Nature provides society with countless resources, including the capacity to work smarter. For example, green infrastructure projects like bioswales, permeable pavements, and green roofs absorb and filter runoff after a storm like traditional gray infrastructure options, but at a lower cost—both financially and environmentally. Having recognized nature’s potential, both the public and private sector are embracing nature-based solutions (NBS) to further their social, environmental and business goals.
In a very short span of time, the value of environmental sustainability has risen to become a key performance indicator for companies from a range of industries. In 2017, 85 percent of S&P 500 companies issued sustainability reports, up from just under 20 percent in 2011.
Less clear is how many of these businesses are incorporating NBS into their operations, though more could surely benefit by partnering with nature. The returns of green infrastructure, natural infrastructure and ecosystem-based management make for compelling financial and environmental incentives:
- Cost-effectiveness. NBS, particularly natural infrastructure projects, can be more cost-effective to implement than their gray infrastructure alternatives. For example, constructed wetlands can treat water at a fraction of the cost of a wastewater treatment plant, and the strategic siting of native plants on company properties can reduce water use and annual operations and maintenance costs, such as by reducing mowing costs.
- Regulatory compliance with improved conservation outcomes. NBS generally provide important environmental benefits relative to their gray counterparts. In addition to the potential financial advantages, constructed wetlands create habitat for local animal populations or migrating birds, and native plantings shelter endangered insects and make the landscape more resistant to disease and drought over the long-term. These co-benefits can also make NBS an attractive and innovative option for companies needing to meet regulatory requirements.
John Lovenburg, Environmental Vice President at BNSF Railway, has seen NBS produce valuable results for his company. “At BNSF we strive for sustainable solutions that create a win-win for our company and the environment,” he said. “Our engineered natural infrastructure pilot projects have demonstrated we can achieve cost-effective and resilient business and ecosystem value.”
“Despite the potential benefits of NBS,” said Martha Rogers, Natural Capital Economist for The Nature Conservancy (TNC) “many companies lack the strategies needed to integrate them into their businesses.” To fill this gap, TNC collaborated with nine companies from its Business Council (AECOM, Bayer AG, The BNSF Railway Company, The Boeing Company, Caterpillar Inc., Chevron Corporation, Dow,, Duke Energy, and United Parcel Service) and researchers and students at Yale University to learn more about what factors drove these companies to implement NBS, what tactics they used to spur adoption of NBS and what challenges they have faced in this process.
“A key benefit of our collaboration with The Nature Conservancy and its Business Council is to make nature-based solutions part of our normal operating rhythm,” said Lovenburg.
Together, we have published the results of this work in a white paper, “Strategies for Operationalizing Nature-Based Solutions in the Private Sector.” The white paper shows that, while there are barriers to fully embedding NBS within an organization, companies can leverage specific strategies to accelerate the process and yield positive outcomes for business and nature.
“This white paper merely scratches the surface on a complex and exciting new area of work, but we hope it will serve as a guide and catalyst for companies looking to adopt and scale NBS within their organizations,” said Rogers. As we work to fully integrate NBS across industries and project types, collaborations between companies, nonprofits and the public sector will be critical to optimize this approach so that business and nature can thrive together.