Much conversation and action for sustainability over the last couple of decades has focused on reducing our negative impact – particularly environmental impacts. But what about the postive impact we actually want to create? Now, a new wave of ‘Net Positive’ leaders are looking to see how they can increase their overall positive impact to the economy as a whole.

This is a radical shift in mindset, and requires a major reworking of strategy. Ben Kellard – who leads Forum for the Future’s work on transformational strategy – puts forward the case for Net Positive leadership, and describes what this means for businesses, and crucially, how to begin.

What impact do you want to have?

One major source of impetus towards a Net Positive future is the Sustainable Development Goals: the set of 17 ambitions that were adopted by world leaders in 2015, offering all sectors for the first time a common framework for transformation. These aren’t just a useful communications tool for framing existing corporate action, Kellard observed: they actually call for a step-change in the role of business in developing a resilient economy. He referred to the flagship report of the Overseas Development Institute which says that five goals call for a complete reversal in current trajectories – if we are to reduce inequality and the growth of slums, combat climate change, reduce waste, and protect marine environments. 

A traditional approach works from ‘Inside Out’: business leaders consider first what is of importance to the business and to its stakeholders. It is a reductionist stance, looking at the organization’s goals in isolation. This approach usually results in incremental steps that maintain the status quo.

Kellard calls for an ‘Outside In’ approach: first businesses need to look outside, at what the world needs – drawing on frameworks such as the SDGs, or the 5 Capitals, or The Natural Step. Then they work back to discover what its role is in delivering this future – by mapping the key systems they rely upon, and the relationships and dynamics within them. This puts into sharp relief both the gaps and risks as well as the unmet needs and opportunities to deliver that future. Finally, the organisation can identify its focus areas and role in creating the transformative impact required. Where can they innovate products and services? Who do they need to collaborate with? What supporting infrastructure can they help to build to enable full market transformation? What new technologies will help to transform the system as a whole? These questions will lead them to a new purpose, new targets, new ways of operating, new business models.  

How many companies are ready to embrace such an agenda? Fifteen major global players have joined the Net Positive Project as founding members: among them Kingfisher, Levi Strauss & Co, and Capgemini. They are working towards a world where companies drive financial success and create ‘Net Positive’ impacts by putting back more into society, the environment, and the global economy than they take out – supported by a number of organisations, including Forum for the Future and Business for Social Responsibility.

For example, Kingfisher has taken a lead in setting out a Net Positive strategy, which includes the aspirations to create more forest than it uses towards the goal of global net reforestation, support consumers to generate more energy than they consume, enable net positive lifestyles and develop skills in the communities where it operates. To build such a strategy, Kingfisher looked ahead to the year 2050 – the sort of timeframe Kellard says is required for such a degree of transformation, and at such a scale.    

Mars is another example that Kellard highlights. While the company hasn’t yet set out a Net Positive strategy, it has looked at the Stockholm Resilience Centre’s nine planetary boundaries(land use, freshwater use, biogeochemical flows and so on), and asked what these boundaries mean for them. This resulted in a new strategy for sustainability, which includes targets such as zero net growth in land use across its value chain, and then looks beyond the language of ‘zero’ to positive aspirations such as soil health, community regeneration and climate smart agriculture – as part of its ‘Sustainable in a Generation’ plan.

Looking out – both to the long-term future and to the extent of the planet’s resources – helped Kingfisher and Mars find their focus areas, identify opportunities and set goals within them.

Questions have been raised as to what obstacles might be keeping businesses from embracing a Net Positive agenda. The scale of transformation required can be an inhibiting factor, said Kellard, as well as knowing where and how to begin – and, of course, in the face of the immediate pressure of providing shareholder returns.

Conversely, what supporting factors are helping businesses make a start? Stories of transformation are beginning to emerge and inspire leaders to look at their future differently, as well as transparency around current impacts and dependencies.

Here’s one thing that’s becoming clear. It’s a peculiar kind of ambition that’s required: not one that sets a firm target and moves unblinking towards it, but one that is sensitive to a continually shifting landscape, and humble in recognising its own fragility in this context, as well as its potential force. 

This article was written by Anna Simpson from leading sustainability non-profit Forum for the Future and was originally published in October 2017.

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