We are witnesses firsthand an alarming decline of the world’s ecosystems, having a devastating impact on the people who depend on them. In many cases, it is no longer enough to simply protect what remains; degraded ecosystems must be restored.
Expanding recovery efforts at the required pace will only be possible with the committed support of local communities, regional and national governments, civil society and, crucially, the business community.
Many companies are beginning to embrace this vision by launching ambitious restoration projects to replant trees, wetlands, coral reefs and mangroves that far exceed their legal responsibilities.
These efforts are promising. In some cases these projects are even deliver significant benefits. But according to a studywhich was carried out by myself and a number of colleagues, we cannot be sure whether large companies are delivering on these environmental promises.
Read more: Four reasons why restoring nature is the most important undertaking of our time
The hidden reality
We delved into the publicly available sustainability reports of 100 of the world’s largest companies. Our aim was to summarize the extent of their restoration work and its impact.
What we discovered was both eye-opening and disturbing. Two-thirds of these corporations indicate that they carry out restoration work. But the devil was in the details – or, in this case, the lack thereof.
Many of the companies’ sustainability reports provided very little evidence to support their claims about ecosystem restoration. They lacked precision in defining restoration, outlining methodologies, and quantifying results.
They also failed to clearly distinguish between projects that were simply intended to meet legal responsibilities and those that would actually contribute to global recovery goals.
The majority (80%) of reports did not disclose how much money they spent on ecosystem restoration. And 90% reported no ecological impact of their work. A third of the reports did not even mention the size of their projects.
In essence, the evidence supporting many corporate-led ecosystem restoration projects is patently inadequate.
The Potential Power of ‘Big Business’
The largest companies in the world are powerful entities. They have the resources, wealth, logistical expertise and influence to play a critical role in the mission to restore the world’s ecosystems.
Imagine a world where corporations use their vast finances, labor forces, manufacturing capabilities and social influence to rebuild forests, wetlands, savannas and coral reefs around the world. It is a vision of corporate social responsibility that goes beyond simply complying with environmental regulations.
But ecosystem restoration is notoriously difficult to do well. It needs careful and strategic consideration of a range of environmental and social factors.
Real efforts to restore ecosystems can sometimes do more harm than good. For example, they can accidentally cause environmental damage, disempower local people and landowners, or destabilize local government. Some companies also exaggerate their efforts to give their reputation an undeserved boost (a practice known as ‘greenwashing’).
Read more: How companies use greenwashing to convince you they’re fighting climate change
Improving transparency and accountability
Better reporting will be essential for large companies to become true leaders in global ecosystem restoration. It will allow us to closely monitor the progress of business-led initiatives, hold companies to account for the claims they make, and learn from the companies leading the way.
In our article we propose that the accuracy of corporate reporting can be improved by implementing some key principles from this report restoration science.
For example, corporate sustainability reports could better adhere to the principle of “proportionality” (understanding how many restoration activities have been carried out) by providing information on the spatial extent and number of organisms planted in each individual restoration project that a company undertakes. It would then be possible to evaluate the likely scale of the project’s impact.
The principle of ‘permanence’ (committing to long-term restoration commitments) could be better demonstrated by companies reporting on the number of years they have committed to maintaining, monitoring and reporting on projects after they have started.
By reporting in a way that aligns with these types of scientific principles, companies will be able to demonstrate much more convincingly that their ecosystem restoration efforts are delivering the environmental and social benefits they claim.
Large companies are showing increasing interest in contributing to global sustainability. As part of this movement, business-led ecosystem restoration could become a valuable asset in the fight to protect our planet’s fragile ecosystems. But it will only work if we can ensure transparency, accountability and adherence to best practices.
The idea that big business will help rebuild the planet is an enticing rhetoric. Now it’s time to back it up with evidence.
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