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Moving Business from Net Zero to Positive Impact

Business is playing a central role in causing many of the societal problems we are facing globally. As I will argue in this contribution, we will also need business to help solving the societal challenges. We need business because it has the know-how, the resources, and the reach to effectively address the challenges. I will show, what business needs to do to be successful. It will not be an easy task. There remains a lot to do for a new generation of leaders from business and from society who are prepared to approach this task collaboratively in a new and different way. You can also view this post in this TEDx talk.


As a researcher and teacher in business sustainability, I became more and more concerned about the escalating problems our humanity is facing. We were living far beyond the planet’s means.[i] And governments were incapable to effectively deal with these problems. I was relieved and hopeful to see business get into the game and make sustainability increasingly their business. Why? Because they have the know-how, the resources, and the global reach needed to address these problems. But it has been troubling to see that there was a big disconnect between the approach to business sustainability taken and the scale of the problems we are facing. Something was badly out of sync.

As a response to these concerns, we developed a model of “True Business Sustainability[ii] to adequately address the sustainability challenges of our times. In doing this, two fundamental problems became clear to us. Existing models of business sustainability, in theory and in practice, don’t address the problems our societies are facing, but the economic benefits for business in addressing societal issues. This so-called “business case” of sustainability is primarily good for business, but not for the world. The second problem we found, was that business sustainability is focused on minimizing the negative impacts of business activities, not on creating a positive impact in relevant areas for society and the planet. What is needed, however, is aiming to increase the societal goods, not only to decrease the bads done by business itself. In other words, reducing carbon emissions is good but capturing carbon from the air is much better and in reality, it is essential.

Watch a video about True Business Sustainability

The model of “true business sustainability” helps us to move business from net zero, where the negative impacts of business are driven towards zero, to positive impact, where business contributes to solving societal challenges. In this contribution I will put the model of true business sustainability into practice. My focus will be on five big questions and answers.

1. Societal Challenges as Opportunities

My first question: How can business make a positive contribution to society? And my answer is: by looking at societal challenges as opportunities. In support of this insight, let me cite Management Guru Peter Drucker who remarked a long time ago:[iii]

Positive contributions to societal challenges can be found in all areas of the economy. And they offer great opportunities. In the food sector, they lie in the development of healthy diets and lifestyles in highly developed countries and the creation of affordable food and access to clean water in developing countries. They lie in areas like developing a sustainable energy supply without having to accept irresponsible climate risks and in creative approaches to using construction waste to produce new construction materials.

2. Putting purpose into strategy

My second question is: Why are so many companies today committed to a wider societal purpose that goes beyond a purely economic purpose? My answer is: They do it because their stakeholders are demanding it.

Employees are expecting it from their employers. The social commitment of their employer is of great concern to the employees, often a matter close to their hearts. And on the market for talent, it needs a clear and convincing purpose to attract the highly sensitized millennials, which make up 35% of the market.[iv]  Consumers prefer companies that take a position on issues like sustainability, transparency, and human rights. And the millennials are leading again.[v] Investors have been rushing into social and sustainable investments because they want to combine social impact with economic goals. And financial institutions are happily offering products to support this trend.

A purpose is aimed at a positive societal goal, not at increasing profit. It defines the company’s reason to be and are not in contradiction to economic goals. They are rather their precondition. They secure support from society and guide the company’s development in the longer term.[vi] But a true purpose is certainly more than a lofty declaration on paper. It needs to be backed by credible action. It must reflect in the company’s products, its investments, and its incentive systems. Actions speak louder than words![vii]

A good example is outdoor clothing company Patagonia with its bold purpose “to be in business to save our home planet.” [viii] How do they act on it? Among other things they use 100% organic cotton. And while globally 15% of used clothing is recycled, 87% of their raw materials are made with recycled inputs. They also offer repair services and recycle products that are beyond repair.

3. Integrating sustainability into regular business

My third question is: What should companies do to create maximum impact? My answer is they should integrate sustainability into regular business.

Sustainability efforts of companies are mostly handled by specialized units for sustainability, social responsibility, or communication. Their function is often reduced to shielding the corporate core from disruptive influences. This is extremely limiting.

It should be easy to see that the necessary “clout” for mastering sustainability challenges can only be achieved if sustainability is integrated into regular business, so that all the strengths and competencies of the company are brought to bear on the issues. Only then we can succeed in creating an offensive dynamic that points the way forward instead of a defensive dynamic that neither gives pleasure nor corresponds to entrepreneurial thinking.

What needs to be integrated? Sustainability needs to be integrated into company processes, so that it will be taken care of automatically in the company’s decisions and actions. Product innovations need to focus on products with a net positive impact, not simply on making existing products a bit better. And it will need fully committed leaders, who can win the hearts and minds of the people, internally and externally.

4. Simultaneous orientation on several time horizons

My fourth question is: How do companies go about innovating their business? My answer is they must orient their business on several time horizons.[ix] In times of far-reaching and dynamic structural changes, companies will have to build the business of tomorrow and the day after tomorrow in parallel to keeping-up today’s business as long as necessary.

Sustainability problems are dynamically evolving. Take the automotive industry which started out in a first phase with modest sustainability demands driven by the quest to make cars better. Issues were increasing fuel efficiency, reducing unhealthy exhaust, and recycling cars. In a second phase, the discussion centered around the more fundamental question “How long will oil reserves last?” Its focus was on the core of the car, its internal combustion engine. The race for alternative drive technologies and fuels has seen hybrid cars and electric cars come out as winners. And in a future third phase, driven by traffic jams, congested cities, and individualized demand,  we will see transform car companies into networked mobility providers offering rent, leasing, car sharing and ride sharing, in short: mobility-on-demand. In each phase the business models are dramatically different and need dynamically changing companies.

5. Collaborations

My fifths question is: Is it a good thing we see more and more collaborations between business and government? My last answer is that collaborations are necessary.[x]

Overcoming the societal problems of our time is beyond the reach of even large companies. Challenges such as the phasing out of plastic waste or the switch to renewable energies are simply too big and too complex. These challenges require collaborations across supply chains and sectors as well as the integration of private, public, and civil society actors.

We have seen many collaborative platforms being created in recent years. Platforms for sustainable forest management or fisheries, for palm oil, cocoa, or fashion. They demonstrate that global problems require collective solutions that bring all relevant stakeholder groups together at one table.

We will also need creative solutions to shape political change. Companies still view government relations mostly as a way to resist regulation or fight for preferential treatment. But some companies approach regulators openly and transparently to help them improve the collective rules and solve larger problems. Establishing circular economy models for products and packaging for example, need active support from companies. And it needs business also to support policies that accelerate investments in areas that improve the living conditions for everyone. Think of health care and education. This will not only make the world a better place, but it will also allow business to flourish in a healthy and stable environment.


In closing, let me summarize the five areas discussed in this contribution to move business from net zero to positive impact:

  1. Societal challenges as opportunities
  2. Putting purpose into strategy
  3. Integrating sustainability into regular business
  4. Simultaneous orientation on several time horizons
  5. Collaborations

My message has been, that we need business to help solving societal challenges. I have shown how business can do it. Clearly, there is lots to do for a new generation of leaders from business and from society.  For them, my five answers developed above should help to get off to a good start.

This contribution is based on the author’s TEDx HSG talk delivered on December 4, 2021, at University

[i] Nobel Prize Laureates and other experts (2021): Our planet, our future. An urgent call for action. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Statement: April 29, 2021.  https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2021/04/nobel-prize-laureates-and-other-experts-issue-urgent-call-for-action-after-our-planet-our-future-summit (accessed Dec 8, 2021); Union of Concerned Scientists (1992): 1992 World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity. Published Jul 16, 1992 (Updated Oct 29, 2002) https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/1992-world-scientists-warning-humanity (accessed: Dec. 8, 2021); World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity (2017): A Second Notice. BioScience, Volume 67, Issue 12, pages 1026–1028; https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article/67/12/1026/4605229 (accessed: Dec. 8, 2021).

[ii] Thomas Dyllick & Katrin Muff (2016): Clarifying the Meaning of Sustainable Business: Introducing a Typology from Business-as-usual to True Sustainability. In: Organization & Environment, Vol. 29, No. 2, 156-174. (2016 Organization & Environment Best Paper Award)

[iii] Cited in: Cooperrider, D. (2008). Social Innovation. BizEd, July/August, 32-38.

[iv] Dhingra, N.; Samo, A., Schaninger, B.; Schrimper, M. (2021): Help your employees find purpose – or watch them leave, McKinsey Quarterly, September, 93-100. Gast, A.; Illanes, P.; Probst, N.; Schaninger, B.; Simpson, B. (2020): Purpose: Shifting from why to how, McKinsey Quarterly, April.

[v] Edelmann (2018): Two thirds of consumers worldwide now buy on beliefs. October 2, 2018. https://www.edelman.com/news-awards/two-thirds-consumers-worldwide-now-buy-beliefs (accessed:  October 12, 2021)

[vi] Fink, Larry (2019):  Profit & Purpose. Larry Fink’s 2019 letter to CEOs, https://www.blackrock.com/americas-offshore/en/2019-larry-fink-ceo-letter (Accessed: 12.15.2020). Fink, Larry (2018): A Sense of Purpose. Larry Fink’s 2018 letter to CEOs, https://www.blackrock.com/corporate/investor-relations/2018-larry-fink-ceo-letter

(accessed: December 15.2020). Dyllick, T. & Muff, K. (2021): Anforderungen an eine echte Purpose – Orientierung von Unternehmen, in: Controlling, Vol. 33., Special Issue «Purpose und Controlling», Spring, 31-35. Grayson D./Coulter C./Lee M. (2018): All in. The future of business leadership, 1st ed., Milton Park.

Polman, P. & Winston, A. (2021). Net Positive. How courageous companies thrive by giving more than they take. Harvard Business Review Press, Boston, pp. 74.

[vii] Samuelson, Judy (2021): The Six New Rules of Business: Creating Real Value in a Changing World. Berret-Koehler, Oakland.

[viii] Beer, Jeff (2018): Exclusive: “Patagonia is in business to save our home planet.” In an exclusive interview, founder Yvon Chouinard talks about how the new mission will reshape how the company does business. Fast Company, December 13.  https://www.fastcompany.com/90280950/exclusive-patagonia-is-in-business-to-save-our-home-planet (Accessed: Dec. 8, 2021)

[ix] Business & Sustainable Development Commission, Better Business Better World, January 2017 https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/2399BetterBusinessBetterWorld.pdf (accessed: December 10, 2021)

Author: Prof. em. HSG Dr. Thomas Dyllick

Professor emeritus in Sustainability Management at University of St.Gallen, Switzerland, and Director, The Institute for Business Sustainability, Lucerne, Switzerland

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