Esha Chhabra has been writing about the cross-section of business and impact for over a decade, covering companies around the world that are trying to build fairer, kinder, and more planet-friendly businesses.
Her new book, Working to Restore, which debuted this March, showcases the work of 30+ companies around the world that are using their businesses to drive environmental and social change. They span industries, from food to fashion to health to travel and more, indicating that this is possible in many trades, and not relegated to just a few. Falcon is one of the companies featured.
We spoke to Esha about her inspiration for writing this book and what she’s learned along the way.
I think it’s important to start talking about the solutions. I felt like much of the dialogue around climate and social inequalities has been what’s wrong with the world and what we’re doing incorrectly.
Yet, my work over the last ten years has introduced me to so many fascinating individuals who are putting forward valuable solutions. They may not be perfect solutions, but these people are trying and tinkering with new models and showing that it can be done. I wanted to highlight their voices and stories.
Plus, I had started hearing from people around me that they’d stop listening to the news, or reading the news, because it was all so overwhelming and negative. I don’t blame them. That’s why I wanted to offer hope and pragmatic optimism. Building ethical, thoughtful businesses is not easy, but it’s being done - and here’s how you can support them.
I wrote this book in a simple, easy-to-read manner because I really do want it to be read by everyone, not just those already interested in sustainability and ethical business. If you’re a young person graduating today, or you’re a consumer looking at how your daily purchases can play a role in bettering the global economy, this is the book for you.
[The book] looks at numerous industries: fashion, food, travel, health, energy, finance, and lifestyle to give you a selection. If you’re most passionate about food, start there. Look at the companies mentioned, understand how they’re different from the run-of-the-mill options at the grocery stores, and see if you can purchase their products, or if you’re an entrepreneur, build something similar.
If you’re a graduate thinking about your career, look at all the different ways your career can do something more than just accrue wealth. You can pick what you’re most passionate about and find the players in that industry to work alongside.
It’s unlikely that anyone can do all of it, but start in one aspect of your life. Start with what you’re most interested in, and just focus on that for a while. Yes, even that little bit helps. Because this shift is going to happen if thousands, or millions, of people get behind it, not just a select few.
Because it's something most people enjoy weekly, if not daily. I really wanted to showcase examples that are part of our everyday lives. That’s why you see clothing, shoes, coffee, chocolate, perfume, healthcare, and tourism in the book. These are things we buy regularly or participate in – so how can we start with what’s most familiar to us?
Coffee is also connected to agriculture, of course, and having spent years visiting with farmers and growers, I just developed an immense respect for them. So much of the global economy depends on their work. Yet, do we respect them, celebrate them, and pay enough for their labour? I don’t think so.
When I spoke to Konrad Brits, Falcon’s CEO, he said the same thing. It wasn’t about the coffee for him specifically. It was that coffee can elevate communities, improve soil health, help rebuild ecosystems, and redefine how supply chains are built. It was a tool to a bigger goal for him.
However, it’s worthwhile noting that coffee has become a $500 billion industry. If we can start to build more equity into even a fraction of this massive market, we will be affecting millions of lives, and consequently the land they till.
I'm weary of buzzwords. I hear you. There’s always a fear that these terms will just turn into marketing.
But, yes, as I was interviewing all these entrepreneurs, I heard one common thread: most of them were a bit fed up with the term “sustainability”. The co-founder of a footwear brand said to me, “What are we sustaining? A broken system?”
And this was back in 2018, when I started the reporting for this book. We’ve come a long way with sustainability, and yes, there’s a fair amount of greenwashing going on. That’s why I really spent time trying to find companies and individuals that are going beyond the surface-level sustainability gestures.
The book uses the words restorative and regenerative throughout because when you think about it, these two refer to bringing back a balance, and giving new life into something that’s been depleted. I feel like that’s far more apt than sustainability, or the act of sustaining.
For agriculture, it means looking at farms as a whole entity: incorporating the local wildlife and biodiversity, looking after the “life” in the soil, creating your own organic inputs if possible, utilising farm animals in ways that enrich the soil and the farm.
The Regenerative Organic Alliance, which I mention in the book, takes it one step further and includes the social element as well. So how are the people working on the farm being looked after? Are they being paid fairly? So far, the certifications have been operating in silos, addressing just one issue: organics, ethics, or worker’s rights. The Regenerative Organic Certification hopes to merge several of these under one umbrella. It’s in its early days, but it’s a recognition that perhaps the current certification model is not doing enough.
Regenerative, though, goes beyond that, as a mindset. One of the chapters looks at workplace equity and inclusivity: how do we incorporate people with disabilities, how do we share the profits of a company with long-time employees, and can business really have this kind of social impact? Aspire CoffeeWorks in Chicago, for example, is giving employment to those that the typical marketplace has deemed “not employable.” Footwear brand, Veja, is having individuals from marginalised communities in Paris and those with disabilities manage their fulfilment. Toad and Co, a California-based brand has not only employed disabled individuals but taken them on trips to see national parks as part of employee engagement and wellness programs. These are not one-off gestures again; these are integral parts of their business suggesting that you don’t have to follow the “norm” always.
There’s so much a business can do, if it really wants to. And that’s what I explore with this “regenerative” mindset.
They’re driven by a problem; something that they want to solve, address, and tackle. It’s not really about building a product. It’s about redesigning a system. And they’re very values-oriented individuals. Some, I might say, have tunnel vision – but in a good way. That’s coming at business from a very different approach than what’s been done historically.
You always have to lead with the product first. So if, say, the coffee doesn’t taste good, it’s less likely to get any buyers or attention, and the values will only get it so far. Taste, design, the effectiveness of a product will, I feel, always be the most important factor. But right behind those things is the story of how it was made, by whom, and with what values in mind.
Plus, more and more people are in the pursuit of trying to find work that’s meaningful. Few people want to peddle a product that they don’t feel proud of. And what makes people feel that pride is that it was made with some integrity. So, yes, consumers care. Gen Z, in particular, I see asking these questions.
The one drawback we still face is that many of these products are still on the pricey side. Those costs are coming down, but the bottom-of-the-barrel prices that many consumers have gotten used to are frankly not possible. It’s also a choice of how much you want to in your life.
Scale is one of those words that’s become so ubiquitous. But the answer, I discovered, is that scale isn’t always ideal.
One of the founders I spoke to said to me that the world needs more medium-sized companies building regenerative businesses, rather than a few conglomerates or multinationals that are supposedly “sustainable.” Replication is not a bad thing.
So scale, but to a point. And then realise that it’s enough. This seems to result in businesses that are easier to manage, have healthier cash flows, and better workplace engagement, based on what the founders told me. We’ve been trained to think about growth, partly also because of the funding model. But growth for the sake of growth isn’t the best.