Time for a Net Positive Movement

By Paul Polman Paul Polman, Business Leader, Campaigner, & author of ‘Net Positive'

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, sustainability has been confounding expectations. As more CEOs and world leaders recognize the systemic nature of the challenges we face, it is also rising in importance on the corporate and global agenda. On climate 70% of countries, accounting for around 90 percent of global emissions, now have some kind of net-zero commitment, as do hundreds of big companies and $130 trillion worth of private capital. Social issues such as racial equity and economic inequality are beginning to gain greater attention in more boardrooms. Technology, too, is lowering the costs of sustainable business at a remarkable rate and creating multitrillion-dollar opportunities. 

Collectively, we’re moving, but we’re not moving fast enough. Climate change isn’t linear, it’s exponential: the worse it gets, the faster it goes. Corporate commitments are growing—but are often not enough to help solve what is needed—and the “say-do” gap from both politicians and business leaders is still too wide. Courage is missing from leaders who too often prefer to kick the can down the road by setting, for example, 2050 targets, when the real window for curbing global emissions is really within the next eight years. 

Therefore, in a world where we’re doing more, but even more is needed, how do we as leaders step up to build a private sector that drives higher ambition, directs the best of human ingenuity, all while creating trillions of dollars towards solving our shared problems, and collaborating with government and civil society in radical new partnerships for needed systems change?  

As President Eisenhower said, “when you run into a problem you can’t solve, don’t make it smaller, make it bigger.” Timidity and incrementalism deplete our spirit. We’ll find energy to create solutions when we embrace the scale and urgency of humanity’s challenges. 

Narrow CSR initiatives to make business “less bad” or “do no harm” simply won’t cut it anymore. Imagine, instead, companies that actively leave the world better than they find it. Companies regenerating our planet, renewing our societies, and ultimately find ways to make profit by fixing the world’s problems, not creating them. 

This is the goal of the Net Positive movement. Ambitious, yes. But there is a huge need and appetite for businesses to take responsibility for all their impacts, improve the well-being of all their stakeholders, and operate for the long-term benefit of business and society. Increasingly, companies pivoting towards this model are reaping the rewards by building trust, attracting the best people, unleashing innovation, and securing their resilience and relevance in a fast-changing world.  

No one company is yet to become fully Net Positive, but more are taking on the journey every day. Microsoft has decided to remove from the air all the carbon it’s emitted since the company was first launched in 1975. Walmart has committed to protecting or restoring at least 50 million hectares of land and one million square miles of ocean. BT Group plans to by 2030 have a workforce with a 50% gender split, 25% from an ethnic minority and 17% with a disability. Lush has taken an admirable stand against the social media platforms it believes harm the mental health of its core demographic of young girls. There’s Ikea, Orsted, Schneider Electric, the +70 apparel companies collaborating through the Fashion Pact to, among other things, eliminate single use plastics and shift to regenerative cotton. New coalitions on climate are emerging in sector after sector, including hard-to-abate industries such as aviation and shipping. All helped by the financial markets that are finally beginning to move this way too.  

This momentum is to be seized and accelerated. We need leaders to shift these tipping points. Whether it’s moving our food systems to regenerative agriculture, or shifting our energy systems to renewables, or helping women and girls take up their rightful place in developing economies, change will be driven by a critical mass of leading companies raising standards and accelerating the pace of change for everybody else. Of course, business cannot drive change alone – government must set the right frameworks, incentives, and regulations and civil society has its vital role, too. But the private sector brings speed, scale, and innovation to the mix. By investing in this critical mass of leaders in key sectors, the dominos can really begin to fall.   

The deciding factor will be, ultimately, courage. Every business leader must now ask themselves a simple question: is the world better off because my company is in it? This does not mean setting targets you can get away with but set the targets the world needs. As well as being consistent and transparent about the process. There’s no point having a fantastic carbon target if the company funds politicians who deny climate change. It’s great to create jobs in local communities, but if a business finds ways to avoid paying taxes, it starves those same communities of the cash they need for hospitals, roads, and schools. Leaders must have courage to do the harder right, not the easier wrong. And this will likely mean collaborating with competitors, critics, as well as politicians and civil society to address the big, systemic challenges that cannot be solved alone. 

Easy work? Hardly. This is painstaking work. But the rewards can be tremendous, for business and humanity. Incrementalism and being “less bad” are simply no longer an enduring option for companies and leaders looking to find their place in our complex and volatile world. Better to strive making profit by fixing the world’s problems, not creating more of them.   

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