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Why being sustainable is not enough: embracing a net positive impact

Ulrich Lichtenthaler (Department of Strategy, Finance and Innovation, ISM International School of Management, Cologne, Germany)

Journal of Business Strategy

ISSN: 0275-6668

Article publication date: 21 December 2021

Issue publication date: 2 January 2023




This paper develops the concept of positive sustainability or positainability to go beyond many leaders’ traditional understanding of sustainability as primarily avoiding harm. Rather, executives need to embrace a positive perspective in terms of doing good and creating value in a firm’s core business as the next level of sustainability management. Positive sustainability is defined as the combination of doing good and avoiding bad to arrive at innovative solutions for achieving a “net positive impact” in the core business rather than merely targeting “no net loss” by reducing harm for the environment and society.


This is a conceptual paper with an example, and it relies on prior insights from related research fields, including the sustainable development goals, corporate social responsibility, creating shared value, positive psychology, social entrepreneurship and social innovation.


Many organizations have recently launched sustainability initiatives, which often focus on achieving efficiency gains, for example, by reducing power consumption to lower carbon emissions in the face of climate change and to simultaneously save costs. In future competition, however, avoiding unsustainability in the core business and potentially doing good in separate social responsibility programs will not be enough. Furthermore, a focus on “quick win” efficiency gains may limit a more fundamental transformation, which is needed in many firms. There is a massive shift in consumer expectations, especially among younger generations, concerning firms’ active contribution to solving environmental and social challenges. Consistent with positive psychology, these market shifts require a positive perspective in terms of doing good in the core business.


The concept of positive sustainability has major implications for innovation, transformation and communications management. Even those firms that view themselves as leaders hardly realize the opportunities from positive sustainability. By developing innovative solutions, products and services, companies may positively contribute to the environment and society. In the medium to long term, this positive impact will often exceed the short-term benefits of efficiency-centered programs. Most firms and leaders will simply have no choice but to embrace a “net positive impact” because customers strongly expect companies to take action in terms of positive sustainability.



Lichtenthaler, U. (2023), "Why being sustainable is not enough: embracing a net positive impact", Journal of Business Strategy, Vol. 44 No. 1, pp. 13-20.



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