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What Would the Naturalist President, Teddy Roosevelt, Make of the Business-Nature Relationship in 2023?

In his assessment, Roosevelt might consider three fundamental, ongoing developments — as the business world finally begins to recognize the role of healthy ecosystems in a healthy economy.

Theodore ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt was an awkward speaker. The 26th US president struggled with a speech impediment and often gesticulated wildly, his voice rising to a high-pitched whine as he thumped a point home. Most Americans loved him, anyway — he’d fought for them against the power of the robber barons, giving workers new rights and fair pay. Many thought his passion for nature odd; but he’d earned the right to convince them otherwise.

On a spring day in 1903, Roosevelt stood before a crowd at Arizona’s Grand Canyon. Looking over the expanse, he made this plea:

“I want to ask you to keep this great wonder of nature as it now is. I hope you will not have a building of any kind, not a summer cottage, a hotel or anything else to mar the wonderful grandeur, the sublimity, the great loneliness and beauty of the canyon. Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it … What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children’s children, and for all who come after you.”

The words would come to embody the most important legacy of his presidency. Appalled by the ravaging of the country’s wilderness by unscrupulous businesses, Roosevelt moved to protect nature and establish an ethos of environmental stewardship. Today, over 230 million acres of public land are under federal protection due to his vision.

If we could bring one of history’s great naturalists back to life, what would he make of the business-nature relationship in 2023? In making his assessment, he might consider three themes.

1. Businesses are starting to understand: Long-term profits depend on a healthy planet

Sustainability practitioners have a penchant for jargon. And a new entry into the ESG word salad is “nature-positive business agenda.” The language is verbose, but its implications are profound and points to the growing role of environmental stewardship in corporate strategies.

An old example explains why the change is important. The murex snail was once considered the most valuable resource in the world. Over 3,600 years ago, Phoenicians (ancient Lebanese) from Tyre somehow discovered that boiling parts of sea snails created a dye known as Tyrian purple. Tens of thousands of snails were needed to colour a single swatch of fabric.

The result, though, was magic. Unlike other colours, Tyrian purple intensified with wear — a quality so remarkable that only the highest born (think Cleopatra and Caesar) were deemed fit to ‘wear the purple.’ In time, though, the Phoenicians killed their golden goose — the murex went extinct on the Mediterranean shore and Tyre never recovered the wealth and status it once enjoyed.

Today, many businesspeople recognise nature’s importance — but not the obvious link between the environment and their pursuit of profit. Like the Roman emperor who never thought of the snail behind his rarefied cloak, they fail to internalise the lesson that long-term prosperity is dependent on well-functioning ecosystems. Everything we produce — from chocolate to microchips — relies on the health of the air, soil, water, plants and animals hiding in plain sight.

2. Business has never priced nature’s freebies: What’s different this time?

So what, you might say — the private sector has never priced externalities. In 2021, less than 20 percent of S&P 500 companies made nature-related commitments. A review of 400 businesses globally in April 2022 found only 5 percent had a good understanding of their environmental impacts.

Two significant drivers will make 2023 a watershed year for nature, in the same way that the 2015 Paris Agreement heralded fresh action on climate change:

  1. At the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15) in Montreal in December, 188 governments reached a landmark agreement to stop biodiversity loss, with an ambitious pledge to restore and preserve 30 percent of the planet by 2030. The targets set in Montreal will provide the basis for future regulation and governments will expect business to do its part.

  2. The Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures (TNFD) is a global initiative to help companies improve the quality and consistency of their reporting on nature-related risks and opportunities. The TNFD will finalize its guidance in September 2023, which will ramp up investor scrutiny on how companies are managing and reporting on nature.

Currently, a lack of consistency in ways to understand, assess and manage nature-related impacts makes it difficult for businesses to set measurable baselines and integrate nature into their strategies. Guidance from these initiatives provides a useful start.

3. OK, I’m convinced nature matters to business: What should I do?

If you’re a CEO, board member or are otherwise responsible for considering how nature-related risks and opportunities might impact your business, there are four steps to consider in 2023.

  1. Complete a readiness review: Screen your organisation for biodiversity risks. Start with your own operations. Review how your business activities depend on natural resources, and how they impact natural systems. Then move to consider your investments and value chains.

  2. Familiarise yourself with key frameworks and tools: The TNFD, Science-based Targets for Nature, and the CDSB Biodiversity Guidance are the best places to start. You can also begin by gathering data to estimate how your operations affect nature by using guidance from the Natural Capital Protocol.

  3. Incorporate a nature-positive agenda into your strategic planning and reporting: Insights from your readiness review and the frameworks and tools above will help you establish a measured baseline of how your business impacts nature (such as through exploitation of natural resources, pollution, GHG emissions, land-use change, etc). From this measured baseline, you can set targets, timelines and a narrative around how your actions lead to net gain.

  4. Signal your intent to become a biodiversity leader: Move fast when a sustainability-related opportunity is certain to become a compliance obligation over time, as early movers can compound their impact and build a strategic and reputational advantage. The best way to signal your leadership to investors, employees and others is to publish your first biodiversity strategy, which should outline your focus areas, existing initiatives and long-term ambitions.

Companies willing to do the hard work can financially benefit. With investors, employees and consumers keen to support eco-friendly solutions, investment in nature could generate up to $10 trillion in additional annual business revenue and create 395 million new jobs by 2030. More importantly, the affirmation of history waits for those capable of reinventing a new role for business on this planet.

To quote Teddy Roosevelt from a speech in Kansas more than a century ago: “The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets — which it must turn over to the next generation increased and not impaired in value.”

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