Net Positive - one concept, three frequently asked questions

Just over a month ago, in collaboration with The Climate Group and WWF-UK, Forum for the Future published the first attempt yet at defining the principles behind Net Positive, as well as the business benefits.  The report is the initial output from these three NGOs, plus a group of brave businesses who have either made a commitment to be Net Positive, or are about to, and include BT, Capgemini, Coca-Cola Enterprises, The Crown Estate, IKEA Group, Kingfisher and SKF.


There are 12 principles in all which describe a Net Positive approach. For me, the most important is the principle to make a positive impact in key material areas, or the areas where the organization can have the greatest impact within and beyond its direct boundaries.  This means, for example, as a retailer, not focusing on carrier bag use.  Then there’s a requirement for a big shift in approach and outcomes; business as usual just won’t cut it. This is linked to the requirement for organisations to invest in innovation in products and services, enter new markets, works across the value chains, and in some cases, challenge the very business model they rely on. There are also some non-negociables; most critically no aspect of a Net Positive approach compensates for unacceptable or irreplaceable natural losses or ill treatment of individuals and communities.  Ancient woodland, for example, can’t be replaced with newly planted monocultures.


The report is the beginning of a conversation, and has prompted many questions, both from the sustainability and wider business community.  Here are the three that crop up the most.


1. Isn’t Net Positive just Repackaged CSR? PR Puff?


No. For three reasons. First, and critically, the ambition levels within NP are much higher than standard CSR.  Net Positive goes further than minimising, further than decoupling – the intention is to restore, to create a net positive impact. This level of ambition unleashes innovation, and can create transformative change.  The ambition levels within NP take us much further than the incremental shuffling steps associated with many standard CSR programmes.


Second, because the ambition is so high, the entire business needs to be involved.  Unlike some CSR, which is still dealt with by a separate department on the periphery of the business, striving for Net Positive requires integration in all aspects of the business. It needs the entire senior management team to get involved.  I was in Turkey last week where one of my tasks was to visit the MD of Kingfisher’s business, Koçtaş, who are now working through what NP means for them in their market. They are very clear the central group can’t do this for them. As the number one DIY retailer in Turkey, delivering Net Positive could make a real impact in Turkish retail.


Three. Being Net Positive requires system thinking.  It requires a business to understand its role in the wider system, and work to create the conditions in which it will be successful.  Being Net Positive requires a business to think way beyond its direct impacts, and will require addressing some systemic barriers to sustainability, from a lack of enabling policy to lack of consumer pull.  The Net Postives will also need to be very deliberate about the change interventions they make. The scale of the challenges we face require some serious systems thinking. CSR as usual is not systems-driven; more often than not compliance is the main driver.

2. How on earth can you demonstrate a Net Positive Impact?

This is indeed hard.  Whilst we can already measure aspects of a business’s positive impact, particularly around carbon, demonstrating a net positive impact when it comes to areas such as forests and water catchments is not straightforward. What is the appropriate baseline? What are the appropriate units?  What are the appropriate boundaries?  Developing case studies which include hard metrics is the next task for the Net Positive group.  In the meantime, I would urge NGOs and businesses alike to not be too distracted by the inherent difficulties in getting the metrics right. I refer you back to the ambition point above. This is what is most critical.  Getting lost in the numbers can often mean losing sight of what it was that you set out to do in the first place.


3. How can I get involved?

Easy. Take your existing sustainability strategy and test it against the principles. Consider changes to your current strategy as a result.  Tune into our webinar on June 19th. We are currently working through the next steps for the Net Positive Group with our NGO collaborators and the original seven businesses. Get in touch and we can share these next steps.


A final word. We know the current corporate response, in its totality, to the challenges we face is inadequate. Net Positive offers business and others a way to turbo charge ambition levels; to rebuild nature’s dwindling assets and rebuild social capital, in a way that delivers value, today and tomorrow. Net Positive could drive a truly restorative economy.


Written by Sally Uren, Forum for the Future

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