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The Big Picture

Until recently, few companies even understood the word biodiversity: a shorthand for "biological diversity," the web of genetic material contained in the entire spectrum of species. Now the word is beginning to resonate inside some companies as they calculate the value of biodiversity to their own operations. They are learning that biodiversity is part of a company's value chain, no less so than R&D, materials sourcing, distribution, and marketing.

Context

Biodiversity refers principally to the loss of biodiversity that takes place when animal and plant species disappear -- often the result of the loss or uninhabitability of their homes (called habitats) due to construction, pollution, or other human activity. In business terms, as species are lost, so, too, are their direct and indirect benefits: the potential they may offer to create new medicines, fibers, fuels, crops, pollution fighters, or any of countless other products and services.

Key Players

  • Pharmaceuticals, which benefit directly from the potential of plants and organisms to yield new medicines.
  • Forestry companies, which must weigh the costs and benefits of cutting or preserving woodlands.
  • Agricultural operations, which must consider the impacts of pesticides on natural species, and may have to limit cultivated land area if it encroaches on biologically diverse areas. Food growers also must watch the use of genetically modified organisms, as the result of their interaction with natural species is unknown and may cause problems.
  • Extractive industries may have to limit or curtail activities and complete more intensive Environmental Impact Assessments.
  • The fishing industry will have to consider impacts on biodiversity based on areas fished and types of fish harvested.
  • Other business sectors, including banking, retail, and manufacturing, have to consider impacts on biodiversity through activities, products, and financial investments.

Getting Down to Business

Company approaches to biodiversity are -- well -- diverse. For example:

  • Boise Cascade found that by demonstrating a scientific approach that maintains biodiversity and timber supplies, it can ease its regulatory burden. Boise worked on three eco-management projects in Idaho, Minnesota, and Washington state, all involving multiple landowners and a mix of public and private lands. It aimed to work in cooperative, collaborative efforts to try and address management objectives of maintaining biodiversity. The company has developed a matrix to gauge and track biodiversity. The matrix, used at all three sites, identifies the current conditions of the landscape and compares it to a list of various vegetation growth stages. Using this tool, Boise is able to quantify which species are on its property, observe the rates of change between different cells in the matrix, and project likely changes under future management scenarios.
  • Bank of America's environmental goals promise "to encourage activity that respects preservation of natural habitats and biological diversity." In one instance, the bank had to foreclose on a southern California property adjacent to an area targeted for preservation. The bank worked with the state of California to set up what is now called "conservation banking." By conserving a parcel of land and managing it for its natural resource values, a company earns credits it can sell to others who are required to compensate for the adverse impacts of a development or other activity. A primary advantage, as Bank of America found, is that conservation banking allows land owners to receive a higher value for their land.
  • Shaman Pharmaceuticals is one of several players in the health care sector concerned with preserving biodiversity. Indeed, the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association testified in 1994 before a U.S. Senate committee on behalf of a global treaty calling for the protection of biodiversity. To Shaman and others dependent on the diversity of biological resources for the study of potential medicinal cures, this is very much a bottom-line issue. Shaman employs a biodiversity conservation policy of determining the availability of a plant before it collects it. If the plant is rare, unavailable in large quantities, or if the active agent is only a minuscule amount in each plant, Shaman does not pursue research.

The Upside

Preserving biodiversity is more than an environmental move: natural species and genetic material offer many commercial opportunities as foods, medicines, natural pest fighters, fabrics, and other vital products. Some benefits of a proactive corporate stance on biodiversity are:

  • Improved public image.
  • Preservation of food, shelter, fabric, medicines, and other benefits.
  • Sustainable development of biological resources.
  • Climate protection: stabilizing soil and filtering carbon dioxide.
  • Preserving genetic material used for vital medicines.

Reality Check

Protection of the diversity of land, animal, and plant life requires that some businesses change or limit activities. Those limitations may affect profit margins or force new strategies for manufacturing, use of land, or impact of products. Some aspects of biodiversity that may hurt corporate activities are:

  • Intellectual property rights issues between indigenous people and developers of biological resources. Courts are getting involved in patent cases where companies attempt to patent genetic or biological materials that traditional cultures claim to own.
  • Restrictions on land and marine land for access to development and exploration.
  • More stringent requirements for environmental impact assessments.
  • Modifications to behaviors, products, and financial investments that harm biodiversity.

Action Plan

  • Investigate the topic. Find out how biodiversity affects your business. Even though the connection may not be readily apparent, in all likelihood the practices of your business do relate to biodiversity, e.g. raw materials in your office products, the wood used to remodel your office space, or the contents of your cosmetic products.
  • Work with others along the business chain including suppliers, manufacturers, retailers, and clients to find out what practices of theirs impact biodiversity.
  • Strategize the best methods to protect biodiversity while still maintaining business success. This may require adapting new methods of production, finding new raw materials sources, or limiting some activities.

Leads

  • Biodiversity Center, Defenders of Wildlife (1101 14th St. NW #1400 Washington, D.C. 20005; 202-682-9400; info@defenders.org) contains a collection of readings that put biodiversity into context, along with a status report on state laws, policies, and programs related to biodiversity.
  • Biodiversity Conservation Information System (219 Huntingdon Rd. Cambridge, CB3 0DL, UK; 44-1223-277314; 44-1223-277136 (fax); john.busby@wcmc.org.uk) provides current data, information, and other research on biodiversity issues. The Web site provides access to databases on ecosystems and protected areas, data standards for biodiversity, and other resources.
  • Biodiversity Policy Coordination Division (Rue Mauverney 28 CH 1196 Gland, Switzerland; 412-2999-0001; 412-2999-0025; biodiversity@hq.iucn.org) coordinates the biodiversity work of the World Conservation Union. The division develops programs that support biodiversity and the Convention on Biological Diversity and publishes numerous materials, contributes to workshops and training courses, and gives technical and policy advice on biodiversity.
  • Business and Biodiversity, a report from the World Business Council on Sustainable Development (160 Route de Florissant, CH-1231, Conches-Geneva, Switzerland; +41-22-839-3100; +41-22-839-3131 (fax); info@wbcsd.ch (e-mail)) and the World Conservation Union. The report nicely outlines why businesses should be concerned with biodiversity.
  • Conservation International (2501 M St. NW, Ste. 200, Washington, DC 20037; 202-429-5660 or 800-429-5660; 202-887-0193 (fax)) works to save the earth's "biodiversity hotspots." The organization provides technical assistance to conservation and development projects, including services such as GIS needs assessment, database design, spatial analysis, and aerial photography and remote sensing. These tools can help industries needing to evaluate impact of activities on biodiversity
  • Council on International Environmental Law (1367 Connecticut Ave. NW Ste. 300 Washington, DC 20036; 202-785-8700; 202-785-8701; cielus@igc.apc.org) helps to develop and enforce an international framework of law and policy that supports conservation and sustainable use of living resources. The council works on issues of intellectual property, trade policy, and strengthening biodiversity regulations.
  • Genetic Engineering and Intellectual Property Rights Resource Center is a valuable resource for all types of information concerning GE and IPRs, as well as biodiversity, biotechnology, patents, and national and international legislation.

Bottom Line

Living sustainably with the earth is more than a feel-good platitude. It is in businesses' best interest to identify, respect and conserve the environment in which business occurs: the diverse realm of life and naturally occurring resources. These resources provide a host of known -- and as yet unknown -- benefits to mankind and the bottom line.