For decades, The Nature Conservancy has recognized that the private sector has an important role to play in advancing our conservation mission. Businesses around the globe can, and do, have significant impacts on our climate and on the lands and waters that people and nature rely upon for survival. That’s why we are applying our science, reach, expertise in conservation planning, and on-the-ground experience to help businesses make better decisions, understand the value of nature, and ultimately protect it.
Nature.org talked to Michelle Lapinski, director of business practices, about our work with companies and why this work is essential to our overall conservation mission.
Nature.org: Why do you think it’s important for conservation organizations to engage with corporations?
Michelle Lapinski: The Nature Conservancy’s mission is to protect lands and waters for nature and for people. Right now, we are facing unprecedented challenges to this mission; over the next few decades, the demands on nature will far exceed its ability to provide for us.
We must engage the private sector if we are going to successfully protect the planet for future generations. Around the globe, the demand for goods and services, from agricultural commodities to new cars, is growing dramatically. How those demands are met will have a profound effect on the future of the natural world. If we fail to engage the private sector as part of the solution, we will limit our ability to accomplish our conservation mission.
The reality is, we simply can’t do it alone. Companies significantly affect – and depend on - natural and economic resources, and by working with them, we seek to influence their business decisions and sustainability to benefit nature and advance our conservation mission.
Nature.org: How would you respond to critics who say conservation organizations should not work with corporations?
Michelle Lapinski: I would say we can’t afford not to work with companies. Their impact on our planet is too great to ignore, and if they want to improve their practices and help protect nature, it is our mission to work with them to see how it can be done.
Nature.org: What is the Conservancy’s approach to engaging the private sector?
Michelle Lapinski: To protect some of the most important places on earth, we are working with companies large and small across all sectors of industry — from helping to change business practices and policies, to raising awareness of conservation issues, to raising funds to support important new science and conservation projects.
Nature.org: Is working with companies a new approach for the Conservancy? If so, why the shift?
Michelle Lapinski: For decades, The Nature Conservancy has recognized that the private sector has an important role to play in advancing our conservation mission. Our increased engagement with companies is not a shift, but reflects an evolving emphasis.
We have been seeking ways to have a broader impact beyond just helping companies be more sustainable, or offset their environmental footprint, or invest in conservation. Those actions are all important, and we want companies to be more actively involved as conservation partners. We seek to work with companies that are actively making protecting nature a company-wide strategy and goal.
"We need to create a 'new norm' so that protecting the natural systems that sustain all life isn’t an afterthought; it’s a fundamental part of the way we do business. "
— Michelle Lapinski, Conservancy Director of Corporate Practices
Nature.org: How do you decide which corporations are appropriate to engage and which ones are not?
Michelle Lapinski: We apply strict guidelines and a rigorous due-diligence approach to identify which relationships best align with our mission. There must be clear conservation benefits with lasting, measurable outcomes and a direct connection to our mission.
In many cases, we seek to work with companies that are having a major impact on the environment – but only if they’re serious about addressing that impact (and yes, we have turned some down). To determine that, we review a number of factors:
- past activities of the company,
- sustainability goals and progress,
- transparency, and
- commitment and the leadership of its CEO and other senior managers to our mutual objectives.
The changes required to protect nature and preserve the services nature provides to people, such as clean water and a stable climate, won’t come from government and non-profits alone or from individuals by themselves; it must come from all sectors of society, including businesses.
We must factor nature into everything we do – and that starts with where the products we use and rely upon each day come from. Through collaboration, we want to show how the private sector can take a leadership role to change the way business is done. We need to create a “new norm” so that protecting the natural systems that sustain all life isn’t an afterthought; it’s a fundamental part of the way we do business.
Nature.org: Over the course of your career, have you seen any major shifts in thinking within companies as it relates to sustainability and the environment?
Michelle Lapinski: Yes. For most companies, their sustainability journey started with regulatory compliance and cleaning up spills, then preventing them. Companies set waste goals, then energy efficiency and carbon emissions goals, and next water. All along these efforts were driven by companies seeking to minimize risk and reduce costs.
Today, companies are realizing nature is an essential and fragile asset to their businesses. This has led them to look at ways to value nature, and to change how they make decisions. They have also seen how nature can produce opportunities and value for their companies, and how it can be another tool for driving innovation and business advantage. Companies viewing conservation as a key business strategy is the next wave.
Nature.org: What one thing would you like to see corporations take away from their engagement with conservation organizations?
Michelle Lapinski: We’d like for them to see the value of nature to their business, so that they continue to invest in conservation and in protection of the natural systems that sustain all life. And make nature a strategic priority.
Michelle Lapinski is The Nature Conservancy’s director of business practices, leading development of the Conservancy’s worldwide corporate engagement strategy. She is especially focused on increasing collaboration with the private sector to improve business practices and engage industry partners to realize the benefits of conservation and good ecosystem management as a business strategy. Michelle’s career has focused on advising leading global companies on more sustainable business strategies, practices and business models.