The Signal and the Noise of Nature

Insights from Margaret O’Gorman, President, WHC

What a time to be alive and working at the intersection of business and biodiversity! The ecosystem is abuzz, not with recovering populations of bees and other beneficial insects, but with new and emerging frameworks, methodologies, scholarly publications and tech start-ups for the private sector. The broader corporate world is coming to a clearer understanding about its role and responsibility in contributing to a nature-positive future and, as it does so, is enabling policy, advocacy and academic professionals to advance various initiatives in support.

This development is not a sudden awakening by the private sector but instead is driven by looming regulations and expectations that will soon move nature action from voluntary to mandatory. Many companies — WHC member companies and land-based corporations in agriculture, fashion and forestry — have been working on this issue for decades, but many others are now just catching up.

On LinkedIn recently, Adrian Delleker, Sr. Researcher at The International Institute for Management Development (IMD), posted a chart of the Biodiversity Startup Ecosystem, which listed “42 startups that have biodiversity at the core of their business approach.” Elsewhere, an informal found 140 new start-ups for nature in the last year alone. A pass through the exhibit hall at GreenBiz’s sustainable finance and investing event, GreenFin 23, in June saw nature products as the dominant offering from the large financial institutions present. We’ve recognized a rise in nature-based jobs in sustainability teams and an increase in the presence of biodiversity in business conferences that have, for the last few years, been held hostage by carbon tunnel vision.

Through 2023, the noise has been almost deafening in this space, and care must be taken that it does not overshadow the signal. Between 2020 and 2030, the planet will be in a nature deficit. We will continue, without significant action, to lose species, ecosystems and habitats from both biodiversity hotspots and places where common plants and animals and ecosystems struggle for survival. The signal must remain strong, and the need to act must remain a North Star for all engaged in this effort — whether a startup incorporated last month or a group like WHC with decades of experience in this space.

In his inaugural piece for GreenBiz, Alex Novarro reminded us that companies need to go all-in on action, not just announcements, clearly showing his roots as a conservation biologist.

But action is not always easy to advance. A company can adopt the right goals, develop the right metrics and contribute to the right frameworks, but the distance from the sustainability office where such things are ideated to the site of impact is vast, both geographically and metaphorically, and many obstacles stand in the corporate maze that sits between intent and implementation.

In a recent response to a newly published paper on metrics, Samuel Sinclair from Biodiversify Ltd. made an excellent point that cannot be overstated that metrics aren’t essential for action. He rightly suggested that “companies don’t need complex metrics to understand where they need to take action.” Instead, Sinclair noted that the larger challenges companies face include strategizing, determining logistics, budgeting, etc.

This pragmatic assessment of where the challenges lie is also what WHC has known and seen and solved for decades. For successful implementation that sees corporate goals become meaningful action, the reality of working in a corporation must be understood and overcome. As more companies begin their nature journeys, they must take stock of these internal pain points and provide the infrastructure, budgets and people to address them.

These internal issues are not sexy and certainly not fodder for startups. These issues are the fundamentals of corporate change management – inclusion, communication etc. Companies starting the journey towards nature positivity should ask:

  • How do we create an inclusive approach to planning and action that recognizes and values existing efforts across the company?
  • How can we enable and encourage our environmental health and safety (EHS) colleagues, who have been collecting data for years for a variety of reasons, to share that data and collect different data for reporting purposes?
  • How can we empower newly minted Managers of Nature to advance new initiatives in corners of the company that are resistant to change, especially to edicts from corporate office?
  • How can we secure the resources for multi-year investments when sustainability offices seem to be restructured on an almost annual cycle?
  • How can we frame success of nature restoration or regeneration efforts into a quarterly reporting cadence?

As companies start their nature journeys, these fundamentals need to inform the strategies and become embedded in the action plans. And as action plans are implemented, moving a company from laggard to leader on nature, these fundamentals must become part of an adaptive management loop.

Yes, we need to embrace the power of these new tech platforms for observation, data collection and consolidation and even credit issuance, but we also must not lose sight of the fundamentals of driving change in a system as complex as a large corporation. We are all magpies, attracted to shiny objects and easily distracted from the mundane. But to stay centered on the signal and avoid the noise, we must look away and focus on what will advance us along this journey.

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