The business world has seen environmental action start with compliance, then to “beyond compliance,” stretch goals, measuring sustainability, measuring net zero, and now to “net positive.”
I can remember at a very early age, around 8 or 9, watching my parents haul the big green trash can to the street every week. It was filled with big, black, plastic bags of uneaten food, flyers from the mail and packaging. Lots of single use packaging.
The trash truck stunk, a special kind of wretchedness — a stiff mix of sweet, sour and spoiled. On really hot days, it would often leak and dribble out a wake of foul liquid that would make me gag. And it would linger in the streets where I played, sometimes for days.
I had travelled to California, Florida and other “far away” places – far enough for me to know that there were thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of similar streets on which people were doing the same thing. Using something once, or not even at all, bagging it up and putting it out to go “away.”
I knew “away” meant the landfill, and I had seen and smelled one. I can remember specifically thinking, “This cannot go on forever.” There was no “or else” end to the sentence. I just knew it was the truth. A moment of clarity.
Little did I know then that landfills belch out huge amounts of methane that contribute to the warming of the earth and the changing of our climate. That single use packaging also has significant embedded emissions. That unused food contains a massive amount of emissions in the value chain. And so on.
At a 2005 conservation symposium hosted by the Georgia Conservancy, I had the great pleasure to hear Amory Lovins
, Paul Hawken
and Ray Anderson
speak. Ray spoke of the moment that he understood sustainability, when he read Paul Hawken’s book, The Ecology of Commerce,
and it pierced his heart — in a positive way. He changed, and his business changed. A mid-course correction.
I think we all have those moments where the veil is lifted, and we see the world for how it truly is with its many imperfections. Often, taking action is difficult, troublesome and messy. The business world has seen environmental action start with compliance, then to “beyond compliance,” stretch goals, measuring sustainability, measuring net zero, and now to “net positive.”
There are various definitions of what this relatively new term means. Andrew Winston and Paul Polman’s upcoming book, Net Positive: How Courageous Companies Thrive by Giving More Than They Take, defines net positive as “putting more into the world than you use.” Forum for the Future and its Net Positive Group defines it as “putting back more into society, the environment and the global economy than you take out.” I define it as “through your business, making the world measurably better (financially, environmentally, socially).”
For ten years I have served as project manager for the PivotGoals.com database, which tracks the ESG goals of the Fortune 250, other leading companies and now cities. In the past year, we compiled the publicly available goals directly linked to “net positive.” As of June 2021, we found 202 companies with 370 net positive goals.
That is good news. But we have a long way to go in this shared journey. There are tens of thousands of large companies and hundreds of thousands of mid-sized and small companies. We need all of these companies on board. We need more “pierce the heart” moments. And we need more action.