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NET POSITIVE CONCEPT / 16 Jan 2018

Blog: A new way of thinking aims to reduce the environmental footprint of companies by increasing positive impacts

What if we were to stop talking only about lessening or avoiding negative effects and started thinking about company responsibilities more holistically?

This is what the net positive approach aims for. Because it is still very rarely applied in Finland, we at Pöyry wanted to highlight the concept through some case studies. We used the net positive concept as an approach to explore circular economy and recycling in the studied companies, because we believe that implementing these concepts makes production and other business operations significantly more sustainable. We want to encourage companies to develop in their various areas of responsibility, and the net positive approach is just the right way to go forward with this.

What does net positive mean?

The net positive approach starts from the idea of doing less harm and more good, and takes the pursuit of responsibility to a new level.

In addition to reducing and preventing new negative impacts, the aim is also to amend damage that has already been caused –as a whole, to reduce the environmental footprint– and to produce a positive effect, i.e. to increase the handprint of the company. One example of doing more good is to help others reduce the negative impacts they cause. The target is to do it so that when comparing overall caused positive and negative impacts, the net gain is positive.  

The net positive approach makes it possible for companies to present and to assess both the positive and the negative impacts of their business activities as a whole, and to set concrete targets as well as present actions to improve their operations towards a more net positive direction. This promotes at the same time the realization of the circular economy as the circular economy and net positivity are strongly interlinked. The basic idea of the concept of circular economy is to utilize natural resources and materials as efficiently as possible - thus producing as much good as possible - and at the same time to minimize or prevent caused negative environmental impacts by for example minimising the amount of waste from operations. Pursuing net positivity in business operations can create new business opportunities if companies for example make better use of generated waste and side streams. This is also essential in a circular economy.

Often it is easier to start pursuing net positivity in for example a few areas of responsibility and for certain processes or fractions. To be net positive, a company must strive for an overall positive impact in the most relevant areas of responsibility for its operations. This way it is possible to gain maximum positive impacts with the least effort. Negative and positive impacts are always assessed separately. The impacts also have to be assessed separately for each area of responsibility.

Why pursue net positivity?

We also thought at first that this is just another trendy new concept for supposedly saving the world. Fortunately, we saw beyond that and realized we were wrong. The net positive approach allows companies to integrate responsibility as part of company strategy and business more easily and deeply than conventional responsibility efforts do. Net positivity is a business based approach.

It is possible to do good for the environment and the society while at the same time doing reasonable business decisions and profitable business.

By cutting costs and streamlining operations, a company can cut down on its use of non-renewable natural resources. New innovations, which play an essential part in the net positive approach, can in turn create new business or boost current activities, and at the same time create more environmentally friendly technical solutions. By pursuing net positivity, a company can stand out from the crowd and gain a competitive edge. The approach also helps to reduce reputational risk.

Net positivity and the three case studies

To study the net positive approach further we chose three case companies that represent different industries with different environmental impacts. For Fazer’s Finnish production, we had a look at generated waste and side streams as well as energy and raw material consumption. In case Lemminkäinen we focused on the recycling of asphalt and procurement of materials for paving activities as well as energy consumption in asphalt stations. With Fingrid we explored power transmission project’s potential to increase biodiversity.  

The study demonstrated that the three case companies are currently carrying out a lot of activities that support net positivity. Also many of the set targets support their development towards a more net positive direction. However, the study also highlighted a new, more holistic approach for assessing impacts. While studying the case companies, we recognised a need for a systematic approach to genuinely assess impacts as a whole and to achieve  the best possible outcome concerning the environment.

Pöyry worked with the case companies to develop a way to implement this new concept that shifts the angle of view from reducing and preventing negative impacts towards creating more and more positive impacts through operations, both for the company and for the environment. The study also recognised a potential for companies to reduce their environmental footprint.  

What did the study teach us?

Carrying out the study was eye-opening for us too. It very soon dawned on us that we were a bit over-ambitious in our goal to present companies with Pöyry’s method for calculating or valuing the overall impacts of their operations in the given time schedule. We also quickly realised that at this stage as the net positive approach is still a rather new concept and the standards for measuring it are only taking shape, the most useful approach is to familiarise the companies with the concept and to define the first steps for them to take on their way towards a more net positive way of doing business. Moreover, the topic is very broad.

However, the challenges related to measuring net positivity or the scope of the topic should not be allowed to hinder pursuing more net-positive ways of doing things. We should not wait around for a consensus to be established in the far future. On the contrary, we can set net positivity as a goal here and now, and with our own efforts contribute to developing practices around it in Finland in the future.

Companies don’t have to immediately aim to become net positive in all their activities. It makes more sense to concentrate on where it is easiest and most efficient to achieve positive results early on.

Any measure aimed at reducing company’s footprint and increasing its handprint is better than just maintaining the status quo.

And even small actions contribute to the progress towards circular economy. Starting small is always better than not starting at all!   

Now we want to challenge our client companies to join us on this journey. We want to work with all of you to develop practices concerning net positivity in Finland!

We’ll be happy to discuss the topic further!