The Future of Net Positive: Where Next?

The world’s largest telecommunications firm, AT&T, is promising not only to be net positive, but to save ten times the carbon footprint of its operations by 2025.

The concept of developing net positive companies is now common jargon and if looking at the current corporate landscape is anything to go by, it’s becoming more ambitious.

It’s likely that we know already that a net positive approach – that is, contributing more to society and the environment than a company takes out – helps position companies as leaders with a competitive advantage and increased innovation to boot.

And AT&T is feeling these benefits alongside other giants such as Kingfisher, IKEA and Coca-Cola Enterprises (CCE).

Take Kingfisher. The firm calculates that it will save between £45m and £60m a year by 2020 thanks to not just a sustainable but restorative approach to timber sourcing. The multinational retailer wants to help reforest degraded land, boost the quality of standing forests and advocate for policy changes.

Fellow large wood-sourcing retailer IKEA has come up with a ‘forest positive’ strategy, committing to promoting sustainable forestry across the industry, beyond its own needs. It also pledges to produce as much renewable energy as the total energy used in its buildings by 2020, and help customers live better, more sustainable lives.

Meanwhile, CCE has its sights set on being a ‘low carbon, zero waste’ business with plans to recycle more packaging than the 12 billion bottles and cans a year it uses. In a bid to make this happen, the firm has established new joint venture businesses to renovate the PET recycling infrastructure in France and the UK and is teaming up with online open innovation platform OpenIDEO.com to inspire consumers to recycle more.

But how are companies succeeding in their ambitious approach, and what tools and initiatives are available to help them achieve their goals? A report by Forum for the Future, The Climate Group and WWF-UK identified 12 principles for being a ‘Net Positive’ business. Among them are making a positive impact in key material areas (for Kingfisher, alongside timber, it is about tackling energy, innovation and communities).

Another is scrapping business-as-usual for a big shift in approach and outcomes and entering into wider partnerships and networks – think CCE’s innovative collaborations to tackle recycling infrastructure and consumer attitudes to meet its ambitious goals.

Similarly, for AT&T to deliver that ambitious target, it will need to engage with customers, peers and NGOs to drive down emissions and boost resource efficiency.

Positive impacts should be delivered across value chains, sectors, systems, and throughout to the natural world and society. This can be illustrated by IKEA’s focus on helping customers live a more sustainable life at home, as well as creating a better life in general for people and communities.

The principles also point to demonstrable impacts and reporting transparently on progress. So, how do you measure and report on net positive claims?

Enter a cross-sector coalition, the Net Positive Project – launched by global non-profit BSR and Forum for the Future in 2016. BSR’s senior VP Eric Olson describes net positive approaches as “more urgent than ever”. But without a standard way to measure and report, there’s a risk of some “redundant, fragmented, or misaligned approaches.”

The Net Positive Project can help businesses mind the gap by developing practices and tools companies can use to quantify, assess, communicate, and enhance their positive impacts on society and the environment. It’s an initiative that is gathering momentum – and there are more tools and initiatives than ever to help companies join the bandwagon.