Moving past zero — the Ethical Corporation conference 2019 Moving past zero - the Ethical Corporation conference 2019

'Moving past zero.' That’s what Geanne van Arkel, Head of Sustainable Development at Interface, said at the Ethical Corporation conference in Amsterdam last week. What did she mean? With her employer having achieved a greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction of 96%, she said that Interface’s thinking is now moving “beyond emissions: now we’re nearly neutral, how do we go positive?” In other words, she said, we have to 'move past zero'.


Her phrase really neatly captures the thinking and practices of leading businesses in sustainability right now. There is a plethora of 'zero' targets such as zero waste to landfill, zero emissions, zero plastic, zero occupational deaths and zero compliance breaches. The flipside of the same coin is the 100% target: for instance, 100% renewable energy implies 0% non-renewable energy and 100% recyclable means 0% non-recyclable materials (which is dependent on a strong consumer behaviour shift around sorting and rationalising the waste streams!). Zero is not the end, but just the beginning of sustainability best practice.


So as we head into the 'decade of action', how do we move beyond the zero? The first theme that comes to the fore is the regeneration and restoration of natural capital. The idea of a regenerative or restorative economy is not new but is coming evermore into focus on the back of a growing recognition of the alarming rate of biodiversity decline as well as the role that reforestation will need to play in mitigating climate change. A good example of how you report well on natural capital is the company Alliander NV which takes a holistic view of natural capital in its communications.


Leading companies are now deploying restoration and regeneration programmes even before they reach zero, especially in light of the climate emergency and as part of the SDG agenda. An example is Interface mentioned above. With a focus on life on earth and in oceans, their programmes focus on re-wilding, regenerative agriculture and enhancing biosystems and biodiversity.


Every business that is serious about leading in sustainability needs to assess its impact on the wider ecosystem and develop a plan that reflects and responds to recognised science on how to live within our planetary boundaries. The science-based approach is gradually becoming an expectation amongst stakeholders and the arsenal of tools and methodologies to help translate it into actionable targets for business are growing: a good example is the Science Based Targets Network. Embedded in the science is a clear commitment to going beyond mitigation, even before the zero target of carbon neutrality is reached.

The second theme that came to the fore at Ethical Corporation is around the circular economy. What we’re seeing more and more is a move from pilot projects to scale, whether within one organisation or between value chain partners: there’s a realisation that this collaboration is essential in the circular economy given its complexity and the fact that it requires so many actors across the chain to close the loop. Companies have been experimenting for a few years now with this agenda and the early signs of scalable collaborative multi-stakeholder projects, such as the Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE) is emerging. From a reporting point of view a very positive sign is the announcement by the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) that in Q1 2020 they will announce standards on waste, aimed at building comparable metrics on circularity for products.


Leading companies are now setting circular targets and are committing to circular products. This is elevating the circular economy agenda into a scalable arena with stand-out practises from Tomra in Austria and IKEA’s circular commitments. Every business that is serious about leading on sustainability needs to be part of the circular economy conversation and set its sights on achieving a closed loop where possible – especially in the context of a net-zero or net-positive world.

The third theme that came to the fore was the 'decade of action'. Companies have been grappling with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development which is reflected in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and have so far made in-roads from a communications point of view. But not yet in terms of a holistic company and value chain view on what else can be done. The SDGs are shifting the focus towards impact – and leading companies are demonstrating this by delivering against ambitious outcome-based targets and by proving their meaningful role in driving wider systems transformations. A good example of leading communications around the SDGs are the likes of Siemens, a company that moved beyond the confetti approach of SDG branding to utilising impact reporting.


Outstanding companies are moving beyond this communications approach to a focus on contribution and impact. Collaboration is key in this context and the most visionary companies are working in partnership with a variety of stakeholders on issues driven by a clear SDG agenda. A good example is the #readhour initiative in Finland around a specific SDG4.6 issue bringing together competitors and peers in adjacent industries, convened by the government.


The SDG agenda is driving collaboration and impact investment beyond simple partnerships. And with that comes increasing scrutiny on what true collaboration entails and whether what companies are claiming around their contribution in coalitions is clearly evidenced. Organisations like the World Benchmarking Alliance are moving in the direction of developing new types of benchmarks for these kinds of public-private partnerships.  


Where are leading businesses going on their sustainability journey to 2020 and beyond? Basically, it is no longer about achieving a number between 0 and 100 and achieving either end – it’s about formulating an agenda beyond the zero: look at Nestle’s campaign around '100% is Not Enough'. Making a positive contribution is now a must, even if the zero impact journey is not yet complete.


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