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Norman Christopher: Is “Net Positive” the Next Phase for Sustainability?

Companies, organizations, and institutions alike across the private, public, and academic sectors, in many regions such as West Michigan, have all been on a sustainability journey for a number of years. The sustainability journey has gone through various phases including: creating awareness about sustainability; generating understanding about the meaning of sustainability; using the guiding principles and best practices of sustainability in key application areas; determining progress through sustainability reporting; and creating long term value and collective impact for sustainability.

It is in these latter phases of the sustainability journey where the discussion and conversation has now moved. For example, sustainability reporting has gone through several iterations and has continued to evolve as a best practice. Sustainability assessment reporting focuses on developing baseline data and metrics in key performance areas. Sustainability progress reporting looks at the status and improvement in those key performance areas, usually on an annual basis. Typical sustainability performance areas include energy; water; land use; air; waste; transportation; buildings; climate; purchasing; health and wellness; foods systems; community engagement etc. Sustainability progress reporting can provide a thorough understanding of the short term progress being achieved for sustainability, if the right data inputs and outputs, as well as the best metrics and performance measurements, are used to track and monitor sustainability outcomes and targets.

The Grand Valley State University sustainability journey started in 2004, and in 2010 sustainability became one of the University’s core values. Questions started to surface concerning the long term impact of sustainability on our campus and community, and whether collective impact for sustainability could be effectively measured for ongoing sustainability programs and activities. In 2012, the University issued its first collective impact report for sustainability addressing the “triple bottom line” of environmental, social, and economic impact. The Office of Sustainability Practices recently completed its second collective impact report on sustainable development activities for 2015 expressing the long term value creation for sustainability on campus and in the community as greater than $250MM in economic impact dollars.

During the sustainability journey many enterprises and organizations have now begun to look at the collective impact and long term value being created by the use of sustainable development best practices, as well as the generation of short term efficiencies. There has also been a shift underway when using sustainable development best practices in the marketplace from doing “less bad” to doing “more good” using sustainability best practices. Sustainability mission and vision statements for organizations now address the “New Economy” marketplace including desires and aspirations, versus what should be prevented and avoided. All organizations today also now face new operational challenges including: the formation of an inclusive participatory management style that engages stakeholders and shareholders; the creation of radical transparency through communications and reporting; the establishment of sound ethical and accountable behavior; and the provision for equitable service for all stakeholders. (1)

So what’s next for sustainability? How can we see the desired behavior changes we are looking for through continued sustainability leadership and commitment? One area where this behavior change is underway is in the grassroots sustainability journey of waste. The philosophy of “zero waste” uses a life cycle and whole systems approach that maximizes recycling, minimizes waste generation, and reduces overall consumption. (2) Several key companies in the furniture industry, as well as food operations in West Michigan have been leading proponents of and achieved zero waste to landfill operation. The West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum (www.wmsbf.org) has also undertaken efforts to reduce waste to landfill operations for companies as well as residents in West Michigan. Other firms in the construction industry that focus on the design, architecture, and engineering of high performance buildings, as well as companies in the transportation sector, target carbon neutrality goals or having a net zero footprint from carbon sources.

There are now a number of companies that are also advocating for continued creativity and innovation in sustainable development through the adoption of “Net Positive” guiding principles. (3) These guiding principles build upon and go beyond sustainability programs and initiatives that are currently in place and include:

  • Generating positive social, environmental, and economic impact across value chains, sectors, and systems for work being done
  • Developing breakthrough innovation and creativity with high performance products and services
  • Ensuring massive shifts in outcomes and strategies through business as unusual approaches
  • Establishing robust and transparent collective impact sustainability reporting
  • Influencing policy and regulation outcomes at a local, state, and national level; inclusive equity based approaches to affected communities
  • Building of trustful working relationships and cross-sector partnerships

Examples of companies now pursuing net positive sustainability include Coca Cola, PUMA, IKEA, and BT Communications. These companies are raising the bar for all of us!

I wish you the best on your sustainability journey!

Norman Christopher

Director, Office of Sustainability Practices

Grand Valley State University

Sources:

  1. Net Positive: The Future of Sustainable Business, Jeffrey Hollender, Co-Founder, Seventh Generation
  2. www.grrn.org
  3. Net Positive: A New Way of Doing Business, the Forum for the Future