Net Positive is here! Use with caution

Net+ is a relatively simple concept: it’s the idea of achieving positive impact, rather than decreasing negative ones. So for example, in Kingfisher’s case, it means actively pursuing net reforestation rather than just trying to prevent deforestation. It’s been described as the next logical step in sustainability (read more in this Forum for the Future blog, or Greenbiz article) offering a vision which will transform businesses. The idea is that by reframing the way businesses think about becoming sustainable – from being ‘less bad’ to finding ways of creating ‘good’ – they will achieve the kind of genuine transformational changes that are required if business is to win the war with sustainability.

Many articles and opinions I have read on the concept of net+ seem to be supportive of the idea, but I sometimes wonder if Net+ is just another sustainable business buzzword which doesn’t really present anything new. ‘Delivering good’ rather than ‘reducing bad’ has been explored before. McDonough Braungart’s book published in 2002 introduces the concept of Cradle to Cradle, also referred to as regenerative design. In essence, it’s the idea of designing products and systems with their entire lifecycle in mind from the onset, getting inspired by nature to ensure that the end life is regenerative rather than wasted. Many of these products and services have a positive impact.

There is, however, room to argue that many sustainability related concepts need clarification or reframing, so perhaps Net+ can allow businesses to grasp these more easily. But in the interest of the next Green Mondays Forum I’d like to offer another view – one where Net+ is not seen as the Holy Grail of business and sustainability. I think it’s worth exploring Net+ from a systems’ thinking perspective. Most examples of Net+ I have come across (e.g. O2 being carbon positive or IKEA being forest positive) tackle single issues, as opposed to whole systems. Defendants of the concepts may argue that businesses have to start somewhere, but the kinds of problems we face today require systemic action. One only needs to look at the unintended consequences of certain initiatives to see that failure to do so can be heavily damaging – exhibit A: biofuels.

Pepsico’s ‘Positive Water Balance’ offers an interesting perspective. I’m first baffled at the fact that a business is able to replenish more water than it uses – which to me, seems like a physical impossibility. And indeed it is, if you look at Pepsico’s water balance across the supply chain. As outlined in this WWF report, Pepsico has achieved a positive water balance in its Indian manufacturing operations but this does not take into consideration the agricultural stage of its supply chain. As such, Pepsico is not water positive. Beyond that and if looking at the even bigger picture (or system in which Pepsico operates), being water positive fails to address the social and societal impacts of its beverages – Pepsico offers no real social benefit beyond business-as-usual. Is Pepsico net positive or net negative socially?

The danger with using Net+ on single issues is businesses use one aspect to promote how sustainable they are, failing to disclose more negative ones. Worse, other equally important aspects of a sustainable strategy become completely ignored.

All of this is not to say that Net+ does not have the potential to be a powerful concept. If used with systems thinking in mind and applied in a systemic way, Net+ starts to become really interesting. This begs the question: how do we get more businesses to do that?


This blog was originally posted on Green Mondays Opinion.


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