State of Corporate Conservation 2022: Biodiversity as the Ultimate Key Performance Indicator

This blog post is a transcript of Margaret O’Gorman’s speech given at the 2022 WHC Conservation Conference in Detroit, Michigan.

Good afternoon and welcome to WHC’s Conservation Conference. Welcome to Detroit. Welcome to old friends and new members. It’s a real pleasure to talk to you all today and to see everyone looking happy to be back celebrating corporate conservation.

It’s been a crazy ride since we were last together in Baltimore in November 2019 – two and a half years ago. It’s so great to see everyone again. Now, I am certain there is nobody in this room who has not been impacted one way or another by the global pandemic, whether at home or at work or both. So, thank you, for taking care, for making travel arrangements and for coming out to this gathering – we’re not clear of the pandemic yet, but I certainly hope we are on the other side of it.

I know we all had different experiences over the last two and a half years, living through different restrictions from our bosses and governments. In Washington, DC, where I live, the city shut down for months with only grocery stores open. For city dwellers, urban nature became very important because when everything shut down, nature remained open as the best place to recreate and find some peace in a crazy world. With so many of the usual places of recreation like museums, theaters, playgrounds and shopping malls closed to the public during the pandemic, our city, state and national parks remained open and were overrun with increased visitor-ship – the quiet streets around where I live were teeming with walkers, my friends and colleagues in other parts of the country reported packed hiking trails and the national and international news media made much of nature returning to places where humans had once dominated.

That time really brings to mind one of my favorite poems, a poem by Wendell Berry called “The Peace of Wild Things.” It goes like this:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

The peace of wild things – it’s such a great image for the way nature brings calm to our crazy world.

And during the last two years, while nature was providing for a population surviving a pandemic, it has also emerged under the very academic term ‘biodiversity’ as an area of concern by the global corporate community.

Every month this year, we are seeing new ESG frameworks and supporting initiatives launching with great fanfare to highlight and address biodiversity as an area of risk and opportunity for companies across the supply chain. For many years, companies outside of the extractive sectors could claim that biodiversity was not a ‘materiality’ but, thanks to the emergence of a focus on supply chain, this is no longer possible and companies — whatever sector they are in — are expected to report on and account for nature.

We’re seeing increased interest in nature from the halls of the EU government to the stage at Davos. This year, the CDP has included a suite of questions about biodiversity, and the newly formed Taskforce for Nature-related Financial Disclosures has released a beta version for feedback.

As global corporate thought leaders finally wake up to the need and opportunity for all companies to act for nature, we should really invite them here to see what’s been going on for more than 30 years at cement plants and quarries, at auto factories and test tracks, at corporate campuses and even on the grounds of a rum distillery. We are seeing a growing recognition of the need to address biodiversity by the private sector – I recently read an article that dubbed biodiversity the new net zero, and a WHC board member told me that nature is the new carbon – but there are still huge gaps across many of the tools and reports moving into the space.

It’s a wild world of biodiversity disclosures. At WHC, we maintain a database of 76 tools and frameworks that exist at the intersection of business and biodiversity. We use them to inform the strategies we build for the private sector. A recent analysis we did of these 76 tools found unsurprisingly, a wide variety in definitions of biodiversity, a wide variety of approaches to biodiversity and a wide assortment of metrics for biodiversity. We found little that draws these tools together, but where we do find them, it’s in what’s missing, the blind spots. Our analysis has found that by and large, these tools focus on impact over uplift – they have a singular focus on the operational impacts to biodiversity and ignore so many opportunities to create positive outcomes for biodiversity on lands that are operational and not. By ignoring uplift opportunities – efforts that increase health of habitat and ecosystems — these tools ignore a holistic/systems view of nature. They also ignore the need, no, the necessity to act wherever possible. The very idea that acts of conservation matter is alien to these tools.

We also found that these tools exist in a vacuum from each other – hello DJSI, let me introduce you to GRI 304, who I am happy to further introduce to GCCA. The tools do not refer to each other. It is as if other tools don’t exist. This lack of cross-reference and lack of cross-comparability — which is, I’m sure, dictated by the need to hold onto market share — causes corporate report writers to be overwhelmed and not engage fully with any topic that is not mandated, which means much of the work and much of the potential for work is being lost in the craziness of competing criteria.

Also, there is a significant lack of connection to the other parts of ESG, EHS and other corporate concerns. These tools are not joining the dots. They could learn from you who join the dots between your nature-based efforts and your community relations work, between your biodiversity projects and your educational initiatives, between what’s inside your fence line and what’s outside it. In all these fancy new tools, there’s no recognition that a grassland can impact employee engagement or a forestry effort can give back to the community.

And my favorite criticism is the focus on areas considered important for biodiversity. Whether we call them key biodiversity areas or important bird areas, the focus on rare and imperiled species and systems creates a sense that common species and systems are ok – they’re not. A study of radar imagery by Cornell University found three billion birds missing from our skies since 1970; of this absence, 90% of the losses are from 12 species of bird including so-called common species like sparrows, blackbirds, warblers and finches. Ignoring common species and habitats creates a resource imbalance for implementation and undervalues the losses found by Cornell and also ignores local and hyper local value. By focusing on key biodiversity areas, it’s like every act of conservation matters, but some matter more than others.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I embrace these tools. I love the fact that we’re no longer putting biodiversity in the corner, but as the nature crisis emerges from the shadows of the climate crisis, we must create opportunities to value uplift and not just impact, to consider all species and habitats and not just rare and endangered ones, to think in a systems way about these efforts and include connections to culture, society and community as being meaningful in both relative and absolute terms.

Another aspect of the ascension of biodiversity within the ESG world that worries me is the reduction of nature to a check box, a binary value, a data point, when we know nature is so much more than that. Nature has so much more texture and color and light and sound than any GRI or CDP report can ever convey – and it has so many more connections than the siloed questions of DJSI and TNFD can interrogate. We need to keep our finger on the pulse of nature so we can report our impacts, but we also need to acknowledge that there is more to nature than a data point — that nature can deliver beyond any report.

During the pandemic, nature delivered calm during uncertain times, and during a recent visit to Mexico, nature delivered a fascinating attitudinal change that happened over the course of an afternoon spent at a feldspar mine.

It was in the state of Puebla where I traveled with Covia. I was there to support the company’s showcasing of its restoration program at a mine in Zacatlan and with Michele Oxlade, Covia’s Director of Corporate Conservation and her colleagues Miguel, Anna and Mirthala and Natalie. The visit was in advance of Covia’s World Environment Day programming and in celebration of a new local partnership focused on community development.

The visit was wonderful for a number of reasons, not least of which was the hospitality of the Covia employees and everyone we met along the way — and of course the food was especially excellent — but I was there to work, and part of the work was to attend a tour of the restoration effort at the mine site. This tour was structured around a number of stations that followed the story of the restoration, and this is where nature effected an attitudinal change. As we moved from one location to another, the initially skeptical pod of government people evolved from doubting to believing as they quizzed the mine manager and the restoration managers about their soil management, their forest management and their biodiversity management. As we moved through each station, their questioning became less about ‘gotcha’ and more about ‘tell me more.’

Here’s a tip – make sure your mine manager, who can talk knowledgeably about soil mycorrhiza, and your restoration professionals show both pride and knowledge in their work, and you will see the resistance of government officials to approve of anything you do just melt away.

In similar circumstances, a friend of mine had the same experience of biodiversity being a great government relations tool this year when she visited the Bacardi distillery in Puerto Rico with a contingent of U.S. government staffers and elected officials where, after the usual tour of the distillery – if you haven’t been, you should go – they had a tour of their WHC-certified program. What struck the party of government staffers from all the things they saw at the distillery was the enthusiasm of the team in charge of the WHC certified program. I’ve met that team and I’m not at all surprised that they managed to inspire politicians.

So, if nature can melt the stone-cold heart of a politician or government regulator, it can do anything. With our member companies and others, we’ve been exploring a lot of the things nature can do over the last year, leading to some exciting products, publications and initiatives.

At the end of 2021, we completed an exciting project with the USFS on the opportunities for meaningful corporate engagement in urban and community forestry. With so many companies launching forestry goals to support their carbon emission reductions, we wanted to encourage community-first action by showing how different companies implement forestry efforts that deliver benefit to the community and to nature. We examined the drivers of robust community forestry on corporate lands and across corporate fence lines and we delivered a road map and a suite of toolkits to help companies think through the whys, whats and wherefores of real community forestry action that consider the right tree in the right place, invest in necessary care and feeding and that consult community needs to inform the action. According to financial analysts, the value of the global carbon market was $215 billion dollars in 2019. We know that forests are a significant part of that market helping the private sector offset the carbon it produces, but when an offset can also bring benefit to the communities impacted by companies, it’s a no-brainer to want to divert a tiny bit of that $215 billion dollars to community-first forestry action. Through our work, we want to use community forestry to join the dots between expensive and expansive corporate-level climate ambitions connected to carbon markets and site-level action connected to communities.

In addition to the USFS project, we’ve recently completed a project with Niagara bottling to implement micro-forests at three of their locations. Micro-forests, or Miyawaki forests, reflect a new approach to forestry that started in Japan and was popularized by Toyota. Microforestry takes a small plot of land and plants dense stands of diverse species of trees that have been proven to grow quicker and deliver higher biodiversity value than traditional re-forestation approaches. WHC staff received training in the method and are now experts in helping companies design and deliver such projects on plots the size of a tennis court.

Working with urban and community forestry was one of the highlights of the past year for us – it was a great way to connect with both members and non-members around a different aspect of nature and to show that forestry programs can fit in small places, can meet community needs and can deliver so many benefits. It was a lovely light spot in a tough year.

And part of the toughness of the year for me is that I couldn’t get to do much travelling beyond my trip to Puebla, and it’s through travel to WHC programs and member locations that I get my best stories, the ones about nature and the things that you are able to do to help and encourage it.

And as I was thinking about this speech, I realized I needed to top up my store of nature stories. To help me, I reached out to my friends. I reached out to my friends through social media and asked them to tell me their nature stories, to tell me about a meaningful time or an interaction that they had with nature that stayed with them.

I was heartened by the responses:

My friend Dave, who for many years ran the endangered species program at the state of New Jersey, told a wonderful story about rescuing a piping plover chick that had somehow, he thinks through the act of a predatory gull, been found in the front yard of a house on the Jersey shore, at least a mile from any suitable habitat. At that time, and even today, the state’s biologists know where all the piping plover nests are and monitor them from nesting to fledging, as the birds’ survival is dependent on minimum human and predator disturbance, which can be tough to find on the Jersey shore especially in the height of the summer. So Dave and his colleague visited the home where the chick had been rescued and figured out where the nearest and likeliest nest was. This was a nest that had been surveyed with four chicks and lo and behold, only three chicks were there that evening. Not wanting to disturb the little family, Dave and colleague waited until dusk to deliver the chick some distance from the nest and watched with increasing joy as the pipes from the rescued piping plover chick attracted the mother piping plover and the three siblings until the family was reunited. This rescue of one little bird required a member of the public paying attention to their surroundings, the engagement with nature to call the biologists, Dave’s knowledge of the nest location and plover behavior and possibly a lot of luck on the side of the chick, but that summer evening a federally endangered species was a victory snatched from the jaws of a herring gull!

My friend Amy added some science to the stories arriving in my inbox. She has just completed a PhD in social work and found through her scholarship the importance of nature to immigrant communities. She shared the results of her research on how Burmese refugees find home and psychological well-being through community gardens and how such gardens offer an opportunity for social interactions, improved well-being, a sense of belonging, maintenance of cultural traditions and cultivation of native crops to sustain a connection to their home country. This story of connection is simple to understand by anyone who yearns for home and a place of their own.

My friend David weighed in with an ‘isn’t nature amazing’ story about scientists finding the largest plant in the world off the coast of Western Australia where a single sea grass has grown to be the size of Cincinnati. It’s called Poseidon’s ribbon weed and has grown over the past 4,500 years to be the largest plant in the world, knocking from its perch Utah’s Pando, a colony of 40,000 aspen trees connected by their roots and covering an area bigger than 80 football fields. The Humongous Fungus is even bigger, weaving a web of mycelial tendrils underground and beneath tree bark across 3.5 square miles of Oregon’s Malheur National Forest. By comparison, the sea grass in western Australia is 77 square miles.

There were many more stories that I don’t have the time to tell here – my friend Diane, who is an amazing wildlife rehabber, told me a story about using the plunger from a 3-cc syringe to stabilize the broken humerus of a juvenile red-tailed hawk, my sister Eileen told me a story about a group rescue of a frog family from a closed drain in County Cavan, Ireland…the stories kept coming.

All the stories then reminded me of one of my favorite nature stories. We were in the back garden of my mother’s home in the center of Ireland. There were six adults sitting around the remains of a lovely dinner – it was around 10:00 p.m. and the light was just fading from the sky. There were also three children, young girls, all at the age where everything is a superlative, the best, the worst, the ickiest, usually communicated at a pitch and volume that likely woke up the parish priest who lived three doors down.

As usual, I had my acoustics monitoring bat detector with me as I knew that the outbuildings in my mother’s house were likely perfect for summer bats. As the light faded and the late dusk arrived, we began to see the bats emerge, and the three young girls gave shrieks of horror and ran away but, as we collected the data on the bat monitor and started to give names to the bats that flew by us – soprano pipistrelle, natterer’s bat, daubenton’s bat, common pipistrelle…yes there are a lot of bats in those outhouses — as each name showed up on the monitor, the bats lost their ‘ick factor’ until the girls were screaming around the garden shouting each name and wishing the bats a good night. Fr. Tom, the parish priest, was definitely not happy.

I love all these stories and know that we all have stories to tell.

We can all tell our stories, and WHC is always here to help you do that. And this year, we added new entries to our web-based Corporate Success Stories library – working with you to tell you story on our website. In 2021, we added success stories from Bacardi, Buzzi, Cemex, Chemours, Crestswood, Fidelity, OPG and Vulcan. The biodiversity efforts profiled in these success stories could certainly serve as data points in an ESG report, but the thing that makes them special and meaningful is that each one has a connection to employees, community and education. Each one has intersections. From Buzzi Unicem’s Stockertown Plant where AP Environmental Science and Biology students regularly visit to conduct activities like water quality analyses, soil comparisons and to do planting events to Vulcan’s Villa Rica quarry where a formerly certified program is being fundamentally redesigned to better align with employee and community interests, each project in our success stories represents a sum that is so much greater than its parts — yes, delivering biodiversity uplift but also providing value beyond biodiversity both inside and across the fence line.

And we are increasingly seeing work being done inside and outside of corporate fence lines as companies recognize the rich rewards from engaging in communities with nature.

Like the work we are doing supported by DTE Foundation, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s South East Michigan Initiative and the US Forest Service Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) in Detroit and in the Calumet and Chicagoland regions.

The primary objective of the work is to restore the health of the Great Lakes by creating better management of the water that flows into the lakes. The WHC goal towards this objective is simple: plant 1,600 trees, restore big and small plots of land with green infrastructure through this and manage 2.5 million gallons of storm water per year. For our project partners, their goals differ – at the port of Illinois, the goal of the port is to create buffers against sound and fugitive dust. The Chicago parks department, one of our project partners, seeks investments in urban green spaces. In the Detroit I-94 corridor, project partner Al Kebulan Village’s goal is to create space for a farmers’ market, to contribute to cleaning the air and to provide education and employment to local youth, while the Mt. Elliott community seeks space places for women and elders to congregate and recreate. Corporate partner GM Plant ZERO seeks to engage with the program to support its goals for the facility, as does ArcelorMittal Tailored Blanks.

At the end of the day, we can reach outstanding objectives for the environment as a whole while meeting our personal, community and corporate goals. It’s all about connections.

And it was connections that are to thank for us being here in Detroit this year. This region has the highest number of programs with Conservation Certification™, and the state of Michigan has the densest cluster of WHC’s members, so when the opportunity arose to move our conference – FOR THE FIRST TIME – out of Baltimore, MD, the connection to Michigan meant that we just had to come to Detroit. The region is home to members like DTE, GM, Stellantis, ITC, Marathon, BASF, ArcelorMittal North America, WM and OPG, who generously sponsored this year’s State of Corporate Conservation and others who work with us. Our partners, critical connections for corporate conservation, include University of Michigan, Dearborn; Friends of the Rouge; the Greening of Detroit; Canfield Commons; and one of our newest friends is the Erb Family Foundation, who has generously sponsored our Makers’ Pavilion this year to celebrate the many artists and makers that are turning out cool stuff in the city. Don’t wait until the airport to buy a Detroit-themed gift for your friends and family — visit the Makers’ Pavilion on Wednesday between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. to check out to cool and original output of the maker community in the city. All of the proceeds go directly to the vendors, so please support them.

And it’s not just the Makers’ Pavilion that connect us to this place – on the agenda this year we have a panel on community-based conservation efforts in Detroit and a general session panel that will explore partnerships and collaborations in the Great Lakes region. I personally love the fact that we’re able to celebrate the Great Lakes at our conference. When I joined WHC ten years ago, Daniel Goldfarb took me on a tour of the Calumet region which encompassed post-industrial towns like Gary and Whiting but also amazing nature places like the Indiana Dunes National Park. I’ve always loved this region with its juxtaposition of industry and nature and with a huge potential to recover that nature while still supporting a large economy.

So, here we are, and we’re very happy to be here. I hope you all take full advantage of the many great things on offer in Detroit from the classic Coney Island hot dogs to the Art Museum, the Eastern Market, the River Front and the many fine restaurants in the downtown. Detroit is a great place to work and play.

And we’re here to both work and play.

I’m here to work, not just to stand here and tell stories about nature. I’m here to talk about the state of corporate conservation, and this past year has seen many new innovative products and approaches coming from partnerships between us and our members.

We’ve been working hard to help our members improve their knowledge of their biodiversity impacts at operations and along supply chains. In 2021, WHC consulting developed and deployed a methodology, Biodiversity Impact Profiles, to add to our other methodologies for strategies and frameworks and our technical services offerings that many of you have enjoyed. We’re very proud of the methodologies we develop. Our Biodiversity Impact Profiles quickly and credibly assess direct and indirect impacts of facilities, products and supply chains on biodiversity. What makes the new tool so interesting is that it mirrors our values – it’s practical and accessible and (true to our nature) it recognizes positive impacts to biodiversity and generates recommendations for uplift, to increase biodiversity and ecosystem health. In the last six months, this methodology has successfully been deployed in four countries on four very different impacts questions, and we are eager to launch it more broadly in 2023.

Another methodology that we are proud to have developed is a geospatial analysis screening tool to respond to questions of proximity to important biodiversity areas. Our approach has been to deliver a customized report that provides a read of the actual risks of proximity and an on-ramp for uplift opportunities.

And we’ve not stopped there. We’ve also had fun innovating products to support our members’ education intentions. For one of our newest members, Lannon Stone, we delivered four educational curricula spanning elementary through high school ages, integrating STEM concepts, aligned with grade-specific standards for topics ranging from pollinators to geoscience.

All the curricula contain easy-to-follow lesson plans designed to be suitable for both a trained educator or a non-professional educator (i.e., a site person) to conduct. The documents are being used to facilitate engagement with nearby schools at each of the company’s quarries and were created with input from the Lannon Stone team. Each one is hyper local and aligned with state educational aspirations, and each provides a road map for a successful education event.

We are really proud of these products and innovations, but we are also really proud of you. Throughout the last two years, you’ve kept your certified programs moving and really impressed us all with your ability to manage your landscapes through some trying times. We just recognized some projects from earlier years in the pandemic, and at the conference this week, we’ll recognize projects from 2021. It’s great to be able to recognize a full year at one conference, which is why we moved our annual event from November to June.

We moved to June because it made sense to celebrate an annual cohort of new and renewing certifications from the same calendar year, and this year we celebrate the achievements of 2021.

In 2021, we received applications from 330 unique programs, of which 327 were successful. Of the 327 successful applications, 53 received certification at the gold level, indicating that they are truly outstanding, and 77 were recognized at the silver level. We had 41 new programs seeking certification, including new certifications Ice Mountain/Blue Triton Brands, Johnson & Johnson and new member Solvay whose Brazil Paulinia achieved gold certification in 2021.

We expanded our presence in China with certifications in three new states/provinces and in Mexico with certifications in three new states.

We worked with 38 reviewers in 2021, with each program receiving two reviews to ensure consistency of scoring, and these reviewers look at each program through its constituent projects – they reviewed 500 habitat projects, 511 species projects and 227 education projects. The top themes continue to be landscaped and grassland habitat projects, avian and pollinator species projects and awareness and community engagement in our education projects. We continue to see strong representation in our ‘other’ category for remediation and green infrastructure projects.

Let’s celebrate all of our certified programs with a round of applause for everyone who submitted an application in 2021. Thank you for your hard work.

We’re giving out 21 awards at Conference to recognize the outstanding projects from 2021. I wish every project could win because they are all outstanding. They all show that the spirit of corporate conservation is alive and well in 2022.

And speaking of spirit, remember to bring your spirit to the awards dinner tomorrow night. I know some of you already have plans and props to make sure you’re seen at the dinner, but I invite you all to bring your best team spirit and celebrate corporate conservation and this wonderful chance to be together again.

As I close out today’s speech, I reflect on stories and how stories inspire us to action. Most of the nature stories that came from my appeal to my friends were about species – operation Kermit, the piping plover rescue and the red-tail hawk rehabilitation – and they were also about action. They were about people being aware of the world around them and seeing an opportunity to make a positive difference, to create uplift for nature. They were great and heartwarming examples of every act of conservation matters.

Nature gives us so much more than stories — it gives us peace in times of pandemic, it gives us a tool for positive government relations, it gives us amazing imagery like you’ve enjoyed on the screen behind me today. It even gives us metrics and data for corporate reporting.

And when we think about the reporting and the imagery and the peace, we can only come to the conclusion that in our world of data and metrics, nature is a very connected and very useful key performance indicator. In fact, former board member Tim Bent from Bridgestone used to tell us this all the time. He used to say that biodiversity is the ultimate KPI because if nature is healthy, if ecosystems are restored, if species are no longer trending towards extinction and if the web of life is whole and intact then everything else flows from that — our health, our prosperity and our happiness. If we live and work in harmony with nature, we can build the KPI so that it delivers a healthy planet and all the stories for everyone to tell, whether a species rescue, a larger-than-imagined plant or a bonkers bat identification situation.

And the other thing that makes biodiversity the ultimate KPI is that it doesn’t matter who you are, whether you’re the CEO or the mine manager, a teacher or an engineer, a soil scientist, a sustainability professional or a philanthropist. It doesn’t matter because you can take action for nature – you just need to be situationally aware, engaged in the natural world however you can be and active in an act of conservation. For a thriving planet, that is ultimately what truly matters.

Please enjoy the next two days – learn, laugh and leave here energized to do more.

Thank you.

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