Why I’m negative on 'net positive'

Getting Real

Why I’m negative on 'net positive'

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The phrase "net positive" makes me cringe.

At a human rights conference last year, one audience member opined that businesses should not be allowed a voice at the table because it’s only a force for evil. I looked at his branded clothing, industrial backpack, cell phone and laptop and wondered what world he lived in.

Businesses add huge value at both micro- and macro-levels, and are carrying much of the water for the failures of public policy. Businesses succeed by gaining the trust of their customers, employees and investors — and that, in turn, depends on their playing a positive role in society.

No, "positive" is not the problem. It is the "net" that is raising the antennae of an increasing number of investors, academics and practitioners.

Identifying a company’s contributions to society makes sense. So does measuring the outcomes, both to validate their theories of change and to challenge themselves to do better. Not only does it make sense for companies to pursue positive impacts from their products and practices, it is essential for a just and sustainable society. But few companies are truly able to measure outcomes. Most measure activities, leaving their theories of change implicit and unconfirmed.

It’s understandable: Measuring outcomes is extraordinarily hard. For one thing, a single company is seldom the sole causal factor for a given change. And it’s difficult to know what’s an actual outcome and what isn’t. For example, if you’re focused on education, is the outcome the number of kids enrolling in school? Or the percent graduating? Test scores? Or an increase in productive use of the education (goodness, how do you measure that?).

Does that make it hard to track year-over-year progress? Yes. But aren’t actual outcomes even more important?

I should note that I’m not a huge fan of the "you can’t manage what you don’t measure" trope; at least, not of the implication that the ability to measure should be the litmus test for whether something is worth doing. I fit more into the "not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted" cohort. Or, at least, not everything that counts should be counted.

I mean, really — would you tell your kids not to be kind, respectful or polite until they have a suitable survey instrument to be able to prove they’re on an upward trend?

Yes, meaningful measurement is a huge challenge. How much harder, then, is it to reduce the outcome to some common currency such as dollars, or metric tons of CO2 equivalent, or kilowatt-hours? Are you really comfortable with treating societal well-being as a commodity? If you haven’t already, please consider reading Michael J. Sandel’s "What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets."

Of course, measuring the net flow of something makes sense, if the inputs and outputs are truly fungible — that is, they are functionally equivalent and can be fully substituted for one another.

This is the case in net-positive-energy buildings, for example. Carbon dioxide emissions, too, are fungible insofar as one ton of greenhouse gases emitted in New Jersey goes into the same atmosphere as one emitted in Chad. (It should be noted, though, that they are really only equivalent if the emissions and reductions are essentially concurrent. This is why many companies have backed off the idea of being "net neutral." While they are still planting trees for long-term sequestration, they are also aggressively seeking near-term reductions in their own emissions.)

But how can one draw equivalency between improving health outcomes and, say, working hours in the supply chain? Articulating connections between education and resource depletion makes sense, but improving access to education does not compensate for nutrient exhaustion in the soil.

"Net" is the amount left over after you’ve deducted the outlay from the gross. Greenhouse gas emissions, human rights abuses, pollution — these are not "outlays" or the cost of doing business. They are transgressions to be corrected irrespective of a company's positive contributions. They are not weights on a scale, neutralized by stacking good deeds against them. Simply put, good and bad do not lend themselves to arithmetic.

Forum for the Future says, "No trade-offs." But why, then, call it "net," if not to imply some form of offset? Call the positive impacts something else — "business positive" or "on the other hand" or "things we’re proud of" or "positive impacts." For heaven’s sake, just don’t call them "net"!