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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.

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