They’ve been showing up increasingly in my LinkedIn feed, emails, newsletters and in casual conversation: jobs and job listings at big companies, focused at preserving and regenerating nature and biodiversity. It appears to be a new nexus of action for corporate sustainability professionals, at the intersection of natural capital, supply chains, operations, finance and, of course, the climate crisis.
It also risks becoming a new nexus of criticism about corporate sustainability commitments.
Over the past year or so, a growing number of companies — primarily but not exclusively in Europe — have created positions to support nature and biodiversity. The roles aren’t just at firms with products and services that are directly dependent on natural capital — logging or agriculture, for example. This new generation of nature-related jobs can be found inside chemical companies, consumer products companies, real estate companies, tech companies, insurers, bankers and retailers.
Among them: H&M, the British retail chain, has a head of climate and nature; McDonald’s team includes a sustainability director, nature and climate; insurance giant Axa Group has a head of climate and biodiversity; Procter & Gamble has a senior director, nature and biodiversity; the chemical company Henkel employs a global sustainability manager, nature and biodiversity; and the commercial real estate services firm JLL is home to a climate and nature director.
And more to come. Facebook parent Meta, for example, has a job listing for a sustainability program manager, climate resilience and biodiversity.
Companies are leaning into biodiversity for two fundamental reasons: reducing risk and seizing new business opportunities.
As I said, many of these jobs are linked to climate change, a recognition that biodiversity and climate are inextricably linked — for example, that the ravages of a changing climate destroy the biodiversity that contributes to more than half of global GDP, and that protecting biodiversity can help mitigate the impact of floods, droughts and other ravages of a changing climate.
[GreenBiz is hosting a one-day Nature Forum as part of next week’s VERGE 22 conference and expo. Details here.]
It’s not surprising that biodiversity and nature loss ranks as one of the top three business risks in the 2022 Global Risks Report published by the World Economic Forum. The threats include physical risks, such as the loss of access to raw materials; litigation and reputational risks, such as being involved in illegal deforestation via supply chains; the risk of increasing regulation, requiring more constraints and accountability; and systemic risk — that entire ecosystems vital to business could be diminished, or even destroyed.
"A growing number of businesses in all sectors are looking to develop nature and biodiversity strategies and targets to understand how and where they can and should play a role," Amanda Skeldon, JLL’s climate and nature director, explained to me. She added: "Proactively addressing nature and biodiversity is very much an emerging area for business and across the real estate sector."
Metrics and mandates
It's not all that surprising to see these jobs emerge. There’s been a growing push for companies and national governments to prioritize biodiversity through new performance standards, metrics and reporting mandates. The Science-Based Targets initiative, which produced the framework many companies use to set carbon-reduction goals, last year published the first guidance to show companies "how to protect and restore nature in line with science by preparing to set science-based targets for nature." The Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures is "creating an integrated framework that builds on existing standards, metrics and data" for companies and financial institutions. "Nature-based solutions" has become a catchall term for a bevy of initiatives by companies and others to offset their climate pollution.
Meanwhile, in December, COP15, the United Nations Biodiversity Conference, will meet in Montreal with the goal of securing an ambitious "Paris-style" global agreement to protect nature and biodiversity. Nature is quickly moving up the corporate food chain.
Investors are taking note. A handful are beginning to price biodiversity risk into their calculations. A recent Moody’s report outlined $1.9 trillion in rated debt for nine sectors that have "high" or "very high" exposures to natural capital risks — and 24 more industries with a combined $9.6 trillion in rated debt. Catherine Howarth, CEO at responsible-investment group ShareAction, recently told the Financial Times that biodiversity is "the fastest-developing ESG theme in global capital markets."
Biodiversity is now the fastest-developing ESG theme in global capital markets.
"Businesses increasingly need certified to help them navigate the evolving landscape and to come to grips with how their business can materially contribute towards halting and reversing nature loss by 2030," Eva Zabey, executive director of the U.K.-based nonprofit Business for Nature, told me. "It’s imperative that responsibility and accountability sits at the board level to make truly transformative changes.” Her group has published High-level Business Actions on Nature, a set of things companies can do "to signal they are making meaningful contributions to help reverse nature loss and contribute to an equitable, nature-positive world, where positive impacts outweigh negative ones."
Both sides now
Companies are leaning into biodiversity for two fundamental reasons: reducing risk and seizing new opportunities. Salesforce, the tech giant, seems to understand both.
"We have to look at our future dependencies on nature," according to Tim Christophersen, the company’s vice president for climate action, whose job — and lifelong passion — focuses on nature and natural capital. When Christophersen joined Salesforce earlier this year after two decades at U.N. Environment, the World Conservation Union and the European Commission, he found some key programs6 already in place — to protect oceans and plant 100 million trees, for example. His job now is to make sure those and other initiatives are successful and impactful.
"Part of my responsibility is to secure investments and make sure we invest in the right trees in the right place at the right time, and in the right way," he said. "And that we're doing that at the right speed."
It’s about mitigating risk. "If there are further wildfires in California and they get bigger, they will impact the majority of our staff in California," Christophersen told me from his home in Denmark. "They will impact how much cooling we can get from water resources that are needed for data centers. Our existing data centers have impacts on freshwater, because for many of them it's the main source of cooling. We have to map those impacts."
Water is just the beginning, he said. “The biggest impact on climate change for humanity will come from unraveling and collapsing ecosystems. Extreme weather is just the tip of the iceberg. Once we get into ecosystem collapse, we're getting into food security and energy security and water security issues. Which is why for me, biodiversity is the most important subject to address in our time, together with the climate crisis."
But there’s also an opportunity side, he said, by helping customers deploy Salesforce tools: "Salesforce can lower the complexity threshold for others to make it easier, like we did with Net Zero Cloud for climate action." The company already has commercialized products and processes it developed for its own operations, such as the aforementioned Net Zero Cloud reporting system or the Sustainability Exhibit Salesforce created to increase sustainability among its suppliers, many of which are also its customers.
At JLL, Amanda Skeldon similarly has both internal and external perspectives. "My role is directly focused on our corporate operations: the buildings we occupy, our supply chain and embedding our climate and nature commitments into business as usual. However, as a professional services business, we also work with a huge number of clients to support them to address challenges around net-zero carbon, climate risk, circularity and nature."
She hopes to impact the entire real estate sector: "There is a real opportunity for progressive businesses to go beyond legal compliance and financial disclosure and to capitalize on the wider environmental, social and economic benefits that embedding nature in the built environment can provide."
One key question is how to measure companies’ progress in protecting nature and biodiversity. The metrics are nascent, even though "nature positive" is a fast-rising meme in business and environmental circles. According to the World Economic Forum, it means "enhancing the resilience of our planet and societies to halt and reverse nature loss."
There’s a lot of squishiness in that definition, creating ample opportunities for companies to overstate or misrepresent their commitments or successes, and for activists, investors and the media to jump on companies that seem to be doing too little.
If that feels a bit uncomfortably familiar, it’s because we’ve seen this movie before.
I firmly believe that the nature agenda is where net zero was two years ago.
"I firmly believe that the nature agenda is where net zero was two years ago," Skeldon told me. "So, in two years’ time, I envision that roles such as mine will be as prevalent across business as roles focused specifically on net-zero carbon."
Of course, "net zero" has seen no small amount of pushback, with critics questioning companies’ methodologies for assessing their net-zero commitments and achievements, for the use of dodgy carbon offsets, and for the lack of emphasis on reducing, rather than offsetting, carbon pollution. Will companies receive similar pushback about "nature-positive" and related claims? It’s early days, but with the growth of tradable biodiversity offsets, there’s plenty of room for problems, from the sloppy to the sinister.
I asked Business for Nature’s Eva Zabey for some ingredients she considers key for companies to have as they ramp up their efforts in biodiversity and nature, and she had ready answers. They include: ensuring board-level engagement "to make truly transformative changes"; understanding that nature loss "is an existential threat to your company and society as a whole"; a willingness to collaborate with NGOs, consultants and other companies; and a commitment "to providing serious resources and investment to measures which help address impacts and dependencies on nature."
"Do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good," Zabey counseled. "Be as ambitious as possible in plans and actions while being transparent and honest that there will always be improvements and adjustments along the way. The journey is an iterative one, but companies should make sure their credentials are credible and truthful, backed up by accurate, timely and verifiable data."
JLL’s Skeldon added one more ingredient: being able to cope with uncertainty. "At the moment, this is a rapidly evolving area for business, with a significant number of unknowns — unfolding frameworks, new legislation and an issue that is hugely context-dependent. Working in this area requires an ability to trial, adapt, learn and collaborate to enable an agile response to this challenge."
Trial, adapt, learn, collaborate: That strikes me as a recipe for success in sustainability overall.
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