Can Net Positive Help Inspire a Race to the Top?

February 22, 2016
  • Eric Olson

    Former Senior Vice President, BSR

Among sustainable business leaders, there has been a notable shift toward ideas and approaches that emphasize value creation, rather than the simple management of risk. Why settle for being “less bad” when business can—and, indeed, must—be part of the solution to the world’s great challenges?

Many would say that building a new, sustainable, low-carbon economy will require focusing on small-scale social entrepreneurship and cleantech start-ups, while big business largely works to reduce its negative impacts. But what if this focus on creating positive value for society were baked into the objectives of all businesses—large and small? How might the sustainability efforts of large companies change if they are designed to be part of a never-ending race to the top, rather than a means to “stay out of trouble”?

As it turns out, several prominent companies have already made or are considering what we call “net positive” commitments, or “a way of doing business that puts back more into society, the environment, and the global economy than it takes out.”

BT’s “Net Good” commitments and program were one of the first examples, and they have been joined more recently by a diverse group of global players looking to achieve net positive impacts, either overall, or in specific areas such as carbon and water (including AT&T, Dell, Dow, IKEA, Kingfisher, PepsiCo, and Unilever, to name just a few). Proponents of these programs believe that raising the bar on company sustainability efforts will also enhance innovation, brand value and reputation, and, ultimately, sales.

The need for net positive approaches became more visible and urgent with the adoption of the UN Sustainable Development Goals and ratification of a global climate agreement at COP21 in 2015. Both of these frameworks emphasize the critical enabling role of the private sector in delivering sustainable technologies, products, and services. And many believe that our collective ambition on climate, laid out in the Paris Agreement, will require that we go “beyond zero” and find ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere.

Now here’s the rub: There is no commonly accepted approach to measure and report on net positive claims. As a result, there is a high risk that companies will invest in redundant, fragmented, or misaligned approaches to net positive that waste money, confuse stakeholders, and create conditions ripe for greenwashing.

This gives rise to a question: Can we design and promote a “net positive movement” based on credible, aligned approaches, grow the number of companies making these commitments, and thereby help promote a race to the top that accelerates and scales our sustainability efforts?

We think the answer is yes, but only with an approach that is at once rigorously fact-based and extremely transparent and collaborative. To that end, we are launching the Net Positive Project with a small group of interested companies and likeminded partners at Forum for the Future and Harvard School of Public Health’s Sustainability and Health Initiative for NetPositive Enterprise (SHINE) initiative.

We are in the early design phase of what will be a multilateral coalition of interested parties to spread the Net Positive movement and promulgate a common set of principles and best practices. Current participants include AT&T, Capgemini, The Crown Estate, Dell, Dow, Eaton, Fetzer, Kimberly-Clark Foundation, Kingfisher, and Owens Corning. We are looking to build company participation and also add more nonprofit and academic partners in the coming weeks and months.

For those attending GreenBiz 16 in Phoenix next week, you are welcome to join us for a panel discussion and debate on the promise and peril of net positive

Let’s talk about how BSR can help you to transform your business and achieve your sustainability goals.

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