Origin Story Interview W/ Bernard de Wit, Regreener

Origin Story Interview W/ Bernard de Wit, Regreener

Brighter Future

 / 

Jun 28, 2023

#BrighterFuture #entrepreneurship #Sustainability #ClimateChangeSolution #originstoryseries #seekthechange #carbonfootprint #greenimpact #climateaction #reduceemissions #ClimateSolutions #Regreener

Brighter Future

We had the pleasure of talking with Bernard de Wit, Co-Founder of Regreener.earth, a Sustainable Commercial Company that helps individuals, families, and businesses compensate and reduce their carbon footprint.

Thank you so much for being with us, Bernard. Could you introduce yourself and your work?

My name is Bernard de Wit, and I was born in Utrecht, in the Netherlands. Our company, Regreener, is based in Amsterdam. Our mission is to help companies with their entire climate journey: this includes mapping, reducing, and compensating for their emissions. I have a bachelor's degree in law and a Master's degree in Philosophy of Law from Leiden University.

When I was younger, I always felt that I’d like to build a company. There was just something appealing in the freedom: the ability to choose your own path, design things, and work together with people who are as passionate as you about a shared mission.

My first post-graduation work was at a software company. It was a great place, but then, about two years ago, I was talking with a friend, Job van Hooijdonk, who was also at a crossroads in his career, and we both agreed that climate change was by far the most important topic of the coming century. We wanted to be part of the solution, and not just keep running in the same bad direction without doing anything about it. So I founded Regreener.

Could you explain a little about your business, Regreener? What are you exactly trying to achieve, and why do you think it matters?

When we started, we looked at the general idea of tree-planting, because we thought trees were very appealing in terms of carbon sequestration, biodiversity, and the overall sense of wellbeing that people derived from them.

But after doing more research and getting a better view of the possibilities to reverse or mitigate climate change, we concluded that we could work two main angles as individuals and companies: we should reduce emissions and compensate for them.

I always find it necessary to point this duality out. There tends to be a big focus on the reduction side of things. This is incredibly important, especially for companies that manufacture their own products or are part of “heavy industry.”

If you aren’t in manufacturing— if, for example, you’re a service provider, marketing agency, or design agency, your footprint will be quite small. You’ll use some electricity, your employees have to transport themselves to work, so on and so forth. For these companies, reducing is important too, but the footprint of their general operations just cannot be compared to industrial companies. They purchase huge amounts of electricity, but also things like steam, heat, or cooling.

The thing is that there will always be residual emissions which need to be compensated for. Compensation often makes people say something like, “Is that really the right way to fight climate change?” But I trust that it is. We all have a carbon footprint, though some of us more than others. Perhaps we drive a lot, eat a lot of meat, fly often.

But no matter how much we try to reduce our footprint, I would say it is close to impossible to eliminate it. There are residual emissions that I just can’t erase, simply because I exist in this society and exist in our world.

So, if I want to go to net zero, if I want to balance out the negative impact my actions and choices cause on the planet, I need to take affirmative climate action, which can mean many things. It can be supporting a tree-planting project, supporting renewable energy projects, or supporting a more socio-economic-oriented project.

What we do is facilitate interactions between businesses and consumers in this entire journey. So, first, we help you figure out what you can or want to focus on in terms of reduction, and then we focus on how you can compensate for your carbon footprint through the best projects we have.

That sounds great. Was there a time in your childhood when you discovered your entrepreneurial side, or was there any connection between your childhood experiences and the idea for Regreener?

I’ve been climate-aware, in a sense, since I was quite young. My dad and I would ride bikes to a nearby tennis court on the weekend, and my dad would always collect plastic and paper litter along the way in a shopping bag. I think seeing this really environmentally-positive behaviour from him made me realise the importance of taking care of the environment. I saw that nature was not just our playground, but also something we needed to protect. The experience planted a seed in my mind, and I became more aware of the existential threat of climate change as I got older, along with the urgent need to take action.

I first got interested in entrepreneurship back in high school, though I didn't really understand what it entailed or meant at the time. It wasn't until I founded a company during my last year of studies that I explored the concept of creative thinking and entrepreneurship.

My first company was small, just run between a roommate and myself. We helped students our age (I was about 21 at the time) learn foreign languages abroad by partnering with language schools around the world for one-week to three-month trips. Though this was a side project during my university studies, it allowed me to take my first steps in entrepreneurship. I learned to build a website, for example. Now, with Regreener, I’m taking even bigger steps towards my goal.

As co-founder of Regreener, can you walk us through the moment when you and your partner came up with the idea for the company? What led to the decision to turn this idea into a business?

I was having dinner with Job van Hooijdonk, a friend from law school, in October 2020. Though he’d been working as a corporate lawyer for three years, he’d reached a bit of a crossroads in his career, and was still figuring out what he wanted to do next. He told me about how much climate change worried him, and said that a few days earlier he’d heard of a Dutch organisation called the Land Life Company that seemed to be doing something good about it. They were working on state-of-the-art tree-planting projects as carbon compensation for large corporations in areas with degraded land. This led us down a conversational path about the possibility of enabling individuals, small businesses, and medium-sized enterprises to participate in similar tree-planting projects.

We started to work on the idea in our spare time, researching the market and mapping out potential opportunities. After about six weeks, we went further and launched a business. We quit our previous jobs, bought computers, got office space, and started building Regreener. We moved pretty fast: we went from the core idea to making the big decision in about a month and a half.

That’s pretty fast indeed. What aspects of your work are most fulfilling to you?

One very fulfilling thing, for me, is the impact we make. In the past two years we’ve helped plant around 500,000 trees in Kenya, Mozambique, Zambia and Ethiopia. These plantings would only have happened because of our project, and I’m proud of that. We’re also immensely proud of the impact we make with our community of clients, and the partnerships we’ve set up to get these projects running and our tree-planting going. This is a big part of what we do, and again, our impact.

Another fulfilling thing is the companies we’ve spoken to, making them aware of how they can contribute to our mission. We also raise awareness of how they can be part of the solution rather than the problem. It’s really fulfilling to build relationships in a way that’s good for the planet, the client, and our company. It’s also great to see something that was once just an idea turn into something concrete.

It sounds very satisfying. Do you think you’ve ever taken a completely different direction than you first planned?

During the ideation phase, our focus was primarily on tree planting, but we realised pretty quickly that there was much more to be done on climate action than just that. So we’ve also begun to incorporate projects with other positive impacts: on carbon reduction, biodiversity, socio-economic factors, and corporate transparency.

We’ve begun working on rainforest protection, and even renewable energy projects— including solar and wind power— to further promote the transition to clean energy. In recent months, we’ve added two more projects, one focusing on coral transplants and protection, and the other on removing plastic waste from rivers and oceans.

Overall, our focus has shifted toward broader action for the environment, though the way we offer our services has remained largely the same since the start.

What were the biggest challenges you faced at the beginning of your journey?

To juggle all the different aspects of running a business turned out to be pretty challenging. It's easy to get caught up in the daily grind and lose sight of the big picture. It’s been a great learning experience, though.

Also, it's important to remind yourself to step back and ask yourself: “Are we heading in the right direction?”

I’m getting better at this, but it's still a struggle. The productivity trap can make you keep running and running without taking the time to reflect on the past or plan for the future.

Were there any significant compromises or sacrifices you had to make to get to where you are today?

It’s hard to balance my ideas with the practical side of things in a world driven by commercial interests. Nearly all of the companies we speak with acknowledge the importance of sustainability and climate change, but realistically, they also emphasise their need to run a profitable business and serve their clients.

Sustainability is not always their top priority, even though they acknowledge its significance. As a result, the more idealistic vision that I sometimes present may not always resonate with them. There is often a gap between the message I want to convey and how I engage with them, which sometimes requires a more business-savvy approach.

That said, this is about helping them understand that sustainability can benefit businesses in the long run. By highlighting the value of sustainability, we can work towards common goals and achieve them together.

Have there been any significant “Aha!” moments in your life that you’ve incorporated into your business today?

As a law student, a lot of my friends focused on pursuing careers in the corporate world— like working for large law firms or banks. The idea seemed to be that these career paths were straightforward and the money was good, and that this was a nice way to achieve success and live a nice life.

I also followed this path, at least at the start, when I landed an internship at a major law firm in the Netherlands. The place was fantastic and had great benefits, but I’d realised by day four that this would not be for me. The work itself was too mundane, and didn’t afford me enough chances to be creative. As a creative person, I like to think about opportunities and possibilities, and not just stay within the realm of something like law.

I suppose this realisation was an “Aha!” moment for me, and it led me to decide against pursuing a corporate career. I discovered instead my interest in philosophy, which I still find fascinating, and technology, which inspires me enormously. I would say that these two significant moments shaped my interests and ultimately led me to decide against a corporate career.

That’s an impressive new path you started to walk. What was your biggest inspiration during your climate business journey? Were you inspired by books, or perhaps movies, or specific people?

A huge trigger for action is the news about climate change that I read. Reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for instance, give a pretty clear and horrifying view of the potential consequences if we don't start mitigating and adapting to climate change. It's a little scary to realise that if we do nothing, Amsterdam, or a significant part of the Netherlands, will be below sea level within the next hundred years. As I live and work in Amsterdam, I know it's a beautiful city, and it would be a terrible shame if it were to just disappear.

The problems we face on a global scale are immense if we can’t keep warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. So, while not necessarily inspiring in a positive sense, this awareness does trigger me to focus on the issue.

Also, a book comes to mind by Paul Polman. It's called Net Positive: How Courageous Companies Thrive by Giving More Than They Take. Polman is a Dutch businessman who was the CEO of Unilever, one of the great conglomerates of the world. His book discusses how businesses can become net positive, meaning they contribute more to the environment and planet than they take away from it.

How would you like the future to look?

Practically, focusing on the issue of climate change, there’s a lot of work ahead of us. Right now we’re on a trajectory of 2.4 degrees of warming. Though the Paris Agreement aims for 1.5 degrees, we are currently at 1.2 degrees. So at this point we very well could surpass it.

And we can already see the impacts. Earth has witnessed a sudden rise in extreme weather conditions; there’s widespread flooding and wildfires. Addressing this problem properly would bring me great comfort, and I hope we can solve it in the coming decades— not only for ourselves, but also for future generations.

As someone who would like to see future generations flourish and have the same opportunities as we’ve had, I dream of a planet that has been taken care of in a meaningful way, and that we can look back at with pride in 100 years.

Do you think you could say your ambitions for Regreener— perhaps even after your lifetime?

Our ultimate goal is to solve the problem of climate change so that we become unnecessary, like other companies in the same field. When this is accomplished, we can move on to other things.

This won’t be possible in the next 10-30 years, at least, so we would like to collaborate with our clients and partners in a constructive effort to find a solution.

We want to be a part of an innovative ecosystem of like-minded individuals and companies working towards the common goal of addressing climate change. Essentially, we aim to be a part of the solution rather than the only solution.

What advice would you like to give entrepreneurs starting and those on the verge of starting?

Well, I think there are two really important things to keep in mind, which may seem obvious from standard startup textbooks. First, focus is key. Identify the needs of your target market and find out what matters to them. Don't only rely on your intuition; ask interesting people in your industry to gain insight into their needs and how your product or service can meet them.

Second, try to create an environment and mindset that enables you to make quick decisions, and pivot when needed, with the goal to ultimately succeed and build a viable and truly sustainable business.

But with all that said, don't forget to enjoy the process along the way. It's easy to get caught up in the productivity trap and forget to reflect on what you have learned or want to learn. Instead, take some time each month to reflect and appreciate the journey.

This might sound counterintuitive, but try to enjoy the downsides of business and life as well. They provide perspective and help you appreciate the journey even more. While it may be tempting to give in to negative thoughts during hard times, remember that they are part of the process, and learning to enjoy them will ultimately benefit you and your business.

If there was one last message that could reach everyone on this planet, what would it be?

I've been listening to Lex Fridman's podcast, where he always asks his guests at the end what the meaning of life is. It's a hard question without a definite answer, and we should accept that. I just believe in enjoying what you’re doing, understanding why you're doing it, reflecting on it now and then, and seeing both work and life as a play.

We tend to view work as simply work, but it can be more than that. It can be creating something, enjoying the company of colleagues, and working on something you can be proud of— even if it's just a small part of a bigger overarching goal. Building relationships with those around you and engaging in meaningful conversations like this is important. I hope everyone can enjoy the journey. Not just the material side, but also the personal and emotional side.

Thank you, Bernard. We really appreciate you taking the time to share your story and vision for a better world. We truly wish you the best in your journey.

If you would like to learn more about Regreener visit www.regreener.earth.

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