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Sustainable Futures

Net positive: Revolution, not evolution

A novel concept has been doing the rounds of the sustainability world in the last few years and gradually building momentum: “net positive,” or the idea of a company leaving the world a better place than it found it.

This concept is music to the ears of sustainability practitioners frustrated at both the pace of change and inherent challenges of explaining what they do.

Put together, the words net positive make more intuitive sense than sustainability. The phrase is easily graspable.

In that sense, net positive is not just great for the planet, but has the added bonus of being good news for anyone struggling to explain the concept of sustainability — and all its associated baggage — to internal and external audiences.

We could be onto a win-win here.

At Forum for the Future, along with WWF and the Climate Group, we’ve been coordinating a group of companies (including Ikea, BT and Kingfisher) and other organizations in order to help bring clarity to this emerging term and create a set of underpinning principles.

We set these out in a report (PDF), alongside some case studies from these pioneers of the approach. We know that one company’s version of net positive can be different to another. But clear and consistent measurement and reporting will help us all see how to make the most impact.

We’ll be publishing some guidance on this July 28, which will help organizations identify key measurement areas and questions, and stimulate debate and practical action.

That's all well and good, but should all companies now be speaking in these terms? Put another way, should we just ditch sustainability and get on with it?

A successor to sustainability?

The short answer to whether net positive business models could prove a viable successor to the concept of sustainable business is yes and no.

First, the yes argument. The idea behind net positive is that of restorative capitalism, and a view that sustainability is not enough given the destruction to which we have already subjected the planet and its eco- and human systems.

If we just sustain where we are now, given population growth, we will still find ourselves within a couple of decades facing crippling natural resource scarcity and runaway climate change.

The science tells us that the need is not just to stop the loss of ecosystems but to start restoring natural capital: improving water quality, taking carbon out of the atmosphere, reforesting and so on.

Some of this will need to be driven by governmental action at regional, national and international levels. But there is a role here for corporations and business value to be found through innovations that allow you to become a thriving business while making a positive contribution to society and the natural world.

So net positive is the direction we need to be taking, and in order to achieve these lofty aims we need the net positive movement to achieve real scale.

That’s why it’s so exciting to see the idea taking off, with more companies using it and thinking about what it can mean for them. In the last few months we’ve seen the concept discussed at conferences, had companies expressing interest in joining the group, and we’re optimistic that we could be at a tipping point.

But — there’s always a but — here’s the logic for the “no” vote that I mentioned above.

This is a critical moment in the path to restorative capitalism. It’s very important that as we reach scale the term does not get watered down and become a catch-all for incremental change and business-as-usual with a tinge of green.

One appealing aspects of the term net positive is its communicability. But an easy-to-grasp headline is not the whole story.

Behind the idea of net positive approaches are radically different ways of doing business that will play out over the long-term.

Making commitments is the first step on the journey, but the real work is in innovating to meet those targets and making a real difference on the ground. Kingfisher, for example, expects to be hitting its positive targets in the mid-2020s, not in the next few years.

“Increasingly, companies will be asked — by activists, investors and others — to provide the scientific rationale for their sustainability goals,” GreenBiz Executive Editor Joel Makower wrote in a piece outlining this year’s State of Green Business Report. “As they are, companies could find that for all their good intentions, commitments and achievements, they’re simply missing the mark.”

The net positive movement has the potential to be a real game changer: Capitalism as a restorative, rather than a destructive force, with goals tied into what the science tells us we need to do.

As more companies come to grips with the idea of net positive and we do start to reach scale, we need to keep sight of that central ambition and hold one another accountable for hitting goals. We don't want net positive to be reduced to another failed slogan.

The good news is that we think companies are up for it. Do let us know if you want to join the movement.

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