Safeguarding Biodiversity is Good for Business

Yesterday saw the launch of the ‘TEEB for Business’ report at the first annual Global Business of Biodiversity (GBOB) symposium, at the Excel Centre in London. The BES policy team was there, with other members of the Natural Capital Initiative secretariat, to see Pavan Sukhdev, TEEB study leader, unveil the report to an assembled audience of policy-makers, representatives from NGOs and business leaders. Although business still has a long way to go in terms of recognising the importance of biodiversity and sustainability in supply chains, it was encouraging to see that at least some companies have taken this to heart – and are showing leadership to others.

The Chief Executive of Rio Tinto delivered a presentation outlining why he thought that investing in biodiversity made sound business sense. Business is clearly first and foremost about the ‘bottom line’; economics and the profit margin. However, in order to maintain access to land and resources in perpetuity, Rio Tinto seems to have recognised that this depends on creating a reputation as a company which is not simply going to trash the environment to achieve the biggest profit, but on developing a reputation for ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’. CEO Tom Albanese said that Rio Tinto wants to create a ‘net positive impact’ for biodiversity.

Gavin Neath, Vice-President for Global Communications at Unilever delivered a presentation showcasing the company’s work in environmental stewardship. Unilever solely owns, and sustainably manages, its tea plantations. Flagging its sustainable practices up to the consumer has resulted in a consumer perception that tea processed in this way actually tastes better, delivering financial returns for the company.

A common theme to emerge from the day was the need for better communication and a ‘new language’ around the concepts of biodiversity and ecosystem services. This was perhaps most strongly illustrated by Pavan Sukhdev, who said that if he could have the opportunity once more he would re-name the TEEB study, ‘TEN’, the ‘Economics of Nature’. Pavan highlighted one of the next steps in the TEEB project, ‘TEEB for People’, which will see the creation of a website with social networks spinning off from this. It’s hoped that the public will engage with this resource – but there’s no doubt that either developing a new common language to describe the importance of biodiversity and ecosystem services, or working out means to better communicate using existing terminology, is vital.

Secretary of State at Defra, Caroline Spelman, delivered an address in the afternoon. The Minister used the opportunity to announce that in August, Defra will start a process of mapping the UK’s supplies of palm oil. The Government will work with companies and NGOs to produce a plan to shift the UK’s use of palm oil onto a sustainable footing. This is very encouraging. Less encouraging was the Minister quoting a figure of £3 million to support the implementation of REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), where previously government had committed a much higher sum. The Minister’s answer to a query from the audience referenced the very difficult economic times ahead and the budget cuts which Government departments are being asked to make. By the Comprehensive Spending Review in the autumn it will be clear how other commitments are to be down-scaled: the conservation and ecological science communities have a role to play in advising Government in how to prioritise the cuts, making sure that harsh economic times to come do not compromise advances in environmental protection.

Overall, an interesting meeting. The role that business can play in highlighting the importance of biodiversity conservation, leading the way for consumers, was clear. The next steps must be to move from the conference centre to the board room of those companies not represented: to cease ‘preaching to the converted’ and to engage proactively with those harder to reach.