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Can Capitalists Live Within Planetary Limits?

A new book introduces the idea of Zeronauts, innovators within companies striving to make a living but with zero impact. Are these the men and women who will make our economy sustainable?

The idea of "Zero Impact Growth" says that companies should operate within planetary limits—that is, work towards doing zero environmental and social harm. It was developed by the British corporate responsibility guru John Elkington, who argues that current sustainability targets lack "context." In other words: They sound good, but don’t account for a world with 9 billion people, where resources are running thin, and our collective impacts are mounting.

"If you look at sustainability reports, you don’t know what the basis is for the reduction," says Ralph Thurm, sustainability director at Deloitte Consulting, who collaborated with Elkington.

"There’s no comparability. Maybe the only thing you can say is that company A is better than company B. But you can’t say what any of these do is good enough, because there are no common denominators."

In his book The Zeronauts: Breaking the Sustainability Barrier, Elkington champions people who promote "wealth creation while driving adverse environmental, social, and economic impacts toward zero"; those who are developing "footprint-shrinking solutions"; and politicians who are creating "regulatory frameworks and incentives … to drive … '1-Earth’ solutions to scale."

But none of the 50 people profiled have actually achieved zero-impact change within their organizations. They are just at various stages of progress. Elkington lays out a five-stage process where companies graduate from "Eureka" (seeing an opportunity), through experimentation, to creating new business models, to collaborating with partners in other industries, to "flipping the economic system to a more sustainable state."

To accompany the book, Deloitte has published a "Zero Impact Growth Monitor." From the 65 companies it considered, only six are most ready to adapt zero growth, according to Thurm: Puma, Nike, Nestlé, Unilever, Natura, and Ricoh.

"The leading companies are much clearer about defining their short and mid-term targets, and they have in mind that they want to be a zero-paradigm company. The others simply say 'we want to reduce our CO2 by 15% by 2020,'" Thurm says.

"These companies also challenge their customers, suppliers, and political authorities, by saying 'if you want to work with this organization, you need to help us get there.'"

Puma, for example, has developed an "Environmental Profit and Loss Account" that attempts to put a monetary figure on its environmental impact.

Several others have started to consider how to square the need to increase revenues with the consequences of hyper-consumption, Thurm says. "They know that they are in a certain dilemma there, because more consumption means more revenues. But they also realize from a long-term perspective there is no sustainability where those patterns continue."

How useful is the zero-impact concept? It depends on your perspective. Elkington and Thurm present it as a challenge, and a reframing of objectives—something that companies should work towards, rather than hope to achieve overnight. The problem is that neither the book, nor the report, actually defines what a company’s fair share of reduction might be. That’s up to them to decide.

Elkington and Thurm’s concept relies a lot on the capacity of individuals—the so-called Zeronauts—to make changes, while saying nothing about economic incentives. Arguably, there’s a limit to the change you can expect without new laws or taxes (e.g. disincentives to produce carbon) and when underlying dynamics are pointing in a different direction.