Setting the New Standard: Enhancing Credibility with Stakeholder Involvement

By Margaret O’Gorman, President|June 22, 2015

This is the sixth in a series of monthly blog posts exploring the development of a new standard in corporate conservation certification.

Credibility is not an absolute. It cannot be viewed or exist independently. It has to be relative to something or someone–a set of standards, an audience, an individual or an entity. Credibility is hard to establish and measure. It must be earned. It cannot be self-anointed. In the conservation world, credibility is often challenged as NGOs, academics and authors defend their preferred approaches, deploy science to support their own arguments and dismiss efforts that are not in complete agreement with their own.

Take forest management as an example. In the conservation community, the views on how to manage healthy forests are as broad and varied as forest ecosystems themselves. One school of thought insists that the only credible forest management plan is one where no tree is removed for any reason. Another adheres to the principle that forests must be managed within a strict framework of minimally invasive activities, while a third advocates for aggressively managing forests for economic reasons – cutting and planting to meet market demands. While all approaches may be valid given a particular set of circumstances, adherents to one approach tend to perceive adherents to different approaches as lacking in credibility, as either too “green” or not “green” enough.

In the conservation world, credibility is often challenged as NGOs, academics and authors defend their preferred approaches, deploy science to support their own arguments and dismiss efforts that are not in complete agreement with their own.

Witness the disagreement between The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the old-guard environmentalists, embodied in a The New Yorker article in May 2014 that was subsequently followed by a chorus of ayes and nays as environmentalists took sides for and against approaches to conservation and prioritization of implementation. This war of words culminated in an open letter to the conservation community signed by 240 co-signatories telling the community to stop arguing and get back to work. Then there was Jonathan Franzen, who, again in The New Yorker, decided that the National Audubon Society was not credible because its message about climate change overshadowed many other threats of more immediate concern to avian species. National Audubon is well aware of these threats and is passionately addressing them. More recently, the newly-convened eco-modernists made a shot across the bow with their argument that the environment be de-coupled from human development processes, resulting in several impassioned responses from others who disagreed and accused them of lacking credibility and being techno-optimists. Old conservationists, new conservationists, rewilding proponents, de-growth advocates, pragmatic ecologists, natural capitalists and eco-modernists all fight for space on the green stage, dismissing and embracing approaches under the moniker of credibility[1].

Credibility and the New Standard

When seeking to design credibility into its new standard, WHC sought to remain outside of the academic debates, putting a distance between itself and the arbiters of “correct” conservation. At the beginning of the design of the new standard for corporate conservation, WHC teased apart different conservation themes. For each theme, it convened a group of experts. These experts have included NGO partners, representatives from government agencies, consultants, academics and, in some cases, our own members. Each expert group was guided through a series of conversations designed to establish a suite of conservation and education objectives, a list of credible approaches to meet these objectives and a set of baseline standards that each project would be required to meet in order to receive WHC recognition. The conservation themes were categorized by habitat, species management, education and awareness and a category that addresses overarching approaches like Integrated Vegetation Management (IVM) or Invasive Species. By bringing groups of experts together, WHC did not adopt a single entity’s objectives or priorities but instead encouraged individuals representing diverse points of view to offer suggestions and agree on standards within a pragmatic, not academic, framework.

Credibility within WHC’s new standard will be earned through WHC’s approach to building the standard, but secured only through the verified results of increased biodiversity and habitats being managed and monitored according to best practices that meet global conservation objectives.

This multi-stakeholder approach is fascinating and challenging, though also frustrating at times. It was interesting when a group of well-informed and engaged experts “got it,” and understood both the opportunities and challenges of working in the corporate context, as happened in discussions about invasive species and green infrastructure. When it clicked with a group, ideas and observations came fast and furious. It was challenging, trying to find that sweet spot between accessible and meaningful, and setting the bar high enough for aspiration yet realistic enough to encourage implementation. It was frustrating when conservation partners just did not ”get it,” when they could not move beyond the fact that WHC recognizes conservation on lands leased, owned or operated by corporations. Happily, the frustrations were rare as most partners came to the table understanding the unique opportunities for corporations to be better conservation citizens and supportive of efforts to align their priorities.

Credibility within WHC’s new standard will be earned through WHC’s approach to building the standard, but secured only through the verified results of increased biodiversity and habitats being managed and monitored according to best practices that meet global conservation objectives.

The details of this approach will be discussed in a subsequent post that continues to explore the theme of credibility and how it informed the development of a new standard for corporate conservation.

[1] Author’s note: clicking on any links in this paragraph will lead a reader down a rabbit hole of opinions. The author is not responsible for productivity loss due to this distraction.

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