Net Positive strategies are new wine in new bottles

Last week Verdantix wrote a blog saying that various ‘Net Positive’ sustainability strategies were ‘old wine in new bottles’. I don’t agree. Here’s why.

First, what might we mean by ‘Net Positive’ sustainability strategies? The Verdantix blog says:

These promises of positive environmental and social impact sound quite different from previous aims of “zero negative impact” (Interface, Mission Zero, 1994), “carbon neutrality” (M&S, Plan A, 2007) and “decoupling” (Unilever, Sustainable Living Plan, 2010).

In the past there has been a focus on doing less bad. In the nineties this was often called “eco-efficiency“. Through the 2000s there was a big push on having no negative impact, as symbolised by the phrase ‘Carbon Neutral’ entering (relatively) normal parlance. Companies would ask me: “should we go carbon neutral?”, as if it were the solution to all ills.

Where I would differ from Verdantix is saying that ‘decoupling’ is like ‘zero negative impact’ and ‘carbon neutrality’. The latter two have an absolute – get down to zero.

Decoupling is more complex. It might be relative, so your impact per unit goes down but you have so many more units that the total impact still goes up. It might be absolute, where your impact per unit goes down by so much more than the increase in the number of units that your total impact goes down too. I would argue that absolute decoupling is another way of saying (or of achieving) a net positive impact.

Second, what’s the Verdantix argument? They ask an excellent question:

But do these positively-framed strategies actually represent a change in sustainability management?

They list BT, IKEA, Kingfisher, O2 and PepsiCo launching Net Positive strategies in 2012. They argue that net positive is imply a re-framing of what BT has been doing anyway, and  Kingfisher have set such a long time-scale (2050) that it doesn’t require any change in the current management. Therefore there has only been “a shift in how firms communicate sustainability, rather than how they tackle it” – and this is all old  wine in new bottles.

Why is it new wine in new bottles? The basic answer is: for the ones I know the scale of intent is so large that the company has to change how they tackle sustainability. Incremental changes to their existing strategy and business model will not be sufficient, and they know this.

Now I have to be a little careful what I say here because of confidentiality. Forum has or is  working with all these companies (except IKEA). Plus I helped O2 form their Blueprint.

Indeed all the way back in 2006 I helped the Guardian shape a sustainability vision which included a commitment to explore becoming carbon positive. (You can find out more about their journey on trying to implement that commitment here.)

So, what can I talk about. Well, the Kingfisher website has a nice graphic that contrasting Net Positive with the previous conventional approach. They are not just punting Net Positive into the long-grass. For the rest of the decade they are focussing “on pioneering initiatives that will help us in becoming Net Positive in these areas or making a substantial step towards it.” They have near-term targets and initiatives for all four of their pillars.

Also, the Kingfisher CEO has been very public about the need for a new business model, for example shifting from selling to leasing.

The other sort of change is in who the companies engage and with what intent. You cannot deliver on net positive through stakeholder testing of your CR report. You need to get your suppliers to shift their core practice, and/or customers to shift what they buy and/or collaborate with industry peers on a wider, more ambitious range of topics. The companies I know are doing more of at least one of those things because they need to make net positive happen.

The process of getting to a new strategy and then launching it has changed their approach to sustainability management. It has changed the mindset of many across the organisation, the allocation of resources within the organisation, plus what they are innovating up- and down-stream.

These are not new ideas. All the way back in 1998 McDonough and Braungart wrote a brilliant article in The Atlantic calling for the next industrial revolution to focus on eco-effectiveness, solving the problems at the root:

Eco-efficiency would reduce amounts  [of dangerous chemicals] to meet certain standards; eco-effectiveness would not use a potentially dangerous chemical in the first place.

The need for a product-to-service shift is as old as the hills. The need for absolute decoupling has also been around for a while, and brilliantly articulated by Tim Jackson in Prosperity without Growth.

And it’s not like O2 or Kingfisher were doing nothing and now are suddenly. They’ve been on a journey, which means things evolve over time. The launches are slightly-arbitrary lines in the sand, to signal and commit to a change of intent.

Was communications a factor? Of course: the launches were also done to get coverage, and the positive framing was deliberately chosen to be appealing.

Plus, all these companies now must really deliver. Of course they do. Just talking about Net Positive is just talking. To get back within environmental limits we need lots of net positive delivery.

But to say that these strategies “reflect a shift in how firms communicate sustainability, rather than how they tackle it” or it is “old wine in new bottles” is just a little disingenuous.

Net Positive approaches are new wine in new bottles. They may fail because of poor execution or it’s a poor framing. Net Positive isn’t going to be right for everyone. But these strategies reflect a change in how these companies are tackling sustainability – and should be understood as such.

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