3. Products and Projects
How to undertake a Positive Pursuit
This section describes the two main ways in which a company can undertake Positive Pursuits and outlines important considerations for each.
Broadly, positive outcomes can be delivered in one of two ways:
- Products : The revenue-generating goods and services offered by the company.
- Projects : Non-revenue generating activities. These range from single targeted interventions through to ongoing programs of work, either led or supported by the company.
The use of the term product here refers to the revenue-generating goods and services offered by a company, along with any physical item delivered to the customer in support of that good or service (e.g. packaging, operating instructions, leased equipment). In the majority of cases, products are the primary mechanism through which a company accrues value and are therefore integral to its business model and its success.
A product may deliver a positive outcome as a result of the following:
- Product composition: the way it is created;
- Product use/post-use: what it does and (for goods) how it is processed afterwards;
- Product access: who uses it and how they benefit.
Each is now described.
The choice of inputs used to create a product provides companies with an opportunity to deliver a positive outcome, because some innovative materials have the potential to reverse the effects of past negative environmental impacts.253
For example, a company might capture CO2 from the air, which it then uses as an input for the ink within the printer cartridges it produces. Such an activity would help to ensure that Greenhouse gases are removed from the atmosphere.
Alternatively, a company might collect ocean plastic and recycle it as an input for its own goods. Such an activity would help to ensure that Waste is reclaimed and repurposed.
A company’s products can create a positive outcome by enabling users to reduce or reverse negative impacts.
In terms of reducing negative impacts, a company’s products can enable users to:
- Partially reduce one of their own negative impacts, by displacing a more resource intensive or impactful equivalent (e.g. a very fuel-efficient jet engine); or
- Completely eliminate one of their own negative impacts (e.g. a technology to power commercial aircraft with renewable energy, to avoid the use of fossil fuels entirely).
In both cases, it is not the provision of the product itself that delivers a positive outcome, but whether it replaces a worse alternative. For this reason, a product can be said to reduce negative impacts if, in comparison to all other market alternatives:
- It uses less (or no) fossil fuels, water from water-stressed sources, or inadequately-managed natural resources;
- It causes less (or no) waste, pollution or damage to ecosystems; or
- It causes less (or no) harm to people.
For example, a company might create a highly-efficient internal combustion engine which causes fewer GHGs over its use and post-use phase than all other alternatives on the market. If a car manufacturer were to use this engine in place of a more GHG-intensive engine, it may be possible to claim that Others generate fewer greenhouse gas emissions.
Note, however, that identifying all other market alternatives – and thus the true benefit of any one product – is extremely difficult_._ This makes it hard to assess with confidence – or credibility – the positive outcome that a product delivers. Consider, for example, a highly efficient gasoline-powered SUV: if a customer were to buy such a vehicle to replace a more efficient hybrid car, the net change in GHG emissions would actually be worse.
The case is stronger for products that completely eliminate a negative impact, such as electric vehicles, lab-grown meat, and (depending on the use case) compostable plastics. Even so, quantifying the positive outcomes accruing from types of product that may seem to be inarguably ‘good’ remains a challenge. Take the case of an electric vehicle: what if a customer could have met their transport needs by walking, bicycling or using more energy-efficient public transit?
There are no easy answers – and even the most well-meaning business may be accused of greenwashing if its claims are not supported by credible evidence. For more guidance on comparing products to market alternatives see this frequently asked question.
When thinking about products that reduce or eliminate negative impacts, a company should bear in mind the issue of trade-offs. A reduction of one negative impact may well result in another negative impact being increased.
For example, a company may create a battery which stores energy much more effectively than any other market alternative. However, the creation of this battery may be much more water intensive, and its manufacture may rely on conflict metals.
Such instances demonstrate why companies must consider whether the trade-offs required to deliver a product are truly worth the positive outcome it delivers.
Trade-offs are often inevitable and – provided that the company transparently discloses how its products deliver positive outcomes in the context of those trade-offs – it is reasonable to expect stakeholders to make informed choices about them.
For more considerations around trade-offs, see this frequently asked question.
The case is clearer for products which reverse, rather than reduce, negative environmental impacts. These include products whose use or post-use processing mean that Greenhouse gases are removed from the atmosphere, Harmful emissions are removed from the environment, Waste is reclaimed and repurposed or Ecosystems are restored.
For example, a company might develop a water purification mechanism, which can be used by customers to remove contaminants in degraded waterways. A positive outcome would be an increase in water quality, ensuring Ecosystems are restored.
Products can deliver positive outcomes by increasing the availability and/or affordability of goods and services that meet basic needs (such as clean water, energy and food), or by otherwise improving the user’s capacity and opportunity to lead a fulfilling life.
For example, a company may roll out an innovative technology that matches patients with remote doctors for digital consultations via widely-available mobile phones, in order to facilitate access to healthcare. Such an activity would help to ensure that More people are healthy and safe from harm.
The use of the term project here encompasses non-revenue generating activities. These range from single targeted interventions through to ongoing programs of work, either led or supported by the company. This might include, for example, the one-off delivery of a subsidized medicine to an underserved community, and a multiyear commitment to provide subsidized medicines across a whole country.
A company may undertake projects which are solely reliant on its own actions (e.g. utilizing a production technique which sequesters atmospheric CO2), or it may initiate or support projects that depend on the actions of third parties (e.g. supporting a supplier to reduce its release of harmful emissions).
In this latter case, a company can enable a positive outcome through one or a combination of the following:
- Financial support: Providing investment, donations, favourable terms or other means of monetary support.
- Technical support: Providing time, expertise or training to build capacity.
- Advocacy support: Using influence to raise awareness or challenge the status quo.
Note that the focus here is on actions which can be said to contribute, at least in some part, to achieving a positive outcome.
Projects within a company’s value web
A company can initiate projects which aim to achieve positive outcomes within its own operations, or within its broader value web. Such projects are often a good way for companies to ensure sustained long-term value generation, because any positive outcomes delivered will support the success of the business and/or its stakeholders. This kind of project can be achieved by:
- Reorienting company operations to cause positive outcomes; or
- Interacting with value web participants to enable positive outcomes.
For example, a company might redesign its operations to use polluted water to cool its manufacturing machinery, and then purify that water post-use, so that it can be returned to local waterways at a higher quality than before. Such an activity would help to ensure Ecosystems are restored – and it would be integral to the way the company functions.
Alternatively, to insulate itself against the effects of a future carbon tax, a company might enable one of its strategically important, carbon-intensive suppliers to make absolute GHG emission reductions. Such an activity would help to ensure that Others generate fewer greenhouse gas emissions, but it might also protect the company from higher supplier prices in the future.
Projects beyond a company’s value web
The potential to deliver sustained benefits is often greatest if a company can pursue positive outcomes that align with and support the success of its core business. However, this might not always be the case. In some instances, it may be more beneficial for a company to focus only on reaching the Break-Even Goals, while supporting other organizations to pursue positive outcomes elsewhere and in a completely different way.
The most obvious case in point is philanthropy. A large number of organizations, many of which are donation-funded NGOs, are working to tackle some of the world’s most pressing problems.254 A company may choose to use its resources to support and strengthen the positive outcomes of such third-party organizations.
For example, a company which distributes and sells books within a developing country could collaborate with a local NGO to teach women without access to formal education how to read and write, thereby contributing to the Positive Pursuit People’s capabilities are strengthened. A positive outcome would be an increase in the literacy rates among those women.
Positive Pursuits which have a restorative environmental impact and are relevant to product inputs are: Greenhouse gases are removed from the atmosphere; Harmful emissions are removed from the environment; Waste is reclaimed and repurposed and Ecosystems are restored.↩︎