Going Net Positive

22nd June 2016

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Corporate sustainability needs to be more than just being less bad.

We’ve seen the decouplers, those businesses who are making great strides in growing their business, but not their environmental footprint. There are then the zero-noughts, a term coined by corporate sustainability expert John Elkington for those businesses who are going for zero: zero waste, zero carbon and so on.

But the Paris agreement, the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the race to decarbonise for a 1.5˚C future have clearly demonstrated that simply aiming for net zero isn’t good enough. The bar for corporate sustainability needs to be raised higher than it’s ever been before.

What is Net Positive?

All around the world, companies of all kinds are beginning to make commitments which require them to shift from being less bad, to becoming ‘Net Positive’ – putting back more into their social, environmental and economic operating contexts than what they take out.

This means going beyond reducing one’s own impact to help improve the footprint of one’s customers, supply chains, and the wider system as well. Take for example US telecommunications company AT&T’s Connect to Good approach, which aims to enable carbon savings ten times that accrued by their operational footprint by 2025 by improving their network and delivering better solutions that help customers make more sustainable choices.

While the momentum around the concept has been steadily growing, to date there are no commonly accepted ways for companies to measure and report on their claims of net positivity. This suggests a risk that companies could invest in redundant, fragmented, or misaligned approaches.

To fill this gap, Forum for the Future and BSR, together with Gregory A. Norris, co-director of the Sustainability and Health Initiative (SHINE), have brought together a coalition of organisations including AMD, AT&T, Capgemini, the Crown Estate, Dell, Dow, Eaton, Fetzer Vineyards, HPE, HumanScale, the Kimberly-Clark Foundation, Kingfisher, Kohler, Owens Corning and Target. These forward-thinking organisations have all made or are working on ground-breaking commitments to become Net Positive, and are calling on other businesses to join them in doing so.

Launched at the Sustainable Brands San Diego event earlier this month, the Net Positive project will aim in its first year to establish defining principles; develop a commonly agreed methodology to scope, measure and communicate Net Positive initiatives; and create a standardised approach for case studies describing how products and services contribute to social and environmental progress.

Lessons learned

Together with our partners, we have explored the Net Positive concept for a number of years, and we’ve learnt a lot along the way.

  • The first step on the Net Positive journey is a mind-set shift. Changing the narrative from one of minimisation here and doing less bad there, to creating a Net Positive impact, unlocks untold ambition, and is a brilliant stimulus for innovation.
  • Working together. Issues such as water scarcity cannot be solved by one organisation alone, and collaboration is the key to addressing these complex issues. Oddly, collaboration is less common in the NGO and academic worlds than among corporates. That’s why it’s been so important to create Net Positive as an inclusive umbrella movement, not an island. Collaborating first with WWF UK and the Climate Group, and now with BSR and Greg Norris from SHINE means that we are accelerating the overall pace of change, not slowing it down.
  • Trade-offs cannot be tolerated. Creating a positive impact in one area is not an excuse for ignoring a negative impact in another.
  • Metrics have their limits. Of course it is important to be able to measure impacts, but sometimes these impacts can’t be described with off-the-shelf methodology. At this point, pragmatism and the 80:20 rule – that management needs to focus on the vital 20% of activity that results in 80% of one’s outputs – needs to kick in.

Net Positive really could be the means by which we accelerate progress towards the SDGs. In five years’ time, we want to see a critical mass of hundreds of organisations making new Net Positive commitments, and successfully executing Net Positive initiatives that deliver real value to the environment and society. Our vision is for Net Positive to set the new standard for corporate responsibility, becoming a credible, standard way for companies to quantify, assess and enhance their overall impact.

In order to make this vision a reality, we need more companies that are up for the challenge: to not simply do less bad, but to set their sights on becoming the corporate heroes that lead the way towards a more equitable business future. If you have already made your own Net Positive commitments, are considering making them, or you are interested in the concept, we would like to hear from you.

Find out more about the Net Positive Project on www.forumforthefuture.org, or get in touch at [email protected].

Zoe le Grand, principal sustainability advisor, and Sally Uren, chief executive, Forum for the Future


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