the subtropical rainforest together with a diverse group of plants and animals and other things too, so that’s why I say we represent the plant,” he says.
As a Certified B Corporation, Guayakí operates as part of a community of businesses that value customers, workers, community, and environment, and pursue an economy that works for all. Pryor says that pursuit of environmental and societal improvement also is part of regenerative practices that emphasize “living the question.” For us to determine that we are going on the right path is allowing the questions to be part of the dialogue.”
Over the last year, many businesses and people had no choice but to become comfortable with uncertainty and change during the pandemic. After 25 years in business, he says Guayakí continues to grow its bottom line while realizing the dynamic nature of business and its role in encouraging systemic change.
“The challenge also becomes how to keep this regenerative spirit in people’s minds and hearts, and in its own ecosystem that surrounds them,” he says. Changing the economic system to incorporate regenerative practices and address societal issues like decolonization means others can follow Guayakí’s lead and be willing to “live the question” by seeking new and diverse voices to guide their work, Pryor says.
The Systemic Approach to Regeneration and Decolonization
Transforming capitalism to reveal and eliminate injustices in our economic system will require businesses to abandon some long-held practices and collaborate with an eye on inclusion and social justice, according to Andy Fyfe, Growth Catalyst for B Lab, the nonprofit that oversees the B Corp community.
“It’s imperative that businesses take a lead — and it may not be comfortable. Business leaders need to step up for what’s right until policy can keep up,” Fyfe says. “The rule and cultural norm of businesses only focused on maximizing profit needs to change. To create economic systems change and move toward decolonization, we need legislative and regulatory change. We need policy that requires companies and investors to adopt what we call benefit corporation governance and consider their impact on all people and the planet.”
B Corps take on the responsibility of considering impact on stakeholders and lead by examples in areas like climate justice, Fyfe says, which includes practices like decolonization and regeneration that Guayakí has incorporated into its operations, as well as business policies and structures that move away from vertical hierarchies and cultivate open communication. Other B Corps leading in climate justice include Patagonia, an outdoor apparel company that provides funding for grassroots organizations, advances sustainability practices in its industries, and advocates for policy change; and Pukka Herbs, producer of organic herbal teas and well-being supplements, which promotes a community approach to share tools, expertise, and training; supports environmental and social initiatives; and has adopted regenerative agriculture practices.
“For businesses to start toward decolonization, there needs to be a collective unlearning,” Fyfe says. “If we better embraced the unknown and held ourselves to listen, we’d have more credible voices at the table.”
Organizations that honor the voices and contributions of every individual — from the grocery store bagger to the buyer to the marketing manager, for example — are following common tribal practices and encouraging more resilient systems, says Bioneers’ Alexis Bunten, PhD. By valuing quality over quantity and seeing success through more than the bottom line, organizations also can shift toward more inclusive practices that strengthen capacity and empower workers.
“If you listen to everybody from their vantage point and their experience, you’re going to get an array of solutions to organizational problems,” she says. “Having a culture of communication in your organization is what we call a ‘brave space.’’’
Conversations about decolonization can be provocative, she says, but are important and necessary at any institution or establishment built to succeed on a system of white supremacy, she says.
“We need to recognize that there is an inherent power and balance, and if we are having cross-cultural, cross-racial discussions, to get ready to be uncomfortable if you want to hear the truth,” Bunten says. “You need to hear the truth in order to reconcile, to communicate, to build stronger relationships. Ultimately, for organizations, that strengthens their capacity.”
Decolonizing Your Organization: How to Start
While adopting regenerative practices that encourage decolonization can be daunting for businesses and other organizations, even a small start can make a difference. “There are steps you can take to decolonize, and in some cases re-Indigenize, the way that we live our lives so that we’re healthier, happier, and society works better,” says Alexis Bunten, Bioneers Indigeneity Program Co-Director. She shared a few recommendations:
- Learn whose land your organization is on by checking this online resource, Bunten says. “Then learn how to acknowledge those peoples. Make relationships with them in the area.”
- Reconsider your company’s structure. “One example of a way organizations uphold colonial capitalism is through strict vertical hierarchies,” Bunten says. “Set up an organization that honors every different person laterally.” This better recognizes each person’s unique talents and encourages broader discussions that will generate new solutions to organizational problems.
- Value quality over quantity. Incorporate metrics around the quality of your products, worker experience, relationships with other organizations — measures that go beyond profit to incorporate people and planet.
- Pursue local options, such as food decolonization, by making healthy food options more accessible to people in your community.
- Advance the land back movement by respecting Indigenous rights and improving access to affordable housing and sustainable food.