Reading Deloitte’s report Towards Zero Impact Growth might make you worried and hopeful at the same time. With all the tremendous progress we have seen in sustainable development in the last two decades or so, this eye-opening report reminds us that we’re still very far from achieving a more stable global economic model. Yet it presents a new platform, developed by John Elkington, one of the leading thinkers in the field of sustainable development that might help put us on the right track. Welcome to the brave new world of Zeronauts.
It all started in 2011, when Deloitte Innovation and John Elkington (through his organization Volans) began to collaborate on ‘the Zeronauts,’ which Elkington describes as individuals and/or organizations that try to minimize their natural and societal impact to a zero level. Elkington elaborates on this new framework in a new book, ‘The Zeronauts – Breaking the Sustainability Barrier’, which was launched in a ‘Zeronauts Symposium’ that took place in Rotterdam, the Netherlands last June.
At this symposium Deloitte Innovation also presented the outcomes of its ‘2012 Zero Impact Growth Monitor,’ an assessment of 65 leading companies and how their strategies align with the idea of zero impact growth as a sustainable growth paradigm. Deloitte’s report presents the results of this assessment, showing that even among the leading companies in the world in terms of sustainability there are really only six that truly excel in it – Unilever, Puma, Nike, Nestle, Natura and Ricoh, and even these companies can do better.
Before we take a look at the results of the assessment, let’s have a look first at the concept of zero impact growth and try to understand why it can be a game changer. Our problem right now is that we haven’t found yet a realistic alternative economic system that will allow sustainable life on planet Earth with 9-10 billion people. While business is also involved in this search, it hasn’t come up yet with a solution. General frameworks, Deloitte’s report explain, like sustainability, the triple bottom line, and CSR have helped to define directions, but have not yet led to a common understanding of a necessary joint (minimum) effort by all industries.
In other words, right now every company today comes up with its own voluntary goals and roadmap and while they become this way ‘less bad,’ we have no idea if what they’re doing is enough. We don’t have any common ‘North Star’ that will provide companies and industries with a clear idea what achievement level is required from them to become part of the solution. Zero impact growth is supposed to be this lighthouse that we’re missing right now, providing a common ground for companies and industries alike. It’s not the finish line, but rather a minimum everyone needs to meet.
While zero impact growth is still more of a manifest than a roadmap, it already provides some valuable tools, like a five stepping-stones model that shows different levels of progress on the Zeronauts’ journey towards zero impact growth. It goes from the first level, Eureka (seeing the opportunity) all the way to the top level of Economy (flipping the economic system to a more sustainable state). Deloitte Innovation has been using this model to develop its Zero Impact Growth Monitor, comparing the different levels of progress between companies.
Deloitte’s monitor looks at a total of 18 components of strategic relevance, in three main areas: vision and strategic ambition, environmental aspects and social aspects. The components follow the overall logic of GRI’s G3 Guidelines and are based on the company’s publicly available information. They’re assessed through an underlying scoring scheme from 0 to 5, based on the Zeronauts’ maturity model (0- no strategy and goals, 5- The company has fully adapted the zero impact growth vision).
The majority of the assessed companies have reached the third level out of five (‘Enterprise’): 70 percent. These companies have defined a clear vision of what they attempt to achieve in a short- to mid-term perspective (≤ 2020). They have defined measurable milestones in several areas that provide a concrete outlook on their actions and measures. Six companies have reached the fourth level (Ecosystem’): Unilever, Puma, Nike, Nestlé, Natura, and Ricoh.
These companies have not only set measurable and ambitious mid- to long-term targets (≥ 2020), but have also embedded their sub-policies in a holistic strategic vision of their attempt to minimize their negative environmental and societal impacts. Furthermore, the report explain, they are in the process of establishing sustainable business ecosystems and creating truly shared value by also involving their suppliers and other stakeholders in their actions. However, aspects of a conjoint approach and (cross-industrial) collaborative aspects as a necessary condition to achieve a 1-Earth-Economy are still missing to a large extent.
This is of course not the first attempt to assess and rank companies according to their level of sustainability, but while other rankings and ratings usually define ‘best in class performance’, the monitor provides an assessment that relates to absolute terms, acknowledging what is good (or good enough). This way for example we know that Unilever or Puma are doing very well, but not enough to meet the highest Zeronauts level (‘Economy’).
The monitor is hopefully the first out of many tools and solutions that will come out of the new Zeronauts paradigm. Even without all the answers it provides a good start for a conversation we needed to have a long time ago, and like always it’s better late than never.
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and the New School, teaching courses in green business and new product development.