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Can big brands help save biodiversity?

November 9, 2010

As a rule, many people associate the growth of large commercial corporations with environmental degradation.  In this presentation to the TED conference earlier in the year, WWF vice-president Jason Clay outlines a radical vision of uniting commercial, multi-national brands to agree on imposing environmental sustainability standards as a prerequisite to the trade of 15 popular and environmentally important commodities such as palm oil, timber and fish.  Clay’s argument is that large corporations should be encouraged to strategically co-operate in setting environmental sustainability as a pre-market and pre-competition stipulation in their products.

Ambitiously, Clay asks that the pressing global need to reduce environmental degradation should persuade corporations as fundamentally opposed and competitive as Pepsi and Coca-Cola to co-operate for a common good.  He argues that as a relatively small number of corporations are responsible for the majority of the trade of the most important commodities, it is logical to target them, rather than “downstream” retailers or consumers.  By uniting a roundtable of 100 key global companies to agree on common pre-market environmental standards for their products, Clay hopes that global markets will shift to foster the protection of a planet that they have outgrown.

Applied appropriately, the vast resources available to large companies could potentially be invested into research which understands how commodities may be sustainably used whilst retaining economic productivity.  For example, Mars is investing in sequencing the genome of the cocoa plant to isolate traits of productivity and drought tolerance. Where on any given plantation, 20% of the trees produce 80% of the crop, Mars could be now looking at plants that could produce 320% as much cocoa on 40% of the land.  This land sharing approach could then ideally be used to foster biodiversity conservation and rural livelihood enhancement.

Biodiversity conservation is  increasingly engaging with economic markets.  Traditional methods of “fortress conservation“, where species are protected by designating parks and reserves where nature “is” and humanity “is not” have been shown to often be conceptually and practically flawed in preserving a wide range of biodiversity and human livelihoods.  Increasingly, attempting to foster sustainable resource consumption through the markets –  whether directly through big corporations as Clay outlines, or through ecosystem services valuations (see for example, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity) – is seen by many practitioners as a radical, but necessary step to preserving global biodiversity.

What do you think?  How feasible is Clay’s vision of large corporations agreeing pre-competition environmental standards?  Should the conservation movement even engage with economic markets?  As ever, we welcome your comments and ideas.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Rob Holland permalink
    November 9, 2010 17:25

    Fantastic stuff. I like the example about the Rainforest Ice cream as a model for achieving this. If the big companies all decided to pay a much higher price to producers based on the value of natural capital that they are using, there would be a knock on affect of much higher prices in the shops in the developed world, we would have to consume less, but there would be real benefits in the developing world for both people and biodiversity. I wonder what the critical mass of companies would be?

  2. Tarsh Thekaekara permalink
    November 9, 2010 18:16

    A good post, but I think this is a notion is a tad simplistic. The capitalist model (which has produced these wonderful big businesses) is based on the idea that wealth/capital can be infinitely multiplied by the ‘market’. There are no limits to growth and everyone in the world can be ‘rich’.
    When you try to marry this idea to the natural world a somewhat fundamental incompatibility pops up. Natural resources (or agricultural produce) are limited resources. Yes, they is scope to increase efficiency and be 320% more productive and drought prone, but there is still an upper limit.

    I find the whole idea of large corporations deciding environmental standards too close to let ‘foxes guard the chicken coop’ for comfort. Yes, the foxes are very intelligent and tell us all that they are concerned about the future of little foxes and will only indulge in sustainable chickens. Yes, the foxes claim they have a ‘triple bottom line’ and are no longer driven solely by greed. But they still are foxes.
    Perhaps we need to admit there are too many greedy foxes and too few chickens. And some foxes are getting fat eating more than their fair share of chickens, while other foxes are multiplying too fast.
    Maybe having the foxes agree there is a problem and all agreeing to only eat rainforest ice cream is a good first step. Maybe they can be effective at guarding the chicken coop from each other. But is that because they are genuinely concerned about the chickens or are they worried someone else will steal all the chickens?
    Given that the foxes are currently outsmarting all the watchdogs in place it seems like a good first step. But I don’t believe it can be the solution.

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