Sunday, 20 February 2011

Biodiversity: it's a dependency thing

Five years ago, UK tobacco firm British American Tobacco (BAT) released a public statement on biodiversity. It is far from the first company to have done so. The issue of biodiversity  (in short, ‘the totality of genes, species, and ecosystems of a region’) has become a hot concern for businesses in recent years. Last October’s Convention on Biological Diversity meeting saw almost as many suits as scientists in attendance.

What stands BAT’s commitment apart is its explicit recognition that it not only has an impact on biodiversity, but a dependency too. That turns biodiversity from a straightforward risk issue (hedging against reputation loss or avoiding litigation) into one of future strategic importance (most clearly, protecting production and supply).

The notion of ‘biodiversity dependency’ is only just appearing on corporate radar screens, as Ethical Corporation’s recent Briefing on the subject spells out. That’s too bad. Healthy ecosystems are responsible for public goods such as clean water, fresh air, sufficient food and a stable climate – services on which all businesses rely. Seen as such, biodiversity becomes less about saving the panda and more about protecting the bottom line.

It is strange therefore that more companies are not taking BAT’s lead in trying to manage the issue. A recent study by specialist investor group EIRIS finds that only 6% of companies with high impacts on biodiversity has sufficiently robust policies in place.

One reason could be that managing impacts on biodiversity is no easy task. BAT, for example, pledged to embed biodiversity management into all its operations around the world. “It was a nice phrase, but no-one really knew what it meant”, admits Paul Laird, corporate partnership manager at the Earthwatch Institute, an international environmental organisation and a member of the BAT Biodiversity Partnership.

After much experimentation and several wrong turns, the tobacco company came up with its Biodiversity Risk and Opportunity Assessment tool (known as BROA). It'is essentially a three-stage process. The first step comprises an initial desk-top exercise designed to identify potential direct and indirect impacts on local biodiversity. The second involves a field-based assessment of those possible impacts. And the third requires local management to address these impacts.

One of the unique requirements of the approach is for BAT’s operating companies to work with a local partner. This is seen as giving the process credibility, as well as providing an external, expert perspective.

The management approach has its limits, however. The site-specific nature of this (and similar biodiversity assessment methodologies) makes aggregating data difficult. Identifying generic ecological improvements of landscapes or rating the company’s overall biodiversity performance is not yet possible either. Yet it's a start, and an example of what other companies could - adn should - be doing. 

n.b. Ethical Corporation’s recent Briefing on biodiversity provides a detailed overview of current management practices, as well as efforts to value ecosystem services

1 comment:

  1. 'Biodiversity: it's a dependency thing' - ha! so is tobacco! I'm sure I'm not alone in thinking of other areas in which BAT might have a long hard look at its practices.