Working with Companies

The Science Behind Companies Valuing Nature

"Nature provides the basic building blocks for companies’ product lines and, ultimately, their bottom lines."
— Joe Kiesecker, Conservancy lead scientist for Development by Design

The Nature Conservancy’s new collaboration with Dow will provide great opportunities for biodiversity conservation — in large part because the effort will be rooted in the Conservancy’s scientific expertise.

To find out more, we asked two Conservancy scientists — Jennifer Molnar, manager of the Conservancy’s Analysis Team, and Joe Kiesecker, Conservancy lead scientist — to talk about the science behind the collaboration and the benefits they expect for nature as a result of working with Dow to incorporate it into their decision-making. From your perspective as scientists, what's the value of this effort? How will it advance conservation?

Jen: This is a breakthrough collaboration — a conservation NGO working with a company to help it incorporate the value of nature into its business decision-making at the site- and corporate-strategy levels. We’ll be applying our scientific knowledge and experience to look at how Dow both relies on nature and impacts it. Not only will we be developing new methods and tools for this analysis, we’ll be showing how conservation science can be applied in brand-new ways in a business context. It will help make the conservation of nature more relevant to people and companies.

Joe: I’d add that industry can be a major force for change, both good and bad. But nature provides the basic building blocks for companies’ product lines and, ultimately, their bottom lines. If we can get companies to understand that, then they’ll invest in conservation because it makes good business sense. This project with Dow will be a first step towards making that understanding a reality. Jen, you mentioned new methods and tools — tell us more about the science we’ll be developing for this collaboration.

Jen: First, we need to document benefits that nature provides in three pilot sites so Dow can explicitly consider those benefits as it makes its business decisions. We’ll be mapping and modeling the ways that local communities and groups — including Dow itself — benefit from healthy nature in these sites.

Here’s an example: Mangroves and marshes can provide storm and flood protection on coasts and rivers — and, in places, they can do it more effectively and for less cost than engineered solutions such as berms or sea walls. Also, protecting and restoring the natural areas in a watershed can help maintain water supplies for Dow as well as local communities and ecosystems.

We’re going to use state-of-the-art tools to map and model these services, and if the right tool doesn’t exist, we’ll work with partners to build it. And what’s important is that this is just a small step on a much longer journey to demonstrate how the right tools can build a model program for any company to incorporate natural resource conservation into their business decision making.

Joe: How land use in and around these pilot sites might change — and how those changes might impact nature — is another important piece of data we’ll be gathering. We’ll build on the Conservancy’s Development by Design (DbD) work to come up with models that estimate future land use changes and scenarios, whether new or expanded Dow facilities within a site or conversion of natural areas in the region due to, for example, urban sprawl or agricultural expansion. These projections will allow Dow or any company using the conservation tools to understand how environmental change can alter the production of nature’s benefits (such as water availability) that are critical for its business operations and the natural habitats in the region. With that understanding, Dow can consciously choose to make investments that conserve those resources — choices that could also benefit nature. The sites of the pilot projects haven’t been decided yet — but what can you tell us about how they’ll be selected?

Joe: They’ll be in places that are both geographic priorities for the Conservancy’s work and that are under increasing threat from future land-use changes that may impair biodiversity and nature’s benefits. They will also be places where Dow is making business decisions that can be informed by our analysis — for example, where Dow is planning to build new or expanded facilities or is concerned about the long term sustainability of a resource, like water. These criteria will increase the opportunity for projects to deliver conservation benefits.

We’re going to structure each of the pilots as Development by Design projects, with the goal of achieving net gains for nature in addition to any changes Dow might make in its business practices or policies. So these pilot projects will deliver conservation returns to places we care about. What are some of the big gains for science you expect from this work? And how transparent will we be about our findings?

Joe: First, we do plan to publish results of the work from this partnership in peer- reviewed scientific journals. That way, we’ll get validation of the work and allow others to access any of the methods and tools we develop. Ultimately, this collaboration is not just about Dow making nature a business priority and increasing their investments in nature, but in creating an approach other companies can use too.

One of the major scientific advances we hope to gain is the ability to incorporate ecosystem services into our Development by Design work. We use DbD to try and provide solutions that better balance development’s impacts on nature with nature conservation. We identify activities that companies can take to avoid, mitigate or offset their impacts, and we also identify situations where development isn’t compatible with conservation outcomes. But DbD has to date focused primarily on the impacts to biodiversity. Expanding DbD to incorporate nature’s benefits will require that we develop a different set of tools, and we expect that will be very fruitful for conservation going forward. This is going to be a large scientific effort for the Conservancy. Talk about how we will integrate our science across the initiative and what kinds of work the $10 million will be going toward.

Jen: You’re right — this is a huge scientific and logistical undertaking. We’ll be working and coordinating projects across potentially three continents. Scientists from across our organization will be involved — from our global teams to our field programs — as we expand our existing DbD and nature’s benefits work. And then, of course, we’ll take the results to Dow so they can apply the tools to inform their site-based and corporate-level strategies. It’s going to require a significant amount of coordination among our science staff, but there will be lots of opportunities for cross-pollination, too.

But most importantly, the work with Dow is launching a larger effort to bring this science to other companies and organizations to show how to value nature in their business decisions. The funding from Dow and its foundation will actually support us on the big picture work that the Conservancy does in science and its practical application. I know you two are excited about this project. Tell us why.

Jen: It’s not just plants and animals that need healthy ecosystems — people, communities, and corporations do, too. The world needs to understand that fact, and this collaboration is a great step toward demonstrating it. Using scientific analysis, we will not only be able to help Dow incorporate the value of nature into its business decisions, but the work will provide tools for other companies to do it as well.

Joe: I agree. There will be significant benefits to conservation and conservation science, as we’ve discussed. But one of the most exciting aspects of this work is the opportunity to make conservation relevant to a wider audience. Conservation organizations don’t understand how to make their work relevant to big business, which is one of the most powerful forces for change on the planet. This project gives us that opportunity.