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3 essential building blocks for businesses aiming to protect biodiversity

As the destruction of nature accelerates, companies are taking critical initial steps to develop effective nature and biodiversity programs.

A photograph of a camera-equipped drone over a forest at sunset

The lack of ways to accurately measure and value biodiversity is a key obstacle to corporate programs to preserve and benefit nature. Source: Alex Yuzhakov via Shutterstock 

It’s been almost two years since the adoption of the Global Biodiversity Framework at COP 15 in Montreal elevated biodiversity as a focus area for companies and financial institutions. Since then, many companies have sought to understand the business risks of biodiversity loss and the opportunities embedded in addressing it. More professionals have stepped into newly established or redesignated roles as nature leads for their companies. As a result, job titles such as "Global Director for Nature," "Biodiversity and Water Specialist" and "Head of Natural Capital" are popping up. 

Last week, I spoke with 12 nature leaders from some of the world’s biggest companies, financial institutions and insurance firms at a New York City meeting of Trellis Network, GreenBiz’s peer membership group, held under Chatham House Rules (under which attendees are free to use the information shared, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of speakers or other participants may be revealed).

They outlined their approaches to ensuring that their companies allocate adequate resources to halting and reversing biodiversity loss and that these efforts are aligned with other sustainability initiatives. Here are three fundamental steps that they’re taking, and that companies at the beginning of their nature journeys can adopt as starting points. 

From boots to the board: Educating the workforce 

From CEOs to chief sustainability officers and customer-facing teams, biodiversity is still a black box for most of the workforce. Team members struggle to understand what biodiversity is and why protecting it matters for their jobs. 

Nature leads are investing significant time into making the topic more approachable — by including educational content in onboarding programs, creating volunteer opportunities for experiential learning and collating one-pagers and talking points for the C-suite. 

Shareholders and investors have become helpful allies in this quest. The nature lead of a large U.S. retailer said that after two years of championing the issue behind the scenes, biodiversity was a topic of discussion in five investor calls this year, helping direct attention and resources to the topic. 

The need for realistic nature goals

The overall appetite for ambitious public sustainability goals is decreasing as legislators, the media and civil society organizations scrutinize companies more closely, affecting corporate nature agendas. 

"Companies want to date nature but not marry it yet," said one meeting participant. 

As a result, many nature leads are focused on setting internal goals and taking a concrete and incremental approach to integrating biodiversity metrics into sustainability programs, instead of pushing for ambitious, but perhaps unrealistic, public goals. 

Companies want to date nature but not marry it yet.

This is especially true in the U.S., where regulatory pressure on biodiversity issues is lower than in Europe. It also helps explain why the Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosure’s current list of 416 early adopters only includes 17 companies headquartered in the U.S. — a mere 4 percent. 

The search for clarity on biodiversity data and measurements  

Knowing what and how to measure biodiversity outcomes presents a significant roadblock for nature leads. Carbon emissions provide a clear and measurable outcome for the climate movement, enabling streamlined action, communication and progress milestones. 

Such a universal metric is harder to find for biodiversity because many factors, including soil and water quality, temperatures and species abundance, influence an ecosystem's overall health and resilience. In addition, many of those factors vary greatly by location. This makes it challenging to integrate biodiversity into corporate sustainability programs that embrace simplicity as a tactic for faster progress. 

Trellis Network members shared several ideas for managing this complexity, including evaluating new measurement technologies, such as bioacoustics and eDNA tools, and using indicator species to assess a project's overall biodiversity outcomes. An example of the latter would be to use the presence of an especially sensitive aquatic insect as a proxy for the overall health of a wetland. 

Despite these options, many attendees feel that biodiversity measurement is either too complex or too simplified and needs to find a middle ground. To advance the market, "we need a system that makes measuring biodiversity a matter of days or weeks, not months or years," one participant said. 

Workforce education, strategy development and data systems are three initial steps companies taking biodiversity seriously should take. Once those fundamentals are in place, nature leads can start developing more ambitious projects. Some participants, for example, have pitched ideas around biodiversity business opportunities — including new loan structures and insurance products. 

[Supercharge your impact alongside other visionaries, experts and innovators leading the way to a regenerative future at VERGE 24, Oct. 29-31, San Jose.]

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