The buzz word in many industries around the world is “sustainability”, achieved by making operations “net zero”. But just as most people realise that they should not use more resources and emit more pollutants, forward thinkers get to grips with the idea that “net zero” is not good enough. We should be aiming for “net positive”.
It was one of the main mantras of the late Dr Pearse Lyons: “Do not get it right. Get it going.” And the latest edition of the Alltech ONE Conference carried on in this spirit. Mark Lyons said: “My father was right! It is not about perfectionism; it is about progress. If we change the lens and the way we look at things, we can change the way we think.”
New perspective on sustainability and on the steps beyond that
In exchanging their ideas, the conference speakers surely painted a new perspective on sustainability and on the steps beyond that. Former Unilever CEO Paul Polman shared his view about which direction the world should move in: “‘I need to be sustainable’; that’s ‘net zero’. But what does sustainable mean? No harm. It is very noble to do. But ‘sustainable’ means, ‘I keep the status quo of what is currently happening. I sustain it.’ And that’s not good enough anymore. A little less bad is still bad. The only way of thinking is to think restorative, reparative, regenerative; and that is what we call ‘net positive’.”
He continued: “Net positive is not about doing less harm. It is about doing more good.” According to Polman, a change needs to happen well beyond the scale of the Industrial Revolution. Increasingly, CEOs are required to be broader social leaders and to partner up within and beyond industry. Many CEOs are struggling to make change – and that is normal. The good news, however, is that the greatest challenges also present the greatest business opportunities. “It really is about making a business model where you can show that you profit from solving the world’s problems, not creating them,” advised Polman, “and when you can honestly answer the question, ‘Is the world better off because your business is in it?’ We are at the point confirmed by study after study where the cost of not acting is becoming higher than the cost of acting,” he continued, “which actually makes it an enormous economic opportunity to create this greener, more inclusive, more resilient future and not go back to the past where we came from, which, frankly, had run out of steam.”
Nikki Putnam Badding, managing director and chief dietitian of Acutia, focused on expanding this theme to the world’s population. “Sustainability does not begin and end with environmental impact,” Nikki explained. “It actually means that we are taking care of the health of the planet and the people who share it.”
This is of increasing importance as population growth puts extra pressure on our resources. Setting a table for 10 billion people by 2060 will require 70% more food. An impossible challenge? Heather White, author of One Green Thing, knows that it is the individual actions that lead to a culture shift towards solutions. “Every generation stands on the shoulders of the past, and it is safe to say that we are our ancestors’ wildest dream. We have the technology and knowledge to make change happen; we just have to keep asking ourselves where we want to stand, 30 years from now. What will be our legacy? With that mindset, instead of carrying on with past principles, the possibilities are endless.” Lyons concluded: “We are truly at the interface of two big ideas: nourishing the present and the preservation of the future. Reducing is not enough; we have to do something different. Our belief is that agriculture has the greatest positive potential to influence the future of our planet, provide nutrition for all and help rural communities to thrive and replenish our planet’s resources.”