What good do you do?

What good do you do?

Last December, the secretary general of the European coal industry association, Euracoal, wrote to members that the coal sector will be “hated and vilified in the same way slave traders were once hated and vilified”.

The letter the secretary general sent to 34 members from 20 countries was prompted by the Paris climate agreement. Its text goes on to say, “You might be relieved that the agreement is weak. Don’t be.”

“The words and legal basis no longer matter,” he writes, since the agreement has created a perception of fossil fuels as 'public enemy number one'.

As a marketer, working for an oil or coal company has to be pretty unattractive right now – on par with the tobacco industry for appeal, according to the post-graduate business students I ran workshops with last year.

Dirty coal or clean slate

But the rest of us needn’t feel too smug.  As I discussed in Know your negatives recently, most of us are promoting products or services that have some collateral damage for people or nature. It might be the energy used in manufacturing and shipping, the built-in obsolescence, the sugar, the packaging, the low wages or our paranoia about wrinkles. But the chances are that someone or something is paying the price to keep shareholders’ profits a tiny bit higher.

It’s an attitude of irresponsibility that is starting to hurt sales. The beneficiaries are nimbler innovators, sometimes called ‘clean slate brands’, as the most concerned people switch their buying to companies that share their values.

While emerging brands and established players are starting to reduce the harm they inflict, the game is already shifting onto a different board.

Towards net positive

In the next ten to fifteen years, the real leaders will be businesses who have a net positive impact – generating profit for shareholders, while also leaving society and the environment better off.

Net positive is described in this video by Gregory Norris of Harvard University’s Office for Sustainability as, “thriving in a way that helps thriving”. 

The approach, which is being covered in depth at Harvard’s SHINE NetPositive Summit 2016 this June, requires that businesses take responsibility for improving the wellbeing of humans and nature. Shareholder wealth alone will no longer cut it. To quote the tagline we developed for the Sustainable Business Network, it’s about “reshaping profit” so that it’s founded on good products and services, rather than less harmful ones.

The area is developing fast and presents enormous opportunities for innovative brands and marketers to lead. As Forum for the Future point out, net positive can’t be achieved by business as usual – it needs creativity.

Some major brands such as BT and Kingfisher have been framing their work as net positive since 2013, if with a somewhat timid scope, as discussed in The Guardian at the time.

Rethinking everything

Some of the most successful initiatives are those that rethink the entire supply chain, such as Interface collecting plastic waste from the ocean and recycling it – one part of their plan to use zero raw materials by 2020. 50% of Interface products are already made from waste – one of a host of impressive statistics, as the business tracks progress towards its goal of eliminating its negative environmental impacts by 2020.

Every milestone they reach not only creates positive PR, like their announcement on 3 May that their US operations are now 96% run on renewable energy, but also has a positive impact by showing others what’s possible.

As Erin Meezan, vice president of sustainability for Interface, said in the announcement, “Getting our factories in Americas to near 100% in renewable energy is a significant achievement – one that is a first for our industry and likely for industry in general.”

This ambitious leadership is absent from Coke’s focus on becoming positive for water, which relates only to their processing plants – ignoring the water used in growing their ingredients. While a small step in the right direction, it’s limited by its purely pragmatic self-interest. If there is a water shortage in a community where a coke factory operates, production can be impaired or the factory closed down, as Coke has experienced and was covered by the Financial Times in April 2015.  Water efficient processing is basic to Coke keeping a social license to operate, and misses the intent of the net positive vision.

A force for good

Writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, the co-founder and CEO of Sustain Condoms, goes further than either Interface or The Forum for the Future, claiming that true net positive requires businesses to take a transformative and ultimately political role to improve society, regulation and failures in our economic system. He says, “business must commit to new operating principles that fulfill the needs of the common good above all else.” He then describes how Sustain are making that happen with a sustainable product and a reforming zeal championing women’s rights.

The Sustain approach aims to follow net positive principles laid out by Corporation 2020. Among the CEOs interviewed by Corporation 2020 was Adam Werbach, then CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi S. In the video, Adam says, “agency people need to say no to being asked to do something that doesn't match their values". The same might apply to all of us as marketers. And we, like Sustain, could also go further – we could lead the brands we manage into creating a better future in which people and nature thrive. Or we could just keep selling bad stuff.  It’s our choice.

Kath Dewar Managing Director GoodSense Learning
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