Sustainability Goes Positive- But What’s New?

A new wave of sustainability strategies has emerged: the net positives. 2012 saw the launch of BT’s Net Good, IKEA’s People & Planet Positive, Kingfisher’s Net Positive, O2’s Think Big Blueprint and Pepsi’s Positive Water Impact. Ahead of the curve, Rio Tinto launched its Net Positive Impact biodiversity strategy in 2008. These promises of positive environmental and social impact sound quite different from previous aims of “zero negative impact” (Interface, Mission Zero, 1994), “carbon neutrality” (M&S, Plan A, 2007) and “decoupling” (Unilever, Sustainable Living Plan, 2010).

But do these positively-framed strategies actually represent a change in sustainability management? BT’s Net Good centres around creating more energy efficient products – not an approach that will necessarily mandate radical change at BT, which has been doing sustainability since 1990. But when framed in terms of helping customers to save emissions equivalent to three times the firm’s own impact, the goal sounds ambitious and exciting. Similarly, Kingfisher aims for all its products to enable an “ultimately net positive lifestyle” by 2050 – language that makes our ears prick up but arguably not a timeframe that will require change by current management.

These ambitious, positively packaged strategies reflect a shift in how firms communicate sustainability, rather than how they tackle it. Positive speaking helps to sell the concept of sustainability but the challenges around delivering results are the same as those faced by firms with strategies to reduce, neutralise and decouple impacts. The saying ‘old wine in new bottles’ comes to mind and corporates need to ensure that they can refute this with positive results.

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