Expert Profile - Emma Chow: Regeneration Specialist (Food Systems, The Circular Economy, Regenerative Design)
A freelance specialist in regeneration for both organisations and individuals, Emma started her career as a consultant at Deloitte and subsequently led the food initiative at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
Emma talked to the Choix team about nature, regenerative food systems, how freelancers can take care of their wellbeing, and much, much more…!
Take us back Emma - where did the journey begin?
Well - it all started with a book! I read Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature when I was 18, and it sparked a burning desire to dedicate myself to working in the service of nature.
So I studied Economics and Environmental Studies, and went into corporate consulting with a plan: to train myself up, move into the sustainability world, and help businesses redesign their systems to work in harmony with nature. Which is exactly what I did!
You specialised in circular and regenerative food systems at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation?
Yes. Our food systems are broken. They contribute a third of greenhouse gas emissions, and are responsible for massive biodiversity loss. But there’s huge potential to design them differently. Nearly a decade ago, I was travelling and volunteering on organic farms, and I saw some truly inspiring examples of regenerative practice: it was these experiences which ‘planted the seeds’ of my interest in working professionally on food systems.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation advocates for a circular economy - where waste and pollution are eliminated, products and materials are circulated and natural systems are regenerated. And I worked principally with major food brands and retailers, helping them use this framework to reimagine their product portfolios; and to understand the value of regenerative design - from its huge cost-saving potential, to the tangible contributions it can make in achieving climate goals.
I witnessed some incredible journeys. A real highlight was working with one of the world’s largest food brands who, despite starting from a place of hesitation, eventually committed to a massively ambitious climate action plan, which shifted a significant portion of their supply chain to regenerative agriculture and became a beacon for the industry!
You started freelancing after a burnout in 2021?
I did. And sadly I’m not alone. There’s a lot of burnout in the impact space. Partly because people are working from a place of passion - so they’re more likely to give too much. But I think another major reason is that we’re tackling problems caused by extractive, mechanistic, rational-mind approaches to the world, but then we’re using that same rational mindset to try and solve them.
I realised I needed to step away from this model of working, and work for myself. To find my own, authentic way of sharing my gifts and my experience. And when I started digging deeper into how I might do that, I realised that I’d been finding the tech and analytical side of projects draining. So I took some time to really explore and understand what had given me energy in previous roles - and I discovered that the throughline was education.
Where’s your primary focus now - as an educator?
We’re in a moment of transition. The old system is breaking down on every level but there’s a strong pull to cling on to old ways of working and doing. I’m trying to help decision makers navigate this tension - approach the (enormous!) question of how do we wind down the old and give birth to the new?
I review books that educate businesses around sustainability and food systems. I speak at industry events and develop courses and workshops for companies. I work with investors and accelerator programmes. I love helping start-ups to understand the principles of the circular economy, and to think practically around how they can contribute to creating a regenerative future. I teach yoga and meditation too, guiding practices around rediscovering rest.
And your work lies at the intersection between systems and individual change?
Yes! Systems are made up of and designed by individuals. I think it’s impossible for meaningful change to happen on the outside if there’s no internal shift. I agree with Carol Sanford and what she describes in her book, The Regenerative Life - we can’t work on one without the other, and we can accelerate the progress of both if we work simultaneously.
On which note, I’m currently working to create a space where finance community members and industry change agents can come and learn through the senses. It feels like this kind of experiential process is missing right now.
So I’m experimenting with a retreat prototype - a 3 day learning journey where investors and key influencers in the food space can step away from their laptops and into nature. Experience first, theory and knowledge second: so rather than just talking about soil health, let's feel healthy soil, smell it, connect physically while cultivating meaningful connections!
What's your approach to facilitation?
It’s important to meet people where they are at, to be relatable. There’s no mileage in bewildering them with too much information, or being dogmatic. My approach is to open the door, and to remind people of their agency. Of course I hope that they will walk through it, but that must be their choice.
Is there someone who has influenced your career - what did you learn from them?
I’ve been incredibly lucky to have a lot of informal mentors in my life - it’s hard to call out just one or two! But something my meditation teacher Jonni Pollard said has been so important in helping me navigate my own path, particularly in these last few years. He said when there’s a gap between who you think you are, and who you actually are, it’s unsustainable.
Closing that gap has been a challenge. Pre-burnout, I spent most of my time ‘armoured up.’ I played competitive sport growing up, so I was used to driving myself super-hard to achieve. This was great for fitting in to systems like consulting (where, from my perspective, an unhealthy expression of masculine energy dominates, and there’s not a lot of room for the feminine), but the creative in me didn’t get much space. And that was a problem.
It was hard to step out of the system and take care of myself - I did it because there was no alternative. And now I’m back in, but on my own terms, as myself. Rather than wear heavy armour all the time, I do a lot of work to stay grounded - to maintain what I describe as a protective field, which is permeable, but can firm up if I need it to!
What do you do to stay grounded, and what recommendations do you have for other freelancers?
- Rest. Every day. We’re addicted to doing. As a freelancer it’s tempting to try and live in a permanent state of spring and summer. But we need our autumns and winters too! Weekends / the odd holiday - they’re not enough! I build rest into my daily life via activities that nourish me: movement, meditation, getting out into nature, painting… Just a couple of 15 minute blocks can make a huge difference!
- Sleep. About GBP 42 billion of productivity is lost in the UK every year to poor quality sleep! If we’re rested properly, we show up fully, and ultimately produce more in less time. I put all my screens away by 8pm, and I’m a huge believer in the power of morning and evening rituals - creating a runway and a landing strip for the day. Yoga nidra - a simple laying-down guided relaxation - is an amazing practice to try if you’re struggling with insomnia. There are loads of free platforms online (I recommend Insight Timer ).
- Reflect. If there’s conflict between our values and our work, it can be a major cause of tension. So I’d always encourage people to take time, regularly, to pay attention to where they’re at and how they feel. I do a lot of good old fashioned pen and paper journaling. Ask myself questions: what are my values? Are they in line with how I’m working / what I’m working on? If not, what can I do to close the gap?
- Retreat. I’m a big fan of a monthly retreat in my own house - seeing what I gravitate towards, when I give myself some space with no tech and no distractions. Noticing the things that I'm missing. And then working out what I can do to integrate those things into my life more.
- Balance: I class work as "anything that creates a demand on my energy" - whether or not it’s paid. To create balance, I invest in and make space for the things that give me energy too. The aim is to keep my net energy positive as much as possible.
Thanks so much Emma! Any final thoughts on freelancing?
I think the huge growth in freelancer numbers, and in disruptive platforms like Choix, which are really opening up the market, already speak to a desire to change the way we work. But if we truly want to solve the biggest challenges of our time, we need to go further. We need to drop outdated modes of working, valuing work and measuring success.
As freelancers, with more control of our schedules, I think we’re in a strong position to lead by example and insist on a new paradigm: one which has space for us to focus on our wellbeing; and where our work is not valued in terms of hours put in, but instead on the quality of output delivered.
And if we want to learn about companies and projects leading the way in regenerative farming, where can we look for inspiration?
Wildfarmed is a fantastic UK brand, and Evergrain - an AB Inbev venture - upcycles spent barley from brewing into high value ingredients. On which The Upcycled Food Association in the US are finding many ingenious ways to eliminate food waste.
Arca Tierra is an incredible project I visited in Mexico. They partner farmers using regenerative practices with top chefs from Mexico City restaurants, and together they design new menus and the plots where the food will be grown. It’s a brilliant example of collaboration and culture shift. Farmers are at the centre, educating the chefs, who in turn educate the diners in their restaurants.
Finally there’s Cacao Source in Guatemala. They collaborate with farms to produce raw ceremonial-grade cacao, and all the seed-processing is done by their women's collectives - they've founded seven to date - which give women a way to earn an working income from home.
Cacao is a really important species in agroforestry, and it’s fantastic to see it being produced in ways that empower and support the regeneration of communities. And as a chocolate-lover, I’m personally grateful that they are providing the proof that we can still have chocolate in a regenerative food system!
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