Product, Service & Design Innovation
Collaboration Key to Catalyzing Broadscale Shift to Net Positive

On Tuesday, day 2 of New Metrics ’16, Greg Norris of the International Living Future Institute, Jane Abernethy of HumanScale, John Pflueger of Dell, Johanna Jobin of Biogen and Daniel Aronson of Valutus discussed the next stages of the business world’s efforts to become Net Positive.

By now many of us are familiar with net positive principles and the concept of footprints (our negative impacts on the planet) versus handprints (our positive impacts).

As Norris pointed out, “Handprints liberate us from the self-absorption of our own footprint, while giving us something to work toward.” Footprints constrain the scope of good, while handprints have no limit to the good. Why use a net positive framework? According to Norris, there is something fundamental inside us that wants to be net positive – there is an inherent internal will to give more than we take. This is an amazing topic to be working on; it’s a frontier where creativity, philosophy and new system dynamics are needed.

The panel agreed we need to do more and to do it faster. Out of around 4,000 goals, only 12-20 percent of company’s goals are in line with what science says we need. How do we get moving fast enough? 20 percent is not enough. So how can we scale up net positive? Catalytic change is the answer, and we need to catalyze action internally (inside company) & externally (impacting others’ behaviors).

External catalysts: Catalyzing change in customers, in suppliers, in industry

Pflueger explained that as the chief catalyst for Dell’s Net Positive program, he needs everyone’s help to truly catalyze the program; everything Dell makes is “net negative” until customers turn it on and put it to some positive purpose. Dell’s handprint will be measured by what its B2B customers are able to accomplish with its products. In this sense, Dell is the catalyst working with its (external) customers. The company wants its corporate customers to start asking for more, and to think about their own suppliers, to have a cumulative impact.

Internal catalysts: Internal License to Operate

As Sustainability Officer at HumanScale, Abernethy works to manufacture products that help make the office environment more healthy and ergonomic. But on a deeper level, she is the chief internal catalyst, putting the net positive framework into action and bringing it to life throughout her company.

Norris gave examples of other companies - including Owens Corning and Kohler - that are doing great work catalyzing the net positive framework internally. When Owens Corning adopted Net Positive, people in the company from all aspects of the operation were energized by it and wanted to get involved, from the lowest ranking employee to the highest level. And Kohler is building it into its conservative, very metrics-oriented culture; company leaders are excited because it is unleashing innovation on a huge scale, has fantastic employee engagement benefits, and naturally adds brand value.

Behavior Change

Biogen and the MIT Sloan School of Management (MIT Sloan) have formed a new coalition with Valutus, CSRHub, MIT Sloan Management Review and MIT Press to help broaden influence on others, make it easier for companies to integrate sustainability into their business, and motivate behavior change. One of the ways the alliance will advance organizational sustainability is through the development of an online platform known as SHIFT (Sustainability, Help, Information, Frameworks, and Tools), which will help consolidate and augment the fragmented and often lacking frameworks and tools that address corporate sustainability.

Aronson explained that there are many ways to motivate behavior change to catalyze the net positive framework, and that it helps to understand the different types of human behaviors:

  • Intentional: When we know what we want to change, but don’t know how. We can overcome this through small changes - for example, motivating to exercise early in the morning by setting out clothes the night before.
  • Inertial: When we just don’t make the change because it’s not easy. Brands can motivate change by making positive change an easy thing to do. For example, a hotel group tells customers to put a card on the bed if they want fresh linens. But if there’s no card on the bed, the guest will save water by not washing as often - whereas the other way around, where it’s easy to forget to put a card on the bed if you want to save water.
  • Incidental: When people want something that’s good, and something else comes along with it. For example, you can get a dog to please the kids, but now having to walk the dog helps you get healthier.
  • Invisible: A change that is made without the person even noticing. For example, chefs can retool a menu to have less salt and less fat, and diners will likely not notice.

Going forward – challenges

As Pflueger says, in 2016, the number of things we don’t know about net positive far surpass what we do know, and this is the reason we need to push to do it. Nothing paved, it’s up to us to build the roads and bridges to achieve our collective net positive goals. Net Positive is inspiring and it’s hard work, but “net negative” has not worked to date.

Other challenges that were presented by the panelists include:

  • The need to agree on a standardized definition of net positive.
  • Measurements: There is currently no clear, comprehensive pathway for measuring net positive. To go along with this, there are distributional impacts (ex: how do you measure the positive benefits if they don’t benefit everyone in society?)

The panel left us with a number of key points:

  • We must all serve as individual catalysts within our communities and organizations.
  • We need to work together; Net Positive isn’t valuable to one company unless it’s valuable to several people to work together.
  • Net Positive is not going to be inspiring if the word becomes meaningless; we need to work to prevent it becoming the next buzzword.
  • We’ve built the Net Positive castle in the air, now we must put the foundations under it.
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