Net Positive: How a New Frame on Sustainability can Drive the Outcomes We Need

The private sector’s role in sustainable development has come a very long way since the Brundtland Commission defined the concept back in the 1980s. Back then just the notion of corporate social responsibility was a novel, and not widely accepted, idea. But today you would be hard pressed to find a large multi-national that doesn’t have a team directly accountable for social and environmental performance, with more and more setting targets to demonstrate their progress in reducing their carbon and water footprints and human rights risk, among other impacts.

We should celebrate this progress; but in looking to the future, are these reduction goals enough? It is estimated, for example, that half of the world’s plastic packaging will end up in the ocean or landfills even if we get to 100% consumer recycling rates. And we are still projected to miss the urgent and critical goal to limit a global temperature rise to 1.5°C, despite current climate strategies.

When the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were agreed at a historic UN summit in 2015, they served to renew the ambitions set out by Gro Harlem Brundtland and her team, and provided us with a clear – and much-needed – framework to advance sustainable development to another level.

But to achieve the SDGs and put the world on course to a safer, cleaner, fairer future for all, we need to redefine practices in the field – away from incremental, reduction targets and towards absolute, systemic and regenerative goals. A growing number of companies have already started to take this challenge on by committing to give back more to society and the environment than what they take out. This is what the Net Positive movement is all about.

A 21st century solution

Of course, the idea of being net positive – or doing more good than harm – is not new. It’s only been in the last few years, however, that efforts have been made to unpick what having a “Net Positive” approach might mean in a corporate sense, and what a Net Positive strategy could look like for a company.

Forum for the Future’s first foray into the Net Positive world began with WWF and The Climate Group in 2013, at about the same time a number of other organisations were making their own early explorations. Three years later, we joined forces with another global non-profit, BSR, and Harvard-based SHINE to convene the Net Positive Project (NPP), a cross-sector coalition supported by more than a dozen authoritative and ambitious global corporates.

Our goal is to develop a credible and aligned description of Net Positive, supported by a common set of principles and best practices, to help other companies commit to and implement a Net Positive approach within their businesses. As more and more companies, organisations and academic institutions have started to use the term, it has become increasingly important for us to use this initiative to drive convergence on what it actually means so we can push forward the absolute outcomes we need.

Guiding principles

In a busy first year, the NPP has drafted a detailed methodology to support the scoping out and measurement of Net Positive outcomes, and advanced work on a standardised method for developing case studies. It has also formalised four guiding principles that define the Net Positive ambition and which aim to assist companies in devising strategies that go beyond conventional business approaches to sustainability. These four principles are:

Material Focusing on what matters most

Net Positive strategies focus on those social and environmental issues most impacted by a business and its value chain, as identified by internal and external stakeholders on a routine basis. A positive impact or ‘handprint’ in one material issue must not compensate for the negative impact or ‘footprint’ in another material issue

Systemic Influencing change beyond an organization’s four walls

Net Positive strategies catalyse positive change from cradle to grave to positively impact entire social, environmental, and economic systems. These strategies recognize that just addressing a single organisation’s behaviour would not significantly change outcomes to society and the environment. These systems, and their underlying relationships, are dynamic and must be continually reassessed to ensure greatest impact.

RegenerativeCreating positive self-replicating cycles in nature and society

Net Positive revitalizes the natural world, strengthens social communities, and improves individual well-being and strives for long-term positive impact. Net Positive does not cause irreversible damage to the environment, society, or individuals. If new activity resulting from a net positive strategy has any negative impacts to a company‘s material issues, these would need to be added to the company’s footprint hurdle and addressed without irreversible loss.

Transparent Sharing progress honestly

Net Positive requires actions, progress, and measurement that are clear, credible, and easily accessible in communications. Attribution of all material impacts – both positive and negative – must be measurable and demonstrable.

While these principles aim to help set ambition and direction for companies to develop and test their approaches, they will be supported by a practical user’s guide for companies to understand the practical steps to driving a net positive strategy.

Beyond the theory

Net Positive as a business approach is still in its infancy, and so inevitably there is a lot of talk on the theory; but there are also plenty of examples of Net Positive being put into practice.

Fetzer Vineyards has been leading the charge for sustainability in the wine industry since becoming 100% organic in the 1980s, and is the world’s first winery to operate on 100% renewable energy and to become zero waste-certified. Then in 2015 Fetzer’s strategy began to move beyond sustainability and focus on regeneration and restoration; the company set itself the target of becoming net positive by 2030 and joined NPP to help grow the approach into a movement.

“We determined that for an organisation focusing on not just reducing negative impacts, but completely eliminating them and actively creating positive impacts, the ultimate goal would be to get to a point where we have a net positive corporate footprint,” said Josh Prigge, Director of Regenerative Development at Fetzer.

Since then the company has embarked on numerous innovative initiatives. Most recently, it installed a new wastewater treatment system that uses worms and microbes to naturally clean its wastewater to such a high quality that it can then be used to irrigate the vineyards. The winery is even able to harvest the system’s worm castings to use as an on-site fertiliser.

“This is a great example of a regenerative business practice,” said Prigge. “We’re taking something dirty like wastewater and getting two very valuable resources from it, and all the while using 85% less energy than the aeration ponds we used to use to treat wastewater.”

Different types of business will of course have very different Net Positive strategies out of necessity. For IT software giant Dell – one of the earliest Net Positive pioneers and a founding member of NPP – the greatest potential it sees for creating positive impact is through tech, and the relationship the company’s many millions of customers have with its products. So much so that in 2013 the company announced its ambitious 10×20 Goal which aims to create 10 times the amount of “good” through technology compared to the footprint it creates.

“Everything we make and sell is net negative until our customers start using it,” said John Pflueger, Principal Environmental Strategist at Dell. “As a company we want to drive positive outcomes, but we can’t do it by ourselves – we need to focus downstream and get our customers engaged.

“That’s why a major part of our work is about developing deeper and more meaningful relationships with customers, understanding what they’re trying to achieve from a sustainability point of view and how we can help them realise those ambitions. That’s opening up some really interesting conversations.”

Join us

Now into its second year, the NPP is actively looking for more businesses to get on board and help carry the approach into new areas. While these companies and the broader collaboration have made significant progress, we are still exploring many questions – such as the boundaries defining when a company is taking versus giving back, and how such strategies may differ for particular industries and material areas.

If you are a sustainability-focused company looking to scale up your ambitions, increase your positive impact, and contribute to the next chapter of sustainable development, we want to hear from you.

Committing to a Net Positive approach can enable your business to develop a leading strategy that robustly responds to the SDGs and Paris Agreement, and sets it on a path to long-term value creation. Joining the NPP community brings its additional, unique benefits, including the opportunity to tap into insights from those leading the Net Positive agenda today, and thrive off members’ energy and optimism.

For if there is one thing which unites all Net Positive supporters, it is the realisation that it is arguably the most important approach at mankind’s disposal for reversing climate change, restoring the world’s lost eco systems, and creating just and resilient communities.

In short, we believe Net Positive has the potential to become the cornerstone of regeneration. And for everyone involved, that’s a goal worth fighting for.

Sandra Seru
Forum for the Future US
October 5, 2017

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