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New Era:
Can Profit-Seeking Approaches Protect Natural Capital?

Mark Tercek of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) has written a new book with Jonathan Adams, Nature's Fortune: How Business & Society Thrive by Investing in Nature. A video interview of him at an Aspen Institute forum last month at Hunter College, “The Case for a Profit Motive in Conserving the Environment,” with New York Times science writer Andrew Revkin showed that his theme and approach have a lot going for them. He covers more of the right bases than when I heard him years ago at Stern Business School, but he’s still too selective about which dots get connected.

Some of the other comments on this video on Revkin’s Dot Blog site to the contrary, Tercek’s main points are probably quite correct. Going forward, conserving natural capital can be more cost-effective or profitable than traditional regulatory and adversarial approaches to environmental protection, and it may be helpful to see them as “investment opportunities” — at least to a point. For instance, protecting dunes versus building sea walls is better economically, and has collateral environmental gains. And an environmental group such as TNC can help business figure these out.

While this strategy is not as original as implied, Tercek presents it very well. TNC deserves credit for not focusing on the easy pickings as so many others do. Most importantly, it is time to give his strategy a full test run; see how it works, and what we can learn from it. I imagine the mutual education process, bumps and all (he candidly cites one glitch in the getting-to-know-you stage of the partnership between TNS and Dow Chemical), will prove immensely fascinating.

He goes out of his way, wisely and more than I anticipated, to be deferential to, and appreciative of, the roles of more adversarial-inclined environmental groups such as Greenpeace, both to keep after the bad actors in business, and by creating the prerequisite dynamic that prods others to come to his shop for cooperation-building. But, if you listen carefully, both to Tercek and to some extent moderator Revkin, they imply (and, in some cases, actually say) to and about these environmental groups: You’ve had your era, but could you now “calm down” and get rid of the anger; stop making things partisan and being ideological; and learn to discuss things in “fact-based and analytical” ways so you will be accepted by business.

It isn’t clear if “environmentalism” is even an admirable word to Tercek, as he notes historically people joined TNC without necessarily seeing themselves that way. All those identified as “smart people” are in business (or, in one case, at a think tank).

What he does not say is just as important:

  • While you might have been right in the past, don’t expect acknowledgement of it, and certainly that doesn’t suggest you might still have some things to teach us;
  • business should actually learn some ecological concepts and values to better implement the “profit-driven” conservation approach (including opening their perspective to potentially gain a reverence for nature), and therefore not everything has to be in their language of “data, cash flow, risk profiles;”
  • ethical issues are actually worth emphasizing, too, when they are lurking about;
  • there could be good reasons for all that environmentalist anger that should not be dismissed;
  • it is permissible to bring up issues of relative power;
  • maybe what is considered “fact” is actually up for discussion; and
  • being influenced by emotion is not exactly foreign to others, too (I would argue to all), in the environmental game.

Tercek admits to being “optimistic,” but in the absence of the super-compelling evidence we might never have, isn’t that emotional (This isn’t a bad thing, it serves a purpose — but call it what it is)?

Fundamentally, Tercek has not yet joined the micro-trend within business of those willing to rethink its very role in society, including coming to the realization that business success or failure cannot be separated from the welfare of the larger society or the state of the planet. But, as he said, and I think has shown in the space between the times I’ve now heard him, he does learn. He was quite conversant with Revkin on the important environmental side issues that kept coming up, so maybe he’ll get there, too (I wish he had shown those nuances to those business students years ago).

We need to take Tercek up on his ideas for this era of sustainability problem-solving. But imagine an era after that if we can combine profit-seeking conservation with more deeply and multifactor-motivated businesses that, by and large, actually “get” their dependence on a fragile planet, feel comfortable admitting it, and therefore search harder and more creatively for these investment opportunities. Imagine what we might achieve if we join the business strength of practicality together with large-scale innovation, a felt connection to the planet, and drive from those places where we never expected it.

We need to connect a few more dots, first.

This post first appeared on the EarthPeople Speak on June 6, 2013.


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