The new adventurers of the business world

Sensemaking / The new adventurers of the business world

De-couplers, zeronauts and net positives herald an age of ambition, says WWF-UK's Dax Lovegrove.

27 Sep 2012

De-couplers, zeronauts and net positives herald an age of ambition, says WWF-UK’s Dax Lovegrove.

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

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. Just over the last few weeks, there have been some impressive ‘deep dives’ into the raison d’etre of companies, involving many of their staff. Moreover, inquiries such as these are increasingly well structured.

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 (designed to increase what an organisation does well, rather than cut out what it does badly), in order to ‘discover, dream, design and deploy’ new ideas.

I was amazed by the appetite of so many engineers for testing the company’s boundaries. They came up with all kinds of thoughts on how it needs to flex to meet changing energy systems and disruptive innovations. National Grid is unique in that it has to plan for our energy needs decades into the future. There is an overwhelming sense among its teams that, although our energy landscape has not changed dramatically in the last forty years, it will do so in the next forty.

The Chief Executive arrived on day two, and – faced with the direction of travel at this colossal workshop – you’d have forgiven him for appearing nervous. But knowing Steve Holliday, he was bound to be excited by it all – and his feedback confirmed this.

Talking of a changing energy landscape, retailers are starting to get in on the act. Sainsbury’s has secured one of the largest solar deals in Europe, installing photovoltaic panels throughout most of its estate. The move is part of its ambitious ‘20 by 20’ Sustainability Plan: a set of commitments that Sainsbury’s will not only deliver, but also sense-check with 200 external experts – a bold move.

As part of this, CEO Justin King is ‘meeting the crowd’ at an event in London delivered by Green Monday, the organisation that offers insights to sustainability professionals. It’s the first of a new series in which its audience of experts will dissect a business plan and deliver a verdict.
Fizzy drinks companies are also revisiting their purpose as health concerns gain momentum. Coca Cola recently convened a group of international staff to explore how it can rethink the provision of drinking water to inspire a generation of more conscious consumers.

The goals are ever more ambitious, signalling a new age of adventure for the private sector. It’s emerging against a backdrop of three different camps, into which today’s leading sustainability plans fall.

There are the de-couplers, such as Unilever, which aim to grow the business but not the environmental impacts. Both Sainsbury’s and Coca Cola openly aspire to financial growth while stabilising carbon emissions.

Then there are the zeronauts – or as John Elkington calls them, the ‘intrapaneurs’: the ones aiming to do business without any negative impacts.  Interface’s Mission Zero has established its ambition in this space, and M&S reported reaching carbon neutrality earlier this year.

In the third camp are those with ‘net positive’ plans. There’s Kingfisher, which says that the positive impacts it has on society and the environment through home improvement outweigh any negative impacts – and the mobile phone operator O2, which claims to generate carbon savings to dwarf its direct emissions through the services it provides to its customers.

Siemens and Ecomaginantion could fall into the net positive camp, if their services to low carbon industries and clients come to outweigh the parts of their businesses that could be said merely to 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 in London in November.

Dax Lovegrove is Head of Business and Industry at WWF–UK.

WWF–UK is a Forum for the Future Partner.

photo: istockphoto/thinkstock

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