This article by Jeffrey Hollender first appeared in Stanford Social Innovation Review, April 29, 2015

Business efforts must become more sustainable and responsible to turn the tide on social inequity and environmental decay. Net positive is a new standard that can help ensure a resilient and regenerative world.

“Governments no longer govern the world, or even their little bits of it. The nation state—yes, even America and China—has been usurped as the pre-eminent unit of power. Save for extreme outliers like North Korea, all governments now share power in a shaky but so far relatively steady balance with the largest of the multinational corporations. No one has asked us, the public, whether we approve of this new arrangement; it happened while we were busy shopping.”—/TheRules, “One Party Planet”

Forum for the Future, WWF-UK, and the Climate Group have recently articulated a new vision that businesses should adopt to ensure that our planet and its inhabitants have a future that provides the best chance for common well-being. They have called this new standard net positive. While embracing this concept, I believe that we have yet to develop the operating principles and metrics required to fulfill this vision. This article aims to set forth a more robust framework for what I believe we need.

The Guardian described net positive this way: “Businesses have impacts on the environment and society. Some are negative, some positive. For a company to be net positive, the latter need to outweigh the former. To put it another way: The natural world and society should be better off with companies than without them … or so the theory says.”

Less Bad vs. Good

Today, we primarily aspire to decrease pain and inequity, rather than build a world where all have the opportunity to express and experience the full potential of our humanity. Over the last 30 to 40 years, it has become increasingly illusive to describe the type of future we hope for. Today, we primarily aspire to decrease pain and inequity, rather than build a world where all have the opportunity to express and experience the full potential of our humanity.

The context for net positive evolves out of otherwise conscious businesses that aspire to be “less bad” rather than “good,” having fundamentally confused the two. In fact, we no longer know what “good” even means. A “good” future has primarily become the reduction of the most disastrous impacts of global climate change, moving people out of poverty, reducing waste and inefficiency, and mitigating injustice and inequality. In the net positive framework, “good” means regenerative: providing restorative and positive impacts on people, planet, and society. Our increasing consciousness, and the understanding that more and more “stuff” is unsustainable and unfulfilling must drive this process.

At its worst, business rationalizes its goals and behavior around either the fulfillment of legal and regulatory requirements, or the need to maximize short-term economic gains. However, the growth that short-term economic gains requires fails to account for its full impact on people or the planet. The unmeasured negative impact, or externalities, is off-loaded onto the public who pays for them when they breathe polluted air or drink water contaminated by toxic chemicals.

What is currently required of business to ensure that the future provides the planet and its inhabitants with equity, justice, health, and well-being is totally misaligned with the purpose and objectives of the vast majority of the world’s companies. This misalignment is built into the rules that govern business, and has been designed into the very laws, tax codes, and regulations that govern how the game of business is played. These rules often permit and even encourage the destruction of our planet and jeopardize the future of humanity.

Business has argued that to fail to take advantage of these “rules of the game” is to fail to fulfill their responsibility to their shareholders. Because it’s legal, companies hide profits in countries that they don’t do business in, avoid the payment of taxes in the countries they do, pay wages that ensure employees live in poverty, and use corporate funds to wage campaigns that deprive customers and employees of social liberties.

Read the full article here.

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