Net Positive: What is it and what can it do for me?

Making the Case for a ‘Give More’ Sustainability Strategy

Encouraging culture shift within business is a long-term challenge on our journey towards a sustainable future. Recently a new school of thought has emerged termed ‘Net Positive’ which promises to help us tackle this issue. I sat in on one of the SBLondon break out sessions to find out what it entails, what it can do, and how we can use it to create restorative, future-proof brands.

Kingfisher's Sustainability Startegy. Image credit: WeAreNeo

What is net positive?

At its core ‘Net positive’ is about putting more back into the world than you take out. Using the more approachable language of traditional business, Sally Uren of Forum for the Future, described Net Positive in terms of five forms of capital present in the world around us. She explained that if Natural, Human, Social, Manufactured & Financial capital were divisions of an actual highstreet bank, “it would have needed bailing out ages ago.”

Natural capital available in our economy is now perilously low. Stocks of some finite resources are running close to empty and many renewable assets are struggling to keep up with demand. Financial capital is being drained by austerity measures, and Human capital is dwindling as frustration over social inequalities threatens to boil over into widespread anger.

Our imaginary bank would have collapsed because our current policy of ‘do less harm’ simply reduces our outgoings rather than putting any assets back in. For Sally and Forum for the Future, Net Positive means putting back more than is necessary to balance the books and starting to rebuild our reserves.

Dax Lovegrove of WWF UK, also attacked the ‘do less harm’ strategy, pointing out that whilst consumer technology is getting ever more efficient, the sheer rate at which consumption is growing more than accounts for any savings we might make.

For him Net Positive is about moving sustainability beyond impact reduction, beyond ‘Zeronaughts’ and towards more Disruptive Innovation that does-away with the short-sighted horizons of mitigation strategies altogether.  Dax cites B&Q as an example of a brand that has embraced the disruptive innovation model by launching a range of micro-renewable home-generation products that have the potential to generate more energy than their consumers actually require. As a result, when B&Q reaches its target of zero carbon emissions from electricity in 2023, its net impact on power-generation will be positive, effectively reducing our dependency on conventional power stations.

B&Q One Planet Home Campaign

What’s in it for me?

Giving back may be an admirable objective, but many brand managers will naturally ask themselves how such a strategy stands to enhance their business. ‘Where’s the corporate benefit? What’s the advantage for us?’ Becky Coffin, Head of Strategy and Performance and B&Q’s parent brand Kingfisher, was on hand to give us an insight into the key factors motivated their shift to a Net Positive approach –

  • Net Positive objectives are core to a healthy business. Whether your brand manufactures products or provides a service, your business relies on the long-term availability of materials and the future health and prosperity of your customers, suppliers and employees.
  • ‘Do less’ can be a depressing corporate objective. ‘Give more’ is a positive goal that helps to create an environment where innovation and creativity can flourish. A brand that regularly asks themselves ‘what else can we fix’ is likely to be better prepared for future challenges.
  • Consumers demand it. There is growing evidence of a shift in our economic landscape towards more mindful consumption. According to a recent Yougov survey “80% of consumers believe it’s “now more important than ever for businesses to give something back”, up twofold from last year. [Can’t locate Yougov survey based on what Becky said – have contacted to ask]
Net Positive in Action

So how do we implement a ‘give more’ sustainability strategy? Graham Seabrook, Business Transformation manager for BT, talked us through the practical steps brands can take to harness the benefits of Net Positive –

  • Understand your footprint. Look beyond your immediate operations and trace your impacts through your entire business ecosystem. Don’t be afraid to seek academic, scientific and technical expertise from outside your existing knowledge pool.
  • Chose your focus. Net positive means different things for different types of business. Some brands choose to address impacts that offer the greatest potential for improvement; others choose to focus on the top environmental priorities of their consumers.
  • Take it bit by bit. Long-term brand objectives can often extend well beyond your period of oversight. ‘Bank’ your progress by regularly sharing your achievements. This can help your business to keep up internal momentum.
  • Get stakeholders on-side. Resist the urge to put sustainability first. State the benefits to consumers and investors in their own language. How does a Net Positive approach help them reach their pre-existing goals?

To conclude the breakout session, a question from the floor asked the panel to consider how pioneering brands could stimulate a Net Positive approach across other companies in their market segment.  According to Dax Lovegrove the answer is simple-

“Create a better, net positive brand and begin pinching their customers”

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