Counterpoint: Net positive is a move in the right direction

Counterpoint: Net positive is a move in the right direction

As a proponent of the net-positive movement, it’s probably understandable that I hold a different view from that espoused by Kathrin Winkler in "Why I’m negative on 'net positive." I find net positive new and exciting, motivating and inspiring — a vision of sustainability that is not just about mitigating impact, but about creating a culture of restoration and regeneration.

Kathrin and I go way back, so some good-natured disagreement probably doesn’t surprise her. In fact, while I don’t share her cringing, I won’t dismiss it, either. I had a great discussion with Jason Jay of MIT on net positive some time ago in which he expressed the same concerns. There is a connotation with "net" that seems to marginalize negative impacts, assuming the balance is on the black side of the ledger. By focusing on "net," you risk creating the opportunity to excuse or justify negative impacts.

Those of us actively working to understand what net positive can be and how to shape it for social and environmental good share this concern.

Instead of using that as an excuse to focus elsewhere, however, we’ve chosen to tackle it head-on. We’ve been working to understand and, where appropriate, define the guidelines for working on net positive. What does it mean? What can you measure? What do you do about that which you can’t measure? 

By the way, that very "no trade-offs" clause she mentions has been the subject of substantial discussion. My opinion: it’s very context-sensitive.

For some companies, the opportunity to make a difference is aligned with impacts. For companies such as Dell, though, our major impacts and opportunities are not in the same domain. Our biggest impact is the emissions resulting from the energy our customers have to purchase to operate our equipment. Our opportunities? Let’s just say there’s not a single one of the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals where our technology won't play a role.

But how do we know it’s worth it? How do we know that, when you invest energy and emissions in operating our equipment, there’s a positive environmental or social return? Our products require electricity to operate. So, for us, there will always be trade-offs and we need ways to assess those. At the same time, we’re not looking to create a program that absolves us from tackling impacts where and when we can, simply because "the benefits are greater."

No, not everything is quantifiable or directly comparable. And that doesn’t bother or deter me one bit.

As we develop our body of work on outcomes and footprint of IT-based solutions, I’m willing to present our findings, good and bad, to the crowd. I’m willing to put the "measurement" in their hands and ask them, "Given what we’ve found, do you feel we’re net positive — that the good our technology does outweighs what it takes to create and use it?"

And, if they say, "No, not yet," I’m willing to take their assessments to heart to understand what that means we need to do to reach our goals.

By the way, if by some fortunate circumstance they say "Yes, you are," that doesn’t mean we’re done or that we take our foot off the gas. It just leads to the next question: "Knowing what we’ve done so far, what do you think we can do to be better to have an even greater impact?"

“Net positive” isn’t a perfect term, but it does its job in explaining where we’re trying to go. And, if I put my marketing hat on, I think it’s actually kind of catchy. It opens up the much deeper discussion as to what net positive actually means and what it demands of those who aspire to it.

I know it’s clichéd, and as someone with a low tolerance for fluff I normally would balk at this, but I’ll say it anyway: "Net negative" isn’t working. Net negative is where we are today. Our current trend towards making our environment poorer has got to change and doing "less bad" will not cut it. "Neutrality" won’t cut it, either. We need to evolve sustainability’s focus from mitigation and management of impacts to something more restorative and regenerative.

So, Kathrin, I’m going to challenge you. 

Instead of arguing against net positive, arguing over labels, let’s argue over the work, the details. Why don’t you join us? Help us make net positive an inspiring vision that drives action — the right action. Be the voice that points out the potholes and helps guide us through your concerns.

Like I said before, "net negative isn’t working." We need commercial society to aspire to outcomes that point in a different direction.