Business and conservation – the hidden links

What do businesses have to do with biological conservation? When the word ‘conservation’ is mentioned, most people would think of Protected Areas (PAs), though with a stretch of the mind, consumer behaviour might also come into play. With issues like the illegal wildlife trade and the devastating impact of deforestation from palm oil plantations becoming more prominent in the news, influencing consumer behaviour is another angle that conservationists use to try and effect changes.

Using consumer behaviour to pressure businesses and corporations to improve their environmental standards, or to reduce demand for illegal wildlife products, was about the only link I thought the (strange and foreign) world of business had with my normalised world of biological conservation. Recently though, I came across this article that rather shocked me. There is a great deal of literature out there about the effectiveness of PAs, but most people would agree that having more PAs will be good for the environment. (In fact, some conservationists are advocating that Nature Needs Half. I might write something else on that another time.) The difficulties of setting up an effective Protected Area aside, I am of the opinion that the main problem is the lack of political will. That if a country is willing to create a PA instead of a natural resource concession, then the greater battle is won, and details of how it should be done to make it effective and not just a paper park can be settled later.

It appears that it’s not entirely the case. The article by Divya Narain on Free Trade Agreements, Corporate Power and Suing Countries for Protecting Biodiversity points out that a country that has signed a FTA with another can be sued for obstructing free trade if they decide to delineate a protected area. A 2016 article by Chris Lang on the REDD-Monitor website highlights that same issue of the Columbian government being sued by Canadian mining corporation Eco Oro, because it had passed a law that prevented mining in moorlands. That the power of corporations is so deep-seated and insidious is quite terrifying, though not surprising.

Will transparency about the operations of companies that obtain resources, and greater visibility of their work (and environmental/social commitments) in the press improve matters? Are consumers concerned enough that they will get sufficiently outraged to boycott companies that do not work up to certain environmental standards, or write in to flag up their concerns? I personally am not sure of the effectiveness of that, given that I myself haven’t written to a company to tell them they should use Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certified palm oil in their products. (Though I am more inclined to buy products from a company that uses RSPO-certified palm oil than otherwise.)

Using consumer actions to pressure companies into adopting higher environmental/social standards is an interaction between business and conservation that I’m familiar with. What I hadn’t realised, was that shareholders of corporations can also do the same. At NTU’s Asian School of the Environment, where I am currently working, we had a seminar on Friday evening given by Asst. Prof. Judith Walls from the Nanyang Business School. She was looking at the factors that influence corporations to engage in dialogue with their shareholders with regards to improving the corporations’ environmental/social standards.

I will admit that I know next to nothing about corporations, shares, and shareholders. Judith was great and gave us a 101 class, explaining to us what corporate governance meant and how the board of directors differed from the management board. My main takeaway though, was that shareholders of various companies, if they cared sufficiently, could actually propose that the company improved some aspect of their environmental/social commitments. The company can then choose to accept the proposal and put it up for voting by the other shareholders during the Annual General Meeting, to apply to the Stock Exchange Council to reject the proposal, or to engage the shareholder in a dialogue to withdraw the proposal. Judith’s work focussed on identifying why some companies choose to engage in dialogue, but to me, the idea that shareholders can influence the company was entirely novel. Now that I think about it, it makes sense, and I might well be the only ignoramus who never knew that. But that just led me to question: why do we not appeal to shareholders to improve the standards of the companies in which they have a stake in? To try and tell huge investment banks and pension fund managers that environmental/social standards should be upheld, rather than telling oil and gas, or timber and plantation companies?

Maybe instead of chaining ourselves to trees, we should consider becoming activist shareholders like the Sisters of St Francis of Philadelphia. Oh, I know why we’re not – we don’t have any money 😂

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