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Taking a strategic approach towards nature: why 2020 could be the year of business and nature

Dr Gemma Cranston, Director of our Business and Nature team, suggests that a new international framework to restore nature could change the landscape for business everywhere. No company should arrive at the end of the year without having stopped to think about what the ecological crisis means for their business.

Change is coming. Nature loss, put on the back-burner as business focuses on the climate crisis, has started to feature on the corporate radar. Retailers are ramping up their commitments to deforestation-free commodities, organic and vegan product lines continue to expand in response to concerns about the environmental impacts of some forms of intensive agriculture and meat production, and more consumers are demanding their purchases are sustainable for people and the planet. Research shows 77 per cent of UK grocery shoppers have in the past year considered or actively made choices based on brands’ environmental policies, while research into US consumers’ purchasing of consumer packaged goods showed 50 per cent of growth in that market from 2013 to 2018 came from sustainability-marketed products.

Thriving economies and societies, and therefore markets, are dependent on healthy natural systems, as well as a stable climate. This means it is in business’s own interests to protect and restore nature.

Why businesses are waking up to nature

Nature has a critical role to play in providing solutions for many of the most serious environmental, economic, and social challenges that we face, including climate change, health, and water and food security. We need nature to regulate global temperatures, to clean the air that we breathe and to provide vital resources.

The scale of anthropogenic disruption of earth’s life supporting systems is extensive. Habitat is cleared for crops and mines; agro-chemicals negatively impact insect pollinators and make their way into the wider environment; and soils are degraded from unsustainable farming practices and the expansion of infrastructure. One million species are currently threatened with extinction.

The commercial implications, including market, operational and reputational risks, are now hitting home. As pollinators decline, soils erode and water sources dry up; sourcing of raw materials will become increasingly volatile. With supply chains at risk of being disrupted, consumers may not have access to products at a price they are willing to pay. It probably won’t be long before we see legal obligations requiring greater understanding of supply chains and their impacts. For example, the EU’s Green Deal promises new measures to support deforestation-free value chains and new approaches to address the main drivers of biodiversity loss. Meanwhile, there is momentum behind nature-related financial disclosures, along the lines of the disclosures required on climate through the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures.

Crucially, it is not possible to resolve the climate crisis without restoring nature: to sequester carbon, to protect communities against rising waters, to mitigate against the effects of extreme weather events such as storms, to name but a few. Business are starting to recognise that the climate and ecological crises need to be considered in the round and solutions can be delivered that allow business to react to both.

Yet many companies do not yet fully understand their impact on nature and only a few have taken action to address the problem. Even in sectors such as food and apparel, where the dependence and impact on natural systems is direct, companies may only be beginning to consider strategies that protect or restore these systems, let alone explore ways to regenerate them. For the majority of businesses whose dependence is fundamental but indirect (i.e. via supply chains, consumers, or even the diets of employees) there is limited visibility of these risks and therefore limited action to influence change across value chains.

Why 2020 is the year to make a difference

2020 is an ideal moment for companies to review and renew their corporate strategies. Leading business practice to date has focused on being incrementally ‘less bad’, for example minimizing run-off of hazardous substances, procuring from certified sources and restricting the amount of land used per output, rather than on reversing damage or finding viable business models and processes that restore rather than degrade nature. Business leaders should be developing robust strategies that integrate the restoration of nature into their business strategies and decisions.

The spotlight will be on the international community as three key international frameworks are up for review this year:

  • In July, there is the opportunity to refresh 21 of the 169 UN SDG Targets, which expire in 2020. Over half of these relate directly to nature.
  • In October, at meetings in China, the UN will be deciding on a new 10-year framework for biodiversity under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the global strategy for nature.
  • In December, at the international climate change summit in the UK, we expect nature-based solutions such as afforestation, land restoration, soil carbon enhancement as well as ecosystem-based adaptation to feature prominently on the strategies against climate change.

The private sector does not have to be a spectator in those processes. On the contrary, one of the lessons from the Paris Agreement is that business needs to be deeply involved. Companies can show ambition and leadership and let policy makers know they are willing to play their part in their transformation that is required.

The University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) is a partner of the Business for Nature coalition, which is working to amplify the message of such progressive business.

CISL’s Business and Nature team has already been helping a range of companies across sectors, from food and beverage, retail, apparel to water utilities, understand their impacts and dependencies upon nature, including over fifty pilot test cases of the Natural Capital Protocol. We have co-developed new indicators to measure impacts on biodiversity in companies’ supply chains and explored specific challenges and solutions to pollination deficit for key commodities and analysed the risks and strategies for companies to respond. The team is looking forward to the challenge of 2020, working closely with the private sector to help companies embed the restoration of nature into their strategies and operating practices.  

Through its Business and Nature team CISL collaborates with companies to identify what the ecological crisis means for their businesses and take steps to transform their operations and strategies. We provide the structured path that businesses need to establish sustainability solutions and create momentum at scale. 


This blog was first published in Businesses Green on 20 January 2020 and included editorial support from Dr Cath Tayleur and Catherine Weller

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Gemma Cranston

Dr Gemma Cranston is the Director of the Business and Nature team, collaborating with companies to identify strategic approaches to address their dependencies and impacts on nature. She is leading a team who are looking to amplify business support for ambitious global action on reversing nature loss, articulate a view on what business leadership looks like in the face of the ecological crisis and identify sustainable and scalable solutions.    

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Articles on the blog written by employees of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the Institute or the wider University of Cambridge.

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