From helping Mongolia’s goat herders produce cashmere more efficiently to counting insects on “biodiversity plots” planted on farms, some of the world’s biggest brands are blazing a trail with innovative efforts to nurture nature.
Sustainability researchers say businesses have shown a surge of interest in limiting the harm their operations do to the planet, as scientists have outlined more clearly the threats to forests, water, soil, plants, animals, birds – and people.
“For decades we have been trying to get companies on board with this journey but in the past six to 12 months, I have never seen so much interest,” said Eva Zabey, executive director of Business for Nature, a coalition lobbying for stronger government policies and more corporate action.
At least 400 firms have signed up to international commitments to protect nature, and more than 1,200 companies already are taking some steps in their operations, she added.
Britain on Monday said it would start a consultation process on a potential new law that would force big companies to clean up their supply chains by fining them if they used products grown on illegally deforested land.
A World Economic Forum report in January estimated that $44 trillion of economic value generated around the world each year – over half of global GDP – depends on nature and its services.
Those include food crop pollination, genetic material for medicines and mangroves to reduce storm damage, said Cath Tayleur, a senior programme manager for business and nature at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL).
“The key message is that your business can’t continue to have negative impacts while still expecting to benefit from the positive aspects of biodiversity,” she told a webinar on business and nature this month.
Already nature “is in a perilous state”, she added.
A 2019 flagship report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) warned that up to 1 million animal and plant species out of an estimated 8 million are at risk of extinction, particularly due to industrial farming and fishing.
Numbers like these – together with greater recognition of the role forests play in absorbing planet-heating carbon – are pushing water utilities, mining companies, food manufacturers and others to address the environmental impact of how they source raw materials.
Chris Brown, senior director of sustainable supply chains at British supermarket chain Asda, said customer surveys show more than 90% of its shoppers care about the Walmart-owned business being green.
“We are seen as stewards of the natural resources we rely on by our customers,” he told the online event.
To earn their trust, Asda is transforming its supply chains, from selling fish certified by the Marine Stewardship Council to sourcing sustainably produced cocoa and palm oil, and planting trees to reach a net-zero deforestation goal.
One of its programmes works with potato growers to plant biodiversity plots on their land.
Asda sent in entomologists to identify and count the insects, and “see what we were generating other than pretty flowers and nice photos” from the project, said Brown.
He noted that 75% of global food production relies on pollinators such as bees and wasps, a key incentive to protect them.
Working out metrics to measure improvements to the soil and other benefits from eco-friendly agriculture will be one important challenge in the coming five years, he said.
Meanwhile, businesses face an “alphabet soup of initiatives” aimed at galvanising nature protection, making it hard to know which to back, he added.
Those initiatives include the New York Declaration on Forests, which strives to halve tropical deforestation by 2020 and end it by 2030 – although it is not on track to meet its goals – and the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment to reuse plastic items and reduce waste.
“There are an awful lot of pledges and commitments that companies are being asked to become signatories for – which is in my opinion both good and frustrating, because… just having a commitment doesn’t necessarily mean action,” said Gemma Cranston, director for business and nature at CISL.
The University of Cambridge institute has worked with Asda, France-based luxury goods group Kering, and other companies to produce practical tools for businesses to manage their supply chain risks associated with nature and ultimately become “nature-positive”, which means enriching rather than harming the natural world.
In July, Kering – which owns Gucci, Saint Laurent and Balenciaga, among other top fashion houses – published a biodiversity strategy with a series of targets to achieve what it calls a “net positive” impact by 2025.
That includes regenerating and protecting 2 million hectares – about six times the total land footprint of its supply chain – in the next five years.
Half of the target covers land in agricultural areas where the company sources its materials. It plans to restore that land through a 5-million-euro ($5.9-million) fund it has set up.
The rest it hopes to achieve by supporting U.N.-backed and other external schemes to protect forests, reduce carbon emissions and improve local livelihoods.
Since 2014, Kering has helped herding families in Mongolia’s South Gobi region boost the amount and quality of cashmere they get from their goats, while accessing meat and dairy markets.
The programme has enabled them to keep fewer animals – to reduce pressure on grasslands – and to better understand their potential role in protecting wildlife such as antelope and snow leopards, according to Kering.
“It’s quite easy for people to forget about the tight connection between fashion and agriculture – all of our clothes come from farms and managed forests and so on,” said Katrina ole-MoiYoi, a sustainable sourcing specialist with Kering.
But to make a wider impact on the planet, ole-MoiYoi said collaboration was needed within the fashion industry, because stopping biodiversity loss is “not something any one company can do alone”.
If businesses could team up on projects to transform cotton production, for example, it could be a “big win for everybody”, she said.
That is the kind of thinking behind The Fashion Pact, which brings together more than 250 brands and suppliers, representing about 35% of the industry, to work jointly on climate change, biodiversity and ocean health issues, she noted.
Zabey said the companies Business for Nature works with want clearer government policy and regulation to help them expand and accelerate their efforts to protect nature.
All eyes are on a new set of global biodiversity goals governments are due to hammer out at a U.N. conference next May.
That meeting was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic – itself an added incentive for environmental action to help lower the risks of diseases passing from wild animals to humans.
Ahead of the U.N. General Assembly in September, Business for Nature is urging companies to sign up to a collective “call for action” to reverse nature loss this decade, with “hundreds” of firms already on board, Zabey said.
One key aim is to create momentum and reassure governments “that all of these companies do think we should be going for more ambitious policy on nature”, she said.