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The Next Economy
Meet the Company Helping Brands Give Nature a Place on the Board

We caught up with Ephi Banaynal dela Cruz, co-founder and CEO of Context Nature, to learn how they are supporting companies to integrate nature into business and investment decision-making to build a nature-positive future.

According to the World Economic Forum, over half of the world’s GDP is moderately or highly dependent on nature — highlighting the crucial link between a healthy environment and economic prosperity. So, isn’t it time the people sitting on company Boards got interested in valuing nature — and saw it is a business opportunity rather than simply a risk?

Sustainable Brands® caught up with Ephi Banaynal dela Cruz, co-founder and CEO of Context Nature, to find out how they are supporting companies to integrate nature into business and investment decision-making to build a nature-positive future.

Where did your interest in finding nature solutions and building regenerative businesses start?

Ephi Banaynal dela Cruz: Well, during my career, I’ve had the opportunity to co-create a lot of the environmental standards that we see today — everything from sustainable packaging to scope 3 greenhouse gas emissions — so, I’ve always been an environmental steward. I was Palm Inc’s very first environmental steward — taking care of the people, the facilities and the product division; where we looked at product design and designing for the environment.

But because I also had a background in engineering, I ran the compliance team — which kind of brought me to this point: I wanted to design software that would enable practitioners like myself.

And that leads us on to Context Nature. Can you explain the purpose of what you are now doing?

EBDC: Along with my co-founder, Sylvia Vaquer, we’re looking to make sure that people who don’t have a voice — like nature, like Indigenous communities — have a way to engage in not just letting people know what they need to hear; but more importantly, in how to participate in more of a capitalistic structure. So, we’re looking at equitable models to compensate when value is provided — whether that’s nature-based services or citizen knowledge or Indigenous community knowledge.

Economic decision-makers — such as investors, governments and businesses — don’t have the tools and knowledge to make decisions that regenerate nature. So, we’re building the capacity to enable nature-positive actions at scale. Our generative AI assistant augments people working at the intersection of finance and nature, and answers their questions 24/7. We can help decision makers think most effectively about how to become nature-positive by using authoritative research, and streamline data gathering and analysis, giving visibility to nature risks and opportunities, and helping to build plans based on ecologically sound frameworks and methodologies.

Yes, we are an AI SaaS company; but we’re trying to do more than that by shifting the way we build economic structures. We’re creating an ecosystem — a marketplace of partners who have joined us to figure things out and contribute.

Why do you think biodiversity, ecosystem loss and nature restoration are overlooked when competing with other sustainability issues that must be addressed?

EBDC: Because it’s even more complex than just talking about carbon. We tend to focus on the things that are in the mainstream. That’s why we made a decision to focus on nature and biodiversity. We are trying to establish that this is at the center of it all.

Unless you are directly dependent on nature — like a food and agri business — and it’s very apparent and there’s pressure to talk about these issues, business may not. Also, legal partners — with all of their good intentions — may advise a firm not to talk about [nature] because it then becomes more of a material risk.

What’s your assessment of what happened at COP28 in the context of what you are focusing on? Did we hear enough about biodiversity loss during the global negotiations?

EBDC: I think we’re going to have to push even further because the talk about biodiversity and nature [didn’t happen]. But I tend not to be too dependent on these types of events because agendas have already been set even before you come in it. That’s just the reality of it.

I know there’s a lot of talk about what didn’t happen at COP28; and it’s just quite natural when we’re frustrated to focus on that kind of discourse. I tend to go the other direction and say, ‘Okay, what can we focus on? What can we do?’ That’s what we’re going to be doing.

How do you work with your clients and partners? What sort of support are you giving them?

EBDC: So, part of the burning need right now is a compliance framework. A lot of our clients are thinking about the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD), if they're exporting to the EU. And they’re trying to understand how they even begin to look at their nature dependencies and risk. There are a lot of nature-intelligence platforms out there; and what we believe differentiates us is the business model that we're putting together. We want to bring all of the different solutions that are already out there together, so we can focus on the things that get left out — because no one company can do it all.

More importantly, we understand culturally how something like this could work within an organization. If we don’t solve the change-management component of this, it’s not really going to matter what solution you put out there; it’s not going to stick.

So, does that mean you offer an advisory or consultancy service alongside the software platform?

EBDC: Yes, we are coupling it with advisory services — whether that comes from myself, my extended team or consultants that we’ve partnered with.

You talk about giving nature a position in the Boardroom. Can you explain what you mean by that?

EBDC: We are creating the infrastructure to have nature’s voice heard as a co-founder and company director. We’re going through that process with the Earth Law Center and we will be explaining more about this in 2024.

Is this about giving companies the tools to think differently, or is this more practical support in terms of embedding nature-positive strategies into businesses?

EBDC: That depends on the company. But the idea is for the whole Board to be trained in understanding our relationship with nature. Because if we are nature, we should be more relational reciprocal; and we shouldn’t be extractive. It’s a mindset shift — but there are also legal documents and language that can be used to hold the board accountable to those values. And there are conflict-resolution options available to go through the whole process. In our case, we actually want representation from Indigenous communities as part of nature’s voice. So, we’re figuring out how to offer that pathway.

In order to help companies along the way and to help focus minds, what are the key things that need to change in order to accelerate your work?

EBDC: Regulation would definitely help. A number of NGOs have signed a petition to EU regulators to make sure that the CSRD is interoperable with everything else in defining what good business conduct is.

It is confusing enough for companies to figure out what is the standard; and if [different standards] are asking for different things, it distracts people from focusing on implementation because people are stuck on the planning. That’s part of the reason why we’re following a management-system approach in our product, where we move you from planning to implementation.

As ever, there is a real need for collaboration, too — isn’t there?

EBDC: Yes, our end customers cannot be successful if the people that support them don’t have the same support. Take farmers as an example. In order for them to get sustainability certified, they would have to spend so much money that they don’t really have. So, how do we create a system where you can have accountability and demonstrate integrity without burdening the people who don’t have anything? It goes back to rethinking our economic paradigm where it’s equitable to begin with.

So, as we head into the new year, what’s the focus for Context Nature in 2024?

EBDC: Well, we have lots of interested pilot customers; so we will definitely be doing testing with them — and we want the Sustainable Brands community to participate.

We also intend to contribute to some thought leadership around nature and biodiversity-investment work and we will be partnering with universities on research. We’re also building out our team.

How optimistic are you about the future and business’ commitment to valuing nature?

EBDC: It’s easy to fall into despair, but I think we have things that we can still do together that we should still be hopeful about. I have to remain optimistic, because I can’t let the negative drain our energy.

And we have some amazing collaborators and partners all around the world that are part of a strong network. They know what we’ve done before; there’s credibility and we can’t break that trust. So, we have to keep going.

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