Finding a cure for “the business disease”

Circularity expert Bill Mehleisen with Anna Malmhake in Almedalen to where he was invited as a guest speaker for Tomorrow’s Thought Leaders - an event for some of Sweden’s most prominent change makers. Photo: Carl Lemon/The Absolut Company.

Bill Mehleisen started his career at Wall Street as a high-achieving young man seeking success and growth. Today, his life looks a lot different, focusing his work around a more holistic approach to life, spanning from self-development at Burning Man to helping organisations create regenerative business models.

In many ways, Bill’s personal journey mimics the journey our modern society is now embarking on. As Bill explains it, ”we face real problems that our existing models aren’t equipped to handle, including many catastrophic issues such as global warming, ecological resource collapse, water shortages, food waste and wealth disparity. Business is one of our tools to design a better future, but we won’t succeed in that as long as the dominate business story is one about pursuing infinite growth”.

We meet up with Bill in Almedalen, where he has been invited by Anna Malmhake and The Absolut Company as the guest speaker for Tomorrow’s Thought Leaders – an event for some of Sweden’s most prominent change makers. He shares the story about how is own life took a turn when he started exploring the work of Buckminster Fuller – the American architect, inventor and futurist. Bill began understanding the problems of the world’s current capitalistic system, which promotes growth at any cost, and learn about alternative perspectives on how to grow a healthy new world. The problem, as he explains it, is that never-ending linear growth of any structure will eventually become a cancer on the ecosystem it inhabits, and that’s what we now see happening in our capitalistic society. The eternal pursuit of increasing revenue and profit is draining the resources of our world, and that is the result of our narrow-minded storytelling about business.

Bill is working to change this narrative into one that includes not only financial profit, but also qualitative factors of wealth and well-being. ”We now have an opportunity to live a new story – one that moves beyond linear growth to circularity or balanced flow economy. For companies, this new story offers a more sustainable, long-term profitable and human way to cooperate, and in that lies a competitive advantage. For consumers, this new story of balance allows us to move from disposable consumerism to a well-being-based economy”, he explains.

The key is create a more responsible culture among both companies and consumers, and circularity is only the starting point. In order for humanity to thrive in the future, businesses must apply regenerative thinking to its operations. That entails moving beyond just ”sustainability” to create production and distribution systems which will regenerate value for its ecosystem, making it stronger over time. Regenerative thinking imagines business as a force to revitalise both environment, community and human flourishing.

“We need to stop looking at our operations and staff as machines we can control, and instead start treating them as a garden that can grow freely under our gentle care.”

A good analogy for this approach comes from nature, where a monoculture (i.e. only one organism taking control of an ecosystem) will drain the resources over time, while a permaculture (biological diversity and balance) thrives over time. As Bill puts it, ”A permaculture mindset changes how we look at business. Profit still matters but it’s not the point. The point is to build creative and generative capacity, resilience and diversity, making the ecosystem stronger. We need to stop looking at our operations and staff as machines we can control, and instead start treating them as a garden that can grow freely under our gentle care.” 

This shift in business storytelling and mindset is starting to take hold in many parts of the world, and there are many examples to be inspired by. One is the startup Ecovative, which turns mushroom mycelium into packaging, and has recently started collaborating with furniture giant IKEA. Another is Loop, a TerraCycle company that reimagines fully circular delivery of home goods. General Mills are committing to bringing regenerative agriculture practice to one million acres of farmland by 2030, making it a pioneer in environmental regeneration. A pioneer of community regeneration can be found in Juno – the car service competitor to Uber and Lyft, which is designed as a cooperation platform sharing value with its drivers. With this mindset shift happening at an increasing speed – which is also what’s needed if we are to leave a healthy society for the next generation – the attitude on the stock market will have to change too. And maybe, Bill Mehleisen will find himself back at Wall Street, as one of pioneers who are changing the story about what business is all about. In any case, we are grateful for the important work that he does – whether in Almedalen, at Burning Man or at Wall Street.