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  • Writer's pictureNick Keppel-Palmer

Redefining Value #2: Identity

Further exploration of what might go into an economic model that's actually good for the planet. This is thinking out loud - using our direct experience of working in landscapes to put some shape on what an alternative, better, planet friendly, business system might look like.

This topic - identity as value - is especially intangible and a very long way from widgets and production lines. It's all about how we feel. And especially about how we feel when we're connected to something, when we feel part of something. It's not so far away from the magic that makes brands like Apple so financially strong. Apple doesn't spend tons winning people over, it already has a fan base. Apple doesn't need to discount and compete on price. The fan base is already bought in. Apple generates fanatical loyalty.

(There's a different discussion on whether Apple as it is currently is sustainable - in every sense of sustainable - I happen to think it is not. But that's not for here).

Previously on 'redefining value'.....

The planet's in trouble. A big part of the problem is our economic system and the fetishisation of 'growth' - we make too much stuff. Our system of growth is all about volume and not about value - volume that is unsustainable in every sense.

How can we make less stuff and still thrive? Could there be a different version of 'growth' that recognises a broader sense of 'value'?

Is this the issue where brand strategy and sustainability might usefully come together? Sustainability as a value platform.

Brand x sustainability

I've done time in both these worlds. They need each other. Put simply, brand world doesn't get sustainability (is useless at it) and sustainability world doesn't get value.

Partly it's because sustainability world is very logical, weirdly similar to economics - all numbers and statistics and metrics. Yet there is widespread recognition that what's needed in sustainability world is more story telling.

Brand world is all about story telling and intangible value. Sparing use of metrics and numbers - and then only to substantiate the story. The art of value creation.

To reintegrate business and planet we need both worlds to come together.

Business that's good for the planet

We need a bigger idea of value that goes beyond metrics. Our intuitive, messy, complex sense of value isn't recognised in our over simplified and over industrialised economic reality.

What if it could be? What if "growth" didn't just mean "more stuff" but meant "more prosperity without making more stuff".

Could we integrate a bigger idea of value into our business systems?

Move from an extractive model to a regenerative? To shift business from taking too much to putting back. A different kind of growth. Uncoupled from volume, focused on value.

Three interrelated concepts could form this redefinition of value: origin, nature and identity. These three combine the 'sciency' approach of sustainability world with the story/value approach of brand world. Over the next 3 years my focus is on working to solidify each into a better form of growth.

Value redefined - identity, nature and origin
Three interconnected forms of value

Reintegrated, reconnected - a different kind of plus

Our systems are bad for the planet because they are disconnected. We treat nature as a giant magic warehouse that never runs out. But the truth is that since 1970 we've been taking more than we should. Overshooting what's sustainable.

Our systems are disconnected because we humans have become disconnected. From the planet. And increasingly from each other.

We lost touch. We lost our souls.

We take too much, we make too much, we waste too much.

Time to put back. Time to reconnect.

What I love about this concept is that it runs in the opposite direction from the doomsayers who make up much of Sustainability Inc. (If conferences and white papers could save the planet eh?). That expanding industry loves to dwell on what needs to be stopped. What we need to lose to fix things.

Their story is unappealing. Sacrifice. Loss. As Martin Stuchtey says - "decarbonisation is dentist". We can't sell that.

So redefining value is about what we gain, not what we lose. A different kind of plus, a different kind of value. Value that is instinctive, intuitive. And the joy of connecting to regeneration of places is that 'making nature and livelihoods better' is a very clear "plus" story. More nature is a good thing. Happier people is a good thing. What's not to love?

Identity value

The Germans have a word that the rest of us need.

Gemütlichkeit doesn't have a direct translation. It's a feeling of wellbeing, of warmth, of belonging, of oneness. Calm and belonging. What's interesting about Gemütlichkeit is that a) all Germans recognise it as something good and b) it's not something that can be bought - it comes about through connection.

In a world blighted by economics, where we are all defined by what we produce and what we consume, Gemütlichkeit is a powerful reminder that we have an instinctive, intuitive sense of value that economics doesn't recognise.

Connection, identity, oneness, a sense of belonging is a powerful form of value that is going to be fundamental to the businesses that are going to shape the next century.

Identity value is that feeling that comes with getting back to what really matters. The sense of self that comes from being connected to "good". Often the sense of self that comes from being connected to a landscape. The sense of self that comes from being out in nature. The sense that what really matters goes beyond our petty rules and systems.

Like these, my favourite dogs in Tbilisi. They seem sorted. Doing what matters.

dogs lying on the grass in Tbilisi
Georgian dogs living their best life in Didube, Tbilisi

Can identity value translate into money?

Brand strategists - the good ones - know that "connection" is a powerful force. A sense of belonging. The strongest brands aren't (despite the tsunami of bullshit peddled in marketing circles) simply sales mechanisms. The strongest brands elicit powerful senses of identity.

And more than that. The financial strength of those brands springs out of that identity strength. Look at Apple.

I think there are two ways to create financial uplift from identity:

  • buying stuff

  • not buying stuff - association.

Buying stuff

You buy something that comes from somewhere special - a bottle of wine, a piece of clothing - and you get an inner feeling of "good" that comes from that connection, as well as kudos and stories to tell (what Simon Robinson calls "pub ammo").

Imagine that your purchase was an active part of the regeneration of that place. By buying that bar of soap or that bottle of wine there was a direct and zero bullshit connection with measurable regeneration of that place.

That would make you feel good.

The work that is going on now to integrate landscapes to value chains does exactly that. Provides a direct link (no third party certification required) from buyer to origin. And provides chapter and verse on the origin. This is tiptoeing towards a distinctly better relationship between buyers and originators.

We've seen how people respond when they get their Khunu Yak wool knit from Mongolia. They tell us they love the smell from the box, the smell of Mongolian rangelands. If we can bring through the purchase not just that place connection, but also the feeling that you are doing good for the place because of the purchase, then we're getting somewhere closer to identity.

a yak wool scarf
Khunu's yak wool hand woven scarf - Mongolian yak wool, Nepalese weavers, amazing smell

This connection to "doing good" is the opposite of extractive luxury. And could be the basis of a complete redefinition of 'luxury'. A disintermediation of the relationship between buyer and origin.

Luxury as connection.

Not buying stuff - association

A criticism routinely made of systems such as Good Growth is that we are overly reliant on "consumption" as a means to generate value. Good challenge. We shouldn't be.

A broader definition of value should go way beyond simply "buying stuff". Association with "good" things is in and of itself valuable. Think for example of what's happened in music - we went to see Gary Numan in Bristol last week. He's got a loyal fan base that have a much more direct relationship with him than before. The internet enables interplay between artist and fan that both value.

I think people can associate with landscapes - adopt a landscape - in the same way they might associate with a musician. We already build these kinds of associations. You or I might have a particular beach or camping site that we regard as "ours".

We are emotionally invested in it. We get to know the place. We put time and effort and money into the place. We care about the health of the place. We feel connected to the place. We show off about the place.

But we don't own the place. It's value through association.

I think we are seeing signs of this shift in how brands relate to places. Beyond their chains. In the work we are doing with and through the Regenerative Fund for Nature we see rapidly emerging concept of brands investing into landscapes, even if they aren't part of their supply chain. Movements such as TNFD (why is sustainability world so fearful of vowels?) and innovations such as the Landbanking Group seek to establish the opportunity to generate nature wealth.

A big fashion brand might have supply chains that run to 100s of 1000s of tons every year. There is no way to integrate regenerating landscapes into the chains as they are. Too big. How they make less stuff is an urgent question for fashion world which is only just beginning to be addressed. Chains are geared to current volumes. The only way to reduce volume is first to find a different form of value. So.....

....they absolutely can invest into new models and invest into regenerating landscapes. Because that way they get to work out a new business model, not screw up millions of livelihoods dependent on the existing chain and at the same time do some good for nature.

There are multiple benefits to such an association and investment. Wealth creation through nature uplift (more on this another time); ringside seat in regenerative systems - using regenerating landscapes as labs to design 'regenerative business'; stories to tell.

I think that over the next few years progressive businesses will 'adopt' a portfolio of landscapes/places. With a long term view and a long term interest in the regeneration of those places. And maybe - in the long run - integrating those places into their chains, but for the next few years simply taking a close interest and making a commitment to regeneration of those places.

Without owning them. Collaborating with and enabling the communities that steward them. Economics that doesn't depend on buying and fencing off big areas (rewilding without treating the land as the asset).

Redefining metrics - make less, make more money

A final thought. One of the unlocking parts of 'regenerative agriculture' is changing the metrics. For example shifting the focus away from "yield" to say "profit per hectare".

Regenerative systems might produce less. But they waste less. And they need fewer inputs. Less cost. Less stuff. Make less, make more money.

The formula for regenerative business is shaping up to follow the same logic. Change the metrics, focus on what really matters, make less stuff, do good for the planet, less cost, less waste, more money.

Part of redefining value comes from rethinking the metrics. Later this year we will start working with partners on designing 'regenerative business' using the regenerating landscapes as a lab.

That design work will cover nuts and bolts such as supply chain design, but also slippery concepts like these around a greater sense of value.

I'm not sure exactly where we are going to end up but it feels like the right direction.

As ever please get in touch if you think this kind of work and thinking is relevant for you.


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