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The new adventurers: de-couplers, zeronauts and net-positives

By Dax Lovegrove, WWF Member · 18th October, 2012
Jacob Surland Flickr
Image: Jacob Surland / Flickr

Many of us often complain about the slow pace of change – the slow trudge towards a green economy – but there are reasons to be excited. So many business plans are getting a real make-over right now.

Just over the last few weeks, there have been some impressively well organised deep dives with companies and many of their staff ready to refresh their raison d’être. It seems re-imagining is all the rage. There is a steady realisation that many businesses will have to reinvent themselves if they want to be around in years to come and I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in various recent corporate explorations.

National Grid brought together about 300 of its staff from both sides of the Atlantic and a few external guests. They embraced the ‘Appreciative Inquiry’ process to ‘discover, dream, design and deploy’ new ideas. I was amazed by the appetite of so many engineers, who truly want to test the company’s boundaries and came up with all kinds of thoughts on how the business needs to move forward and flex to adapt to changing energy systems and disruptive innovations.

    National Grid is a business that uniquely has to think decades into the future and there is an overwhelming sense among teams that although our energy landscape has not changed much in the last forty years, it will change dramatically in the next forty.

The chief executive arrived on day 2 and his initial facial expressions may well have reflected either excitement or nervousness in seeing the direction of travel during the course of this colossal workshop. However, knowing Steve Holliday, it was bound to be the former and his feedback confirmed this.

Talking of a changing energy landscape, retailers are starting to get in on the act, with Sainsbury’s securing one of the largest solar deals in Europe installing photovoltaic panels throughout most of its estate. This is part of its ambitious 20 by 20 plan – a set of commitments that are being tried out and tested among many stakeholders. Sainsbury’s, not content with just its delivery, has taken the bold move in sense-checking the plan with 200 external experts.

Green Mondays (the organisation that provides insights to sustainability professionals) brings ‘the wisdom of the crowd’ to dissect and deliver its verdict on how Sainsbury’s is doing. The company’s more unique articulations around restorative aims, sustainable sourcing and collaborative water stewardship efforts seem to demonstrate they are ahead of many in their thinking.

Fizzy drinks companies are also revisiting their purpose as health concerns gain momentum. Coca-Cola recently convened a group of international staff to look into how it can innovate around the provision of drinking water in ways that inspire a generation of more conscious consumers. The thinking went far beyond innovative packaging and into the potential for new kinds of delivery systems and business models. Who knows where they will end up, but it was very evident that internal teams are prepared to jump into unfamiliar territory.

These increasingly structured and ambitious inquiries suggest we could be seeing the dawn of much more adventurous goals across the private sector. They progress against an emerging backdrop where we see today’s leading sustainability plans beginning to fall into three camps.

There are those that are de-coupling. Unilever aims at growing the business but not the environmental impacts and the likes of both Sainsbury’s and Coca-Cola openly aspire to business growth while stabilising carbon emissions.

The second group are the Zeronauts, described by John Elkington as the intrapaneurs taking their organisations on the challenging journey to reach zero negative impacts. Interface’s Mission Zero has for a long time established its ambition in this space. Others include the likes of M&S, who advised on reaching carbon neutrality earlier this year.

And then there those with ‘Net Positive’ plans. These are the companies such as Kingfisher, who say, we are in the home improvement business and so we can generate positives for our customers that far outweigh any negative impacts of the business, or mobile phone operator O2 – generating customer carbon savings that dwarf the carbon emissions from the company.

Siemens and Ecomaginantion will fall into the net positive camp if their services to low carbon industries and clients outweigh parts of their businesses that could be said to merely support the optimisation of high carbon industries. I suspect they will.

The ‘net positives’ actively drive the green economy. WWF and B4E will explore this agenda further during the Net Zero, Climate Positive B4E summit London conference in November.

This new appetite for adventure, the new breed of sustainability plans and the newly emerging net positives (not to mention the explosion of new green innovative start ups across the globe) make all things possible in the pursuit of ‘one planet’ solutions.

Dax Lovegrove, Head of Business and Industry at WWF. 

This article originally appeared on the WWF blog pages.

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