Setting the New Standard: Embracing Accessibility with a Scalable, Transparent, and Supported Approach

This is the second in a series of monthly blog posts examining the vision for establishing a new standard in corporate conservation certification.

“To reduce barriers to implementation, standards systems minimize costs and overly burdensome requirements. They facilitate access to information about meeting the standard, training and financial resources to build capacity throughout supply chains and for actors within the standards system.” Voluntary Standards Systems by Hoffman et al.

Throughout its history, WHC’s certification program has embraced accessibility. Within its current framework, WHC recognizes and celebrates all acts of habitat conservation on corporate lands. It does so for many reasons, outlined in former blog posts here and here that explore the importance of empowering the simple act of conservation, creating connections to nature and building communities engaged in enhancing the natural world.

As WHC builds a new standard for conservation on corporate lands, it is embracing accessibility to honor and build on its current approach, and also to adopt best practices in this arena that require that all possible practitioners be provided with an equal right to participate. Accessibility in this context means removing barriers to participation by providing multiple entry points, reducing bureaucratic hurdles and providing a clear and transparent path towards recognition. It means supporting all potential practitioners regardless of resources (land, people and budget), industry sector, project size or location.

WHC is building accessibility into its redesigned certification program by embedding scalability, allowing the smallest, simplest acts of conservation to be recognized alongside more complex efforts; embracing a radical transparency for both process and outcome and; providing support through an intuitive online platform and access to WHC’s experts in corporate conservation.

Embedding Scalability

The recent focus by the conservation community on large landscape-scale conservation is essential to maximize limited public dollars for biodiversity protection, but the rejection of smaller-scale efforts from the conversation ignores opportunities for small-patch ecosystems and local-scale species and populations. In California, PG&E is working on local-scale species in their efforts to protect and recover the Bay checkerspot butterfly, which, with its dependence on serpentine grasslands, will not be protected under large landscape-scale conservation efforts.

Websites like The Nature of Cities show clearly how urban green spaces provide refuge for wildlife and, if managed correctly, benefit these species. Urban planners can now consider how their choice of plants, structures and water bodies can protect wildlife and enhance biodiversity, although, as a recent focus group study from Finland points out, few move beyond the consideration of energy and transportation in their plans. Designers can also integrate wildlife habitat in their smaller spaces by installing structures that provide habitat for declining species like a hexagonal bee hotel built by French designers for an architectural festival.

Further, small-scale efforts can have impacts beyond an immediate conservation enhancement, as these efforts can be pilot projects eventually replicated across a portfolio of properties. They can be restoration projects that seek to increase ecosystem functionality towards a conservation goal, or they may just be small local efforts that enhance nature on a small, local scale for the needs of the human community. Small-scale efforts can also impact connectivity by providing essential corridors for movement and by building resilience.

Conservation on multiple scales is not only laudable, it is necessary. Through its recognition program, WHC seeks to ensure that multiple scales, multiple approaches and multiple outcomes can achieve a WHC Conservation Certification.

Yet, even without these reasons, WHC would be designing its new certification program with multiple points of entry for all project sizes due to its adherence to one of the key principles of the development of Voluntary Sustainable Standards (VSS) – accessibility.

A VSS without accessibility cannot achieve the impact it needs. Without accessibility a conservation certification program will remain an unattainable standard, excluding those who own marginal lands, fragmented lands or land in urban and suburban settings. By obeying the principle of accessibility, WHC is drafting a new standard that all landowners regardless of size and location can participate in.

While designing for scalability, WHC also recognizing that all outcomes are not equal. An effort to restore a wetland to functionality or manage a rights-of-way system for pollinators across hundreds of miles will have a greater conservation impact than a native flower garden on a fraction of an acre or an isolated action to remediate the impact of invasive species. With its new standard, WHC will, for the first time, offer tiers of recognition that honor all actions but highlight exceptional outcomes. Tiers of recognition are themselves aspects of accessibility, as they provide larger landowners with an incentive to participate and all applicants with a reason to excel.

Embracing a Radical Transparency

Scalability through multiple points of entry and tiered levels of recognition can only be supported through the radical transparency being embraced as part of this redesign process. Transparency designed into the system underpins accessibility by showing a roadmap to certification while also supporting credibility.

WHC is embracing transparency of process – how the multiple points of entry were determined, how the projects are evaluated, where the tiers of recognition start and finish and how the wall between program support and project evaluation is maintained. It is also embracing transparency of outcome – what efforts are being recognized and who owns those efforts.

Applicants will know what is required of them, how their efforts will be evaluated and how the system is governed. Observers will understand how the system was built and who participated in building it. Reviewers will have clear direction on how projects are assessed, and everyone will understand the limits and possibilities of this new certification.

Andrew Winston, a respected author and leader of corporate sustainability efforts, used the term “radical transparency” in his recent book The Big Pivot to show how consumers and technology make opacity in business harder and harder to defend. WHC is designing transparency into its new certification system so that businesses will not only be able to view a route towards recognition, but view openly how their programs rank in terms of effort and outcome. This transparency will ultimately drive change by providing an open door to the possibilities and a reason to engage.

Providing Support

All interested parties will also receive support from WHC, from program design through project implementation and application for recognition.

Many WHC applicants are not professional conservation actors or trained educators. They implement conservation projects for a variety of reasons and with a variety of resources at their disposal. To help applicants build for success, WHC will provide support at all stages of the project. WHC staff is expert in working within the corporate context, understanding the challenges and opportunities of implementing conservation and education projects on all types of corporate landholdings and connecting corporate lands to the right local partners. Within the new certification program, this expertise will remain available and WHC staff will deploy as needed to ensure success.

Just like in its current system, the review process must be separated to retain credibility. When the new program is launched, the wall between support and review will be clearly delineated and the radical transparency designed into the program will explain how.

WHC is also designing support into its new certification program through a new intuitive online application that will take each applicant step-by-step through a process that will provide them with the multiple entry points, show them the actions they need to take to implement good projects and list the evidence they need to gather before application. In this way, any landowner seeking to pursue WHC Conservation Certification will see a clear path with all the necessary information in one place, experience reduced burdensome bureaucratic requirements and come across few, if any, surprises.

Many VSS systems are accessible only to the top tier companies in each industry, leaving smaller operators without the tools or support to drive change. This barrier may be due to the “price of entry,” the complexity of approach or a certain set of mandated minimums like available acreage, size of facilities or number of employees. Through its new certification program, WHC wants to encourage participation through accessibility designed around three principles: transparency, scalability and support. It wants to encourage participation to increase impact – recognizing more conservation projects on corporate lands, engaging more employees in this aspect of corporate sustainability and connecting more communities to their corporate neighbors.

Read more WHC blogs.

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