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The Next Economy
Sustainability Is Not Enough:
Moving from Earth-Neutral to Earth-Positive

To create real change and avert a climate crisis, we must move beyond earth-neutral and embrace earth-positive — and that starts with your narrative. Here are three ways to ensure that your business, your brand and your ethos are all earth-positive.

Amongst the noise and shock of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it was easy to miss the third installment of the IPCC report, released four days after the first missile strikes. The war has reminded us that our dependency on oil and gas has immediate and tragic geo-political implications today, as well as dire ones for our climate tomorrow.

Without wanting to, Europe is funding Russia’s war on Ukraine; just as we are all inadvertently funding war on our natural ecosystems — the plants, animals and communities we love and need, but seem incapable of not harming.

It can feel like every choice we make — putting gas in our car, eating meat, buying clothes — is a trade-off. The things we like and need have destructive consequences — far removed from our experience, but no less real. This is the conflicted reality of our interconnected world, and it affects all of us at every level of our lives.

The report’s message was clear. We are not on track to reduce our emissions enough to keep warming in check. Goals such as “net zero” and our efforts to build a sustainable world have fallen short, as evidenced by COP26’s failure to move us forward. Within the bleak reporting was the acknowledgement that a livable planet is within reach. Headlines such as “It’s now or never” and “Our last climate warning” set the nature of the challenge. As IPCC Chair Hoesung Lee puts it: “We are at a crossroads. The decisions we make now can secure a livable future. We have the tools and know-how required to limit warming,”

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What we do know: Sustainability is not going to get us there.

By definition, “sustainability” doesn’t offer a path forward. It is backward-looking — based on an unrealistic expectation that if we can just curb production, growth or consumption, we can return our society and planet to a healthier state.

But humans are built to progress; while we might wish for everyone to eat less meat, drive less and buy fewer clothes, this is not a realistic global strategy. Even if today’s super consumers stopped buying so much — history suggests this is unlikely — there are hundreds of millions of people across the world who are just getting started. In addition, the disparity of wealth, health and opportunities in the world means that further growth and development are not only inevitable, but desirable.

The myth of sustainability has prevented us from achieving true and meaningful change by setting an impossible behavioral standard (to restrain the natural human desire for growth) and by creating a false opposition between economy and ecology, where one can only thrive at the expense of the other.

The inevitable conflict has been compounded by the fact that most of the time we were flying blind: We had no idea if any of the sustainable actions we were taking — as businesses or individuals — were having any effect.

Creating a livable future means we must dismantle both of these beliefs and suggest more practical (and pleasurable) alternatives; we must be able to measure the effect of what we’re doing — and we must aim beyond sustainability. The first step is to better understand the impact of our actions. We have entered an era where big data and machine learning are helping us to visualize how complex systems work, and to model scenarios that help us change behavior. We are no longer blind to the systems we inhabit and influence.

Thanks to resources including Sweep — helping companies fully understand the carbon impact of their business — and Sourceful — bringing a more complete understanding of the supply chain so that companies can make better choices about sourcing products — businesses now have the ability to better measure and alter their behavior.

Sustainability sees business as essentially destructive forces; the best we can do is limit their impact to net zero. We, however, prefer the term used by Pangaia: “Earth positive” — that businesses, just like all other living organisms, can be beneficial to the environment they inhabit. While this may feel out of reach, as very few earth-positive businesses currently exist, it is a worthy destination.

Pangaia takes inspiration from nature to completely reimagine how we create our materials: making clothes from seaweed, food waste and flowers; growing dyes from bacteria; producing sunglasses from CO2; and, of course, ensuring all packaging is compostable.

Companies including Aleph Farms and Fork & Goode grow cell-cultured meat that is biologically identical to — and just as tasty as — meat from animals, but involves no death or suffering, and eliminates the need to use land for livestock. Bowery grows vegetables indoors, near to the people who are going to eat them, thus freeing up agricultural land to be rewilded and avoiding the supply chain snarls we’re seeing as lettuce and other perishables are routinely shipped thousands of miles between field and supermarket.

These companies have shifted their focus toward giving people great value that’s good for the planet and for themselves, without telling people that they have to change their behaviors. This is human value and valuable commerce. Each avoids the simplistic ecology vs. economy zero-sum game. Instead of equating economic success with climate disaster, they demonstrate how to deliver increased innovation and growth in ways that have not only earth-neutral but earth-positive impact.

The future needs a constructive mindset — an intentionally constructive narrative focused on opportunities. With that in mind, here are three ways to ensure that your business, your brand and your ethos are all earth-positive.

Make it substantial, not sustainable.

Sustainability has become a business imperative. But most sustainability strategies are designed around reduction, compensation, or some level of siloed offsetting — trying to do “less harm.” Usually, this is because when your business model is built on extraction and other inherently earth-negative activities, no amount of future-facing carbon offsetting will have a positive impact.

The best brands consider their entire value chain — from sourcing, production and distribution to usage and post-use — and embrace earth-positive solutions at each step, seeking always to leverage network effects to create substantial change. This is about designing an entire business around earth positivity, rather than offsetting the impact of your core business. This is mainstream, everyday behavior.

Make it positive — and possible.

Sustainability messaging has typically relied on notions of guilt, duty, and sacrifice; the idea that a diminished experience — decreased quality, higher prices, more inconvenience — is the cost of doing the right thing. Earth-positive behavior is about delivering a better experience without expecting people to pay more for the privilege. This is not about giving people more choices, but helping them live more intentionally. Not every choice has to be a conflict.

Make it easy, enjoyable and rewarding to make decisions that make the world more livable. Brands must make earth-positive purchasing decisions as easy to opt into as the “less-sustainable” options. Focus on desire and happiness, not guilt and guidelines.

Lastly, make it yours.

Every brand’s contribution to climate solutions is unique. Explain what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Draw attention to your innovations within this space. Show how your business is serving the environment and the communities it inhabits.

Be outspoken, be intentional and see your climate journey as one of the most important ways you can stand apart from your competitors. And while your actions may be unique, they can be universally inspirational. Every earth-positive company out there is a challenge for others to move from sustainability to positivity.