A Strategic Approach to Creating Nature Uplift on Corporate Lands
AMPLIFY VOL. 35, NO. 12
When it comes to nature, much business action will be beyond compliance and done for reasons that support the bottom line but do not drive it. To overcome these conditions, business must adopt a strategy for nature: aligning corporate ambitions with place-based action that is both stakeholder-informed and fully resourced. Sara Cook provides examples from GM, Holcim, WM (formerly Lafarge), Owens Corning, CEMEX, and others that show the importance of developing a nature-based strategy, providing the toolkits to make it happen, and ensuring sustainability of engagement through management, monitoring, and intersections with community needs and priorities. By identifying these intersections, corporate nature action can deliver multiple co-benefits.
The columns of words written about how the private sector can engage with nature have been dominated by high-level initiatives and frameworks aimed at helping businesses understand their impact on nature; assess risks and dependencies on water, air, and biodiversity; and account for these items in complex ways. Far fewer words have been expended on moving a company from understanding its dependencies to understanding its opportunities — and how to create intersections between corporate ambition and action for nature. With more than three decades of engagement at the action end of corporate conservation, Wildlife Habitat Council (WHC) offers various actions for nature, including the four imperatives highlighted in this article.
1. Start with a Strategy
Strategic planning is more than a half-century-old. Small nonprofits and large corporations alike use it to set priorities and create common goals around which resources, employees, and stakeholders can be deployed. Strategic planning connects corporate priorities to site-based activities and ensures that operations support financial and other needs at headquarters. Good strategic plans can remove distractions, eliminate uncertainties, and provide clear pathways for progress and performance assessments.
When companies look to create pathways for progress on nature, they should reach back to basic business management and create a strategic plan. Because nature is not acknowledged by many businesses as a materiality,1 it’s even more important that any corporate ambition toward nature positivity be framed as a strategy. And because action for nature is not central to most industrial processes (or most environmental health and safety regulations), it’s imperative that it be resourced accordingly.
When former building materials company Lafarge (now Holcim) adopted a net positive impact (NPI) goal for its quarries worldwide, it knew a strategy was needed to ensure that its more than 700 quarries worldwide would act for biodiversity. In 2014, the company worked with WWF and an international biodiversity panel to create the Lafarge Biodiversity Strategy.2 It pulled together existing processes to address biodiversity efforts like group-level guidance documents, site-based stakeholder engagement efforts, biodiversity management plans, and rehabilitation plans.
Importantly, the strategy overlaid Lafarge’s commitment to the mitigation hierarchy, to NPI, and to not opening new sites in World Heritage areas or areas designated (at the time) as International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) priority areas.
The strategy laid out biodiversity risks and opportunities, presented tools and processes that could be deployed at the sites, and highlighted the results of a screening process that determined the proximity of locations to sensitive biodiversity areas. It was an early example of a company working to frame its impacts and ambitions by using tools and screening exercises to prioritize action.
2. Offer Action-Based Toolkits
Action for nature can be complex. For example, restoring wetland complexes requires knowledge of hydrology, and managing rare/protected species can only be successful with knowledge of both regulations and biology. In instances like these, corporate land managers reach out to experts from government agencies and civic society. But for many private sector lands, experts are not required, and best management practices exist to support basic restoration and habitat management programs.
For example, place-based efforts can be supported with toolkits and decision trees that are typically deployed across companies for a variety of uses, from business improvement initiatives to the introduction of new processes and products. Toolkits and decision trees can be likewise deployed for nature-based efforts.
In 2016, when General Motors (GM) announced its goal to have 100% of its manufacturing facilities engaged in nature-based programs,3 the declaration was made from corporate headquarters, but operations across the world lost the imperative in translation. Proving grounds in China, assembly plants in South Korea, and the iconic GM Tech Center in Michigan, USA, were all expected to participate, but because each location has a unique conservation context, culture of engagement, and available resources, a blanket statement of intent was not sufficient to drive action.
Over the next five years, GM developed toolkits for every location covered by the sustainability goal. The toolkits did the following:
Spelled out the importance of biodiversity and the crisis of biodiversity loss.
Placed this issue within the company’s sustainability ambition and highlighted the specific goal to have all manufacturing facilities implementing biodiversity efforts by 2020.
Set out the conservation context in which the location sat, outlining the ecoregion, the conservation priorities pertinent to that place, and the opportunities to act for specific species or habitat types.
Reckoned with the specific culture of the operation, understanding that some sites would be able to engage employees in voluntary conservation efforts while others would need to reach out to community partners.
Specific project recommendations aligned with local conservation priorities and explained the necessary resources in terms of people, money, and intensity of future management. Because GM encouraged sites to seek verification for these efforts, the toolkits aligned with WHC’s certification requirements for ease of reporting.
In part because of these toolkits, GM met its sustainability goal in 2020, with its global manufacturing group implementing nature programs and seeking verification. GM exceeded expectations when locations outside of the manufacturing sector joined the effort. Subsequently, when the company divested many of its European operations, the programs continued outside of the sustainability goal.
3. Support Ongoing Management & Monitoring
New biodiversity projects can garner a lot of support from employees and managers interested in designing and implementing efforts for nature. Long-term maintenance and monitoring is less exciting and can lead to a project failing or underperforming. A lack of monitoring can make it difficult for a program to seek or secure verification — most certification and recognition programs require evidence of upkeep and impact.
Management and monitoring range from simple to complex, time efficient to time intensive, and specialized to general. Successful development and implemention of these regimens starts with initial project design. It should take into consideration the type of ecoregion and its size, the availability of financial and human resources, and the type of site.
For example, is the industrial location staffed on a continual basis like a factory, mine, or steel plant, or is it sparsely populated like an electric transmission line, a brownfield site, or an office campus in a post-pandemic world? If the nature program is designed to fit the site, management and monitoring will flow more easily.
The most sustainable nature-based efforts on corporate lands have support for management and monitoring. There are many ways this support can be given:4
Financial support can provide the nature-based project with the materials and tools needed to both implement the project and monitor it. Such support does not have to be a huge expense, but it does need to be commensurate with the proposed effort.
Giving employees the time to engage can be powerful and can support both a biodiversity goal and employee engagement goals. Employees who act for nature at their place of work are engaging in healthy, collegiate, positive activities. By providing time for employees to implement, manage, and monitor a nature project, a sense of pride and ownership is generated. For example, global materials company Owens Corning hosts employee lunch-and-learn presentations that focus on the conservation programs happening at its 40-acre facility. The presentations teach employees about ongoing nature projects and how to get involved. External speakers from project partners bring in-depth knowledge of the topic to the presentations.
Encouraging and allowing community partners to participate in a nature program on corporate lands can bring numerous benefits, including securing a social license to operate and increasing community engagement. Local Audubon chapters or less formal nature-related groups can bring the time and expertise needed to manage and monitor efforts and provide access to normally restricted areas. At the US headquarters of automaker Stellantis, the local Audubon chapter is allowed into a restricted area to monitor one of the largest heron rookeries in the county. This partnership lets Stellantis secure program verification while giving the chapter access to an exciting location.
WM, the largest solid waste management company in the US, allows its facilities to develop their own employee engagement and community outreach and determine the strategies that work best for each site. This self-determination allows each location to design contextual programs. At its Bucks County, Pennsylvania, landfill, WM brings a local school, a senior center, and its own employees together to implement pollinator gardens across generations and the host community. This effort, which began years ago, has fostered learning and strengthened community relations
4. Intersect with Other Corporate & Community Needs
A company can achieve multiple benefits by leveraging its nature programs in support of other corporate social responsibility priorities. By crossing fence lines into communities, a company can address impacts and enhance relations. By using its nature programs for education, a company can meet its STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) goals and provide value to learners of all ages.
Indeed, when a company deploys nature-based solutions, it can mitigate the impact of stormwater runoff, fugitive dust, noise pollution, and heat island effects. The intersections of place-based efforts create a multiplier effect whereby a simple tree planting can deliver multiple benefits.
To address local environmental challenges and increase residents’ knowledge of these issues, CEMEX, a global building materials company headquartered in Mexico, has developed an environmental stewardship program for local teens associated with its Tepeaca site in the state of Puebla.5 Teens from the Tepeaca area and nearby Cuatinchán learn about the environmental issues impacting their communities, including habitat destruction and fragmentation due to development driven by 13% population growth in recent years.
The Tepeaca quarry operation maintains a forestland of acacia and mesquite trees where students learn about the nursery business and sustainable agriculture. Through classroom and virtual learning, as well as field research in their communities, students come to understand local environmental challenges. They also participate in habitat restoration, maintenance and monitoring activities, and submit data to citizen science platform iNaturalist.
The program’s intersections deliver benefits to nature through the habitats on site, benefits to youth through learning opportunities, and benefits to the community by having educated and environmentally literate members.
As more companies seek to act for nature at their locations and across their supply chains, many models and examples exist to guide them. The four elements of a successful implementation effort outlined in this article have been tested and found effective in pushing corporate ambition toward place-based action and providing support for voluntary programs and those that are not central to operations.
A strategy can establish a roadmap for action that can corral resources and highlight priorities. Toolkits can deliver checklists, decision trees, and contextual information to drive implementation at a site. Support (financial or human) can make a conservation effort more sustainable and enable local ownership of the effort and the outcome. Finally, intersections with other corporate citizenship efforts can leverage resources to meet one or more other corporate responsibility goals and deliver multiple benefits.
There are thousands of examples across the world of forward-thinking companies like CEMEX, WM, GM, and Stellantis that have built nature-action programs and developed approaches and methodologies that fit their corporate cultures, apply to diverse land holdings in a variety of geographies, and sustain themselves. At the end of the day and despite all the differences, these efforts create uplifts for nature and benefits for biodiversity that grow across budget cycles and growing seasons and persist through corporate disruptions, employee turnover, and even global pandemics.
1 Addison, Prue, Joseph Bull, and Eleanor J. Milner-Gulland. “Using Conservation Science to Advance Corporate Biodiversity Accountability.” Conservation Biology, Vol. 33, No. 2, July 2018.
2 “Lafarge Biodiversity Strategy.” Lafarge, May 2014.
3 “GM Builds Vehicles and Biodiversity at Its Facilities.” Suppliers Partnership for the Environment, 2 November 2016.
4 “Nature-Based Employee Engagement.” Wildlife Habitat Council (WHC), accessed November 2022.
5 “Fostering Corporate-Community Relations Through Meaningful Engagement.” Wildlife Habitat Council (WHC), accessed November 2022.