At a critical point: The good business of protecting biodiversity

A new report by an organization that represents hundreds of businesses worldwide -- with combined revenues of over $7 trillion – is bringing new attention to how innovative approaches for sustainability and environmental protection are gaining international momentum and public acceptance.

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) report Biodiversity and ecosystem services: scaling up business solutions says the global business community is at a critical point where corporations need to think and act differently.

James Griffiths, WBCSD’s managing director of ecosystems, forest solutions and water, believes a growing number of global companies are starting to appreciate their dependency on continued biodiversity and sustainable ecosystems – as well as the risks that come from the loss of biodiversity and the degradation of ecosystems.

“It is no longer just the extractive sector (mining, oil & gas) or ecosystem-based sectors (forestry or agriculture) that need to deal with biodiversity and ecosystem risks,” he wrote in an email to GreenBiz. “And it is not just direct operation impacts that are in focus – understanding is starting to include the indirect impacts via supply chains – which can cumulative and significant.”

Griffiths said the report shows that, for progressive companies, the overall mindset has changed. The new challenges “are to find cost effective ways of bringing their entire sector forward – sector strategies, product standards and public policy changes play key roles here.”

Image of Growing Economy and Industry by Lightspring via Shutterstock.

The WBCSD report features case studies from 25 companies that have come up with innovative approaches and solutions to complex ecological challenges.

Some examples include:

  • ArcelorMittal - The world’s leading steel and mining company has introduced a biodiversity compensation program at its iron ore mining operations in Liberia – in a region containing of the few remaining West African wet-zone forests.
  • The EDF Group -  The French-based energy company is working with environmental groups to protect endangered bird species that nest and breed near its hydropower plants in the Pyrenees Mountains.
  • Hitachi - The Japanese conglomerate is developing a system to clean ballast water in ships to help preserve marine biodiversity and maintain international water quality standards.
  • L’Oréal - The cosmetics giant has set up a sustainability program for the threatened Argan forests in Morocco –ensuring its supply of Argan oil (from the nut of tree and widely used in skin care products) while implementing fair trade procedures for local communities who depend on the oil for a major source of their income.
  • Suncor Energy - The Canadian company has a land reclamation project that restores ecosystems disturbed by its oil sands mining operations in Alberta. The project includes transforming massive oil sands tailings ponds via landscape restoration into areas that can support vegetation and wildlife, as well as salvaging and replacing topsoil.

For its part, Suncor says sustainable development has guided its decisions for more than two decades. “Sustainability is important because it helps ensure environmental, social and economic impacts get considered in the course of doing business," said Gordon Lambert, the company’s vice president for sustainability. “Suncor pursues a ‘triple bottom line vision’ of sustainable development; which means we maintain that energy development should occur in a way that provides economic prosperity, promotes social well-being and preserves a healthy environment.”

But the WBCSD notes that it’s not only the large corporations that are pioneering innovative sustainability practices. “Small businesses are often able to innovate faster and take greater risks than global companies,” said James Griffiths, “so in fact these should be leaders in this area and are creating solutions that bigger firms can scale up.  Small businesses that are suppliers to big business need to anticipate that their supplier requirements around biodiversity and ecosystems impacts will change.”

Griffiths refers to what the WBCSD report calls the three critical elements needed to make sustainability successful:

  • Scale Up – so that innovative actions and solutions can have an exponential impact
  • Speed Up – so that positive efforts catch up with and then overtake the rate of ecosystem degradation and biodiversity loss
  • Put the Sound Up – so that those solutions are heard loud and clear, to be shared and to inspire others through public policy reforms and corporate responsibility.

Griffiths said businesses should start by understanding and measuring their ecosystem footprints – moving beyond a company’s environmental impact while considering its dependence on the land, water and agriculture needed to provide for your business.

“With this systematic and structured understanding, [a company can] start to manage and mitigate the risks and opportunities this ecosystem-based approach will reveal,” he said.