What makes a "Net Positive” approach and how would your business benefit from it?
Pretty much every week a new report comes out telling us that our attempts to tackle climate change, biodiversity depletion and inequality haven’t been enough, that they’re not making a significant enough difference. Many companies have tried to reduce their impacts on the environment and make a positive contribution to their local communities; but carbon emissions keep rising and the gap between rich and poor keeps growing.
While I was studying for a Masters degree in Business and the Environment last year, I noticed that a number of companies were taking a fresh approach. They weren’t aiming just to reduce the harmful impacts of their business; they wanted to actively create positive change difference; to be, as it were, a force for good. Each company went about it in a different way: some reviewed their entire business from supplier to customer and wanted to make their positive impacts outweigh their negative impacts; others focussed only on their most material impacts, aiming to make a positive difference in the areas which matter most to their business.
With lots of companies taking different approaches, there was a danger that the ambition to actively create good - to be “Net Positive” - would be dismissed as repackaged CSR. So, together with the Climate Group and WWF, we at Forum for the Future decided to bring together a group of the organisations who are leading in this field to agree what it was that made a Net Positive approach different from what has gone before; and more than that, to persuade other companies to take on this approach.
This group, made up of Ikea, Kingfisher, Capgemini, BT, SKF, The Crown Estate and Coca-Cola Enterprises, worked together to agree what the principles of a Net Positive approach are, and to identify the really compelling reasons that would encourage others to take up the mantel.
Taken together, the following principles provide a simple framework to guide the development of a Net Positive strategy, and in so doing, define what should be understood by one. The principles are not fully comprehensive and they are intentionally broad, but they provide a starting place and checklist for organisations that are trying to make sense of the debate for themselves
What is a Net Positive approach? The principles:
The organisation aims to make a positive impact in its key material areas.
The positive impact is clearly demonstrable, if not measurable.
As well as aiming to have a positive impact in its key material areas, the organisation also shows best practice in corporate responsibility and sustainability across the spectrum of social, environmental and economic impact areas, in line with globally accepted standards.
The organisation invests in innovation in products and services, enters new markets, works across the value chain, and in some cases, challenges the very business model it relies on.
A Net Positive impact often requires a big shift in approach and outcomes, and cannot be achieved by business-as-usual.
Reporting on progress is transparent, consistent, authentic and independently verified where possible. Boundaries and scope are clearly defined and take account of both positive and negative impacts. Any trade-offs are explained.
Net Positive is delivered in a robust way and no aspect of a net positive approach compensates for unacceptable or irreplaceable natural losses or ill treatment of individuals and communities.
Organisations enter into wider partnerships and networks to create bigger positive impacts.
Every opportunity is used to deliver positive impacts across value chains, sectors, systems, and throughput to the natural world and society.
Organisations publicly engage in influencing policy for positive change.
Where key material areas are ecological, robust environmentally restorative and socially inclusive methods are applied.
An inclusive approach is adopted at every opportunity, ensuring affected communities are involved in the process of creating positive social and/or environmental impacts.
How would your business benefit from it?
A Net Positive approach is all well and good for society and the environment, but how would your business benefit? How could you persuade your board that this is the right strategy for you? Having a good sustainability strategy will help your business in a variety of ways enhanced reputation, increased sales, cost reduction, competitive advantage through differentiation, engaged staff, supply security and a better licence to operate.
A Net Positive approach goes further, it also:
- Provides opportunities to invest in radical innovations that generate benefits for customers and/or suppliers are created.
- Takes a systemic view and looks further into the future, which opens up space for innovative new products, propositions, business opportunities and sectors. This not only creates competitive advantage and increases commercial returns, but also helps identify current investments, products and markets which are not fit for the future.
- Helps to embed sustainability throughout the business. The scale of a net positive commitment means it cannot be achieved by a sustainability team alone. Integration of sustainability into core business functions delivers the most effective coherence and focus in business.
- Forces the organisation to look beyond its own operations to work to shape the context which it operates in. That means working with supply chains, customers, and the private, public and third sectors, allowing it to make step-change reductions in its impact.
- Develop new relationships with policymakers, customers, staff and suppliers.
- Shores up a secure supply chain. Supply security is enhanced when the organisation does less harm and seeks positive impacts on key natural assets instead.
- Moves the organisation into a leadership space, sending a clear message that it takes sustainability seriously.
The latest environmental and social science have sent business a clear message: you need to up your game. You need to replenish the environment and work to actively enhance local communities. By doing so, your business will reap the benefits of a secure supply chain, innovative products and services and new relationships with customers, competitors and legislators. We hope many more businesses will use the principles to create their own Net Positive approaches. The full report contains the principles, business benefits and case studies of companies that are already benefiting from the approach.
If your company has already made a Net Positive commitment, is close to doing so, or is considering it, please get in touch with Zoe Le Grand at Forum for the Future.