How can business leaders develop and implement strategies that protect the diversity of life on which their firms depend? Leaders have strategic agency on biodiversity: they can increase it by protecting ecosystems owned by their firms, supporting an increase in protected areas, rewilding and restoring degraded ecosystems, restocking depleted species, and managing operations in ways that do not decrease biodiversity in supply chain ecosystems.1
Conversely, leaders can decrease biodiversity by converting high-biodiversity ecosystems into low-biodiversity monocrop fields, damaging coral reef ecosystems by releasing carbon waste into the atmosphere, or replacing diverse coastal mangrove ecosystems with tourism resorts. In extreme cases, managers can drive ecosystem biodiversity to zero by destroying whole ecosystems.
A small but growing body of research is pointing to practices that help business leaders understand biodiversity issues and incorporate them into effective strategy. Examples include learning how businesses’ operations rely on and impact biodiversity, developing trusting relationships with communities, engaging in dialogue with stakeholders, and carefully attending to legal and regulatory frameworks.2,3
In this article, we discuss another way business leaders can develop and execute effective biodiversity strategies: learning from deliberative mini-publics focused on biodiversity, such as the recently completed Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss in Ireland.4
Mini-publics are initiated by entities like governments to bring together a group of participants that deliberate and issue recommendations about a public policy issue. Conveners select participants through a democratic lottery to ensure representativeness, equip participants with balanced and comprehensive information on the issue through briefings and stakeholder and expert presentations, and employ trained facilitators to engender productive and inclusive deliberation. The main reason mini-publics have received so much attention in recent years is the quality of their recommendations, which stems from participant diversity and impartiality.
Insights from biodiversity mini-publics can serve as valuable inputs to strategy development and execution. For example, they can help business leaders quickly understand complex supply chain ecosystems and the biodiversity dynamics within them.
Below, we explain why and how biodiversity matters to strategy. We then discuss what managers can learn from deliberative mini-publics on biodiversity and how to incorporate what they learn into biodiversity strategies. Finally, we describe how businesses can support the implementation and dissemination of biodiversity-focused mini-publics and how businesses can engage with mini-publics in ways that protect their integrity.
Why Biodiversity Matters to Strategy
In a world of competing strategic demands, why should business leaders develop strategies focused on biodiversity? First, businesses rely on ecosystems to produce and reproduce the variety of life that enables economic and social systems. Second, biodiversity decline (or collapse) poses reputation risks to businesses, and business leaders must anticipate and mitigate the risk of being targeted by activists. Third, life on Earth has inherent value that managers should help preserve rather than destroy. Biodiversity mini-publics can help managers successfully engage on all three issues.
Biodiversity decline raises operational risks because ecosystems no longer meet business needs.5 To ensure stable operations, managers must understand which ecosystems their business relies on, how those ecosystems function, and how biodiversity affects ecosystem function.6 For example, agribusiness firms use biodiversity strategy to assess and manage risks from declining pollinator-insect biodiversity.7 Similarly, fashion firms like French luxury goods group Kering rely on plant and animal materials produced by ecosystems in their supply chains, and biodiversity decline directly threatens their core business operations.
Activist groups, governments, and other organizations increasingly connect business operations to biodiversity impacts in specific ecosystems and pressure businesses to reduce impacts by changing operations.8 It is reasonable to expect continued innovation in linking businesses to ecosystem impacts: more firms will be pressured to account for, reduce, or eliminate their biodiversity impacts.
Finally, the inherent value of life on Earth should be acknowledged and protected rather than destroyed by business activity. This could take the form of executives prohibiting their firms from harming or killing living organisms. Or it could take a weaker form: the business can harm and kill living organisms and ecosystems but cannot contribute to causing complete species extinction or habitat destruction.9
Biodiversity mini-publics are a subset of a family of democratic innovations called “deliberative mini-publics” that are initiated to provide judgments about a particular topic.10,11 Before discussing biodiversity mini-publics, let’s look at mini-publics more broadly.
Initiators provide resources for a mini-public and play an important role in shaping decisions about its scope and focus. Mini-publics often include regulators, governments, nonprofits, and academics; they sometimes include businesses. Much of the actual design and execution of mini-publics is undertaken by conveners, who often have extensive training and experience with public deliberation. Both initiators and conveners often receive support from advisory committees.
What differentiates mini-publics from stakeholder panels or town halls is that they use a lottery system to select participants from a target population, as opposed to election or self-selection. Once selected and onboarded, participants learn about the issue at hand by consulting balanced briefing materials and participating in presentations by stakeholders and experts. With the aid of trained facilitators, they deliberate in a mix of small-group and plenary sessions. Small-group deliberations are usually private; many plenary sessions are made public.
After deliberating, participants issue their recommendations, usually via collective positions or individual survey responses. These are documented in a report that is disseminated to the initiating body and, usually, to the broader public.
Much of the excitement over mini-publics in recent years can be attributed to the unique qualities of the recommendations generated by participants.12 The lottery selection system brings together diverse groups that are more representative than committees that rely on self-selection or town hall forums that use elections to determine who will attend.13 Coupled with efforts to support learning and deliberation, these groups generate a richer, more comprehensive set of insights on the topic at hand.
Furthermore, mini-public participants can act in a relatively impartial and independent manner. They do not represent particular constituencies and are not subject to the dynamics of electoral politics, so they can focus on longer-term, more complex, more controversial issues and are well-placed to critically engage with and weigh expert knowledge when making decisions.14,15
Mini-publics have been initiated to help tackle a wide range of social and environmental issues around the world, including genetically modified food, public transportation, and homelessness. Recently, there has been an increase in climate-focused mini-publics, including Scotland’s Climate Assembly and Climate Assembly UK.16
However, despite the importance of protecting biodiversity and restoring ecosystems to increase biodiversity, mini-publics have seldom been initiated to focus on that topic. There are two important exceptions. World Wide Views on Biodiversity was a pioneering effort to foster deliberation about biodiversity.17 Roughly 3,000 individuals from 25 countries participated in day-long forums in September 2012. Participants were selected through a mix of selection methods, including lotteries and targeted recruitment. They deliberated about a standardized set of topics and cast their votes on specific questions. The results of the votes were collated for comparative purposes. As an example, 85.71% of participants voted in support of a proposal asking, “Should users of genetic resources from the high seas pay a fee to global biodiversity for being allowed to use them?”18
A more recent example is Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss, which was launched in 2022 and held its last meeting in January 2023.19 It brought together 99 participants (selected through a lottery) and one chair to provide recommendations on how the government can address biodiversity loss. As of this writing, the participants’ sector-by-sector recommendations are yet to be published. However, a November 2020 press release announced that the group had voted in favor of some significant recommendations, most notably a constitutional amendment that would put biodiversity safeguards in place.20
Leveraging Biodiversity Mini-Publics
Businesses can leverage mini-publics as inputs into biodiversity strategy formulation and implementation. We see four main sources of insights: (1) public stakeholder and expert presentations, (2) submissions to the mini-public from individuals and organizations, (3) recommendations produced by the mini-public, and (4) reactions to mini-public recommendations.
First, businesses can assign individuals to observe public plenary sessions where stakeholders present diverse perspectives on biodiversity function and dynamics. For example, during the second weekend of the Irish Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss, farmers and researchers with deep experience and expertise on specific soil and water systems presented on the structure and function of agro-ecological ecosystems and connections between agriculture and biodiversity.21
Businesses could also attend such presentations to acquire an information advantage over rivals. Such knowledge would be particularly helpful if it focused on the details of biodiversity structure and function for an ecosystem in the business’s supply chain, as that kind of information can be expensive, if not impossible, for businesses to gather. In a business-initiated biodiversity mini-public, participants might offer insights into the relative cost-effectiveness of various ways of protecting or increasing biodiversity within a specific ecosystem or how to responsibly leverage ecological knowledge.22,23
Biodiversity strategy formulated with comprehensive, accurate information about ecosystem structure and function, the business’s dependence and impacts on the ecosystem, and biodiversity risks arising from dependence and impacts could provide an advantage over businesses with strategies based on broad assumptions.
Second, businesses can review materials that individuals and organizations submit before and during mini-publics to influence deliberations and recommendations. For example, the Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss received submissions from 507 individuals and 137 organizations.24 One organization, Natural Capital Ireland, supports the adoption of integrated natural capital concepts in public policy and corporate strategy.25 It calls for legally binding policies to halt biodiversity loss, recommends the Irish government adopt natural capital accounting systems, and reviews current and pending legislation relevant to natural capital concepts and practices. Reviewing such materials offers businesses an efficient means of identifying new concepts and the degree to which those concepts might influence regulatory changes. Submissions can also reveal market opportunities into which a business might expand, such as natural capital accounting related to quantifying biodiversity impacts.
Third, businesses can read and engage with the recommendations produced by a mini-public to understand the full spectrum of priorities and values held by an informed and diverse group of stakeholders. This can help fill two common knowledge gaps: what issues stakeholders care about and how much they care about each issue.26 The Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss will make a report and recommendation to the Irish government about how public policy can, and should, prevent further biodiversity loss.
Businesses can use recommendation reports to gauge which biodiversity issues are likely to gain traction with policy makers, informing biodiversity strategy development with a more complete understanding of regulatory risks. Businesses that pay attention to these recommendations will be better prepared to strategically engage in political influence campaigns around biodiversity policy.
Fourth, reactions to mini-public recommendations by media outlets, public interest organizations, activist groups, policy makers, industry and trade groups, and other businesses can reveal what stakeholders prioritize about biodiversity and provide insights about future consumer behavior related to biodiversity. Recommendations about potential regulations generated in the Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss will likely generate reactions ranging from informal social media posts from consumers and activists to formal policy-position statements by advocacy organizations, industry and trade groups, and other businesses.
Monitoring these reactions can help businesses understand the biodiversity policy positions that matter most to a business’s priority stakeholders. Reactions may also suggest potential collaborators such as trade or industry groups that share a company’s preferred biodiversity policy positions.
The nature of these insights will depend on the role businesses take vis-à-vis the biodiversity mini-public. If they play a role of initiator, they will be able to shape the scope and remit of the mini-public, and the insights will be more tailored to the business’s specific operating context. If not, they can still leverage more general insights from mini-publics initiated by other parties, like Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss.
We have emphasized the benefits for businesses in leveraging insights from biodiversity mini-publics. However, the way businesses engage with mini-publics can distort deliberation, reporting, and other processes, undermining their legitimacy and reducing the strategic value of mini-public outputs. Thus, businesses must carefully weigh decisions about when and how to engage with biodiversity mini-publics. Deliberative democracy experts have helpfully highlighted three principles essential to protecting the integrity of mini-publics: transparency, accountability, and independence.27
For transparency, it is important for businesses to be clear and open about any roles they are playing in biodiversity mini-publics, both when observing a plenary session and putting names forward to serve as stakeholder witnesses. If a business chooses to initiate a biodiversity mini-public, it should take care to select conveners that have the experience and resources needed to be clear and forthcoming about the mini-public’s remits, funding sources, structures, and processes in media releases, reports, and websites, and it should provide conveners with the necessary resources to do so.
For accountability, initiators and conveners must be responsive to questions and concerns raised by participants, stakeholders, and the public. If a business initiates a biodiversity mini-public, its managers should provide conveners with explicit direction, resources, independence, and security to respond to questions and concerns raised by all parties, without interference from the business.
Businesses must also ensure mini-public independence by safeguarding it from undue influence by parties like initiating bodies and stakeholders. Prior research points to rules of thumb in this regard.28,29 First, while businesses can initiate mini-publics or provide funding and resources for them, they should avoid playing the role of convener. Instead, they should hire expert conveners with experience undertaking these processes. Second, if staffers have experience and knowledge relevant to the biodiversity mini-public, businesses can put them forward as potential advisory committee members, stakeholder witnesses, and expert witnesses. Staffers participating in these roles are unlikely to compromise the integrity of the mini-public.
It is important to note that biodiversity mini-publics are just one means through which company managers can learn about the business conduct and public policy preferences of stakeholders and the broader public. Mini-publics are one of many practices increasingly used to revitalize democracy, alongside social movements and initiatives to boost participation in the political process. Businesses can draw on insights from these practices to develop more comprehensive biodiversity strategies. As with biodiversity mini-publics, they should take care to engage thoughtfully and responsibly to safeguard efforts at democratic revitalization.
1 Wildlife Habitat Council website, 2022.
2 Puppim de Oliveira, José A., et al. “Connecting Businesses and Biodiversity Conservation Through Community Organizing: The Case of Babassu Breaker Women in Brazil.” Business Strategy and the Environment, Vol. 31, No. 5, May 2022.
3 Smith, Thomas, et al. “Biodiversity Means Business: Reframing Global Biodiversity Goals for the Private Sector.” Conservation Letters, Vol. 13, No. 1, December 2019.
4 “About the Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss.” The Citizens’ Assembly, accessed March 2023.
5 Sukhdev, Pavan, et al. “Mainstreaming the Economics of Nature: A Synthesis of the Approach, Conclusions and Recommendations of TEEB.” The Economics of Ecosystems & Biodiversity (TEEB), October 2010.
6 André, Rae. “Teaching Climate Leadership: Promoting Integrative Learning in Courses on Strong Sustainability.” Journal of Management Education, Vol. 44, No. 6, July 2020.
7 Zadek, Simon, et al. “Aligning Markets with Biodiversity.” The Swedish Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research (MISTRA), June 2021.
8 Goldstein, Benjamin, and Joshua P. Newell. “How to Track Corporations Across Space and Time.” Ecological Economics, Vol. 169, March 2020.
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10 Curato, Nicole, et al. Deliberative Mini-Publics: Core Design Features. Policy Press, 2021.
11 Pek, Simon, Sébastien Mena, and Brent Lyons. “The Role of Deliberative Mini-Publics in Improving the Deliberative Capacity of Multi-Stakeholder Initiatives.” Business Ethics Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 1, September 2022.
12 Paulis, Emilien, et al. “POLITICIZE Dataset.” Harvard Dataverse, 2020.
13 Burgers, Jan-Willem. “Are Citizens Capable of Representing Themselves?” Constellations, Vol. 22, No. 1, March 2015.
14 Pek, Simon. “Drawing Out Democracy: The Role of Sortition in Preventing and Overcoming Organizational Degeneration in Worker-Owned Firms.” Journal of Management Inquiry, Vol. 30, No. 2, August 2019.
15 Brown, Mark B. “Survey Article: Citizen Panels and the Concept of Representation.” Journal of Political Philosophy, Vol. 14, No. 2, April 2006.
16 Willis, Rebecca, Nicole Curato, and Graham Smith. “Deliberative Democracy and the Climate Crisis.” WIREs Climate Change, Vol. 13, No. 2, January 2022.
17 Rask, Mikko, and Richard Worthington (eds.). Governing Biodiversity Through Democratic Deliberation. Routledge, 2015.
18 ”Results.” World Wide Views on Biodiversity, accessed March 2023.
19 “About.” World Wide Views on Biodiversity, accessed March 2023.
20 “Citizens’ Assembly Recommends Constitutional Amendment to Protect Biodiversity.” Press release, The Citizens’ Assembly, 27 November 2022.
21 “Second Weekend Meeting: 15th-16th October 2022.” The Citizens‘ Assembly, accessed March 2023.
22 White, Thomas B., et al. “Identifying Opportunities to Deliver Effective and Efficient Outcomes from Business-Biodiversity Action.” Environmental Science & Policy, Vol. 140, February 2023.
23 Antonelli, Alexandre. “Indigenous Knowledge Is Key to Sustainable Food Systems.” Nature, 10 January 2023.
24 “Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss Submissions.” The Citizens’ Assembly, accessed March 2023.
25 Natural Capital Ireland. “Submission to the Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss.” The Citizens’ Assembly, 23 September 2022.
26 Mitchell, Ronald K., Bradley R. Agle, and Donna J. Wood. “Toward a Theory of Stakeholder Identification and Salience: Defining the Principle of Who and What Really Counts.” The Academy of Management Review, Vol. 22, No. 4, October 1997.
27 Curato et al. (see 10).
28 Pek (see 14).
29 Pek, Simon. “Business and the Climate Crisis: Toward Engagement with Climate Assemblies.” Business & Society, July 2022.