Businesses for biodiversity

In the context of the rapid degradation of natural ecosystems around the world, calls for the private sector to take responsibility and contribute to the protection and restoration of biodiversity and natural capital have been growing for over two decades. Commitments to biodiversity by a variety of companies from different sectors, large and small, individually or through a variety of collective initiatives, are multipliying. However, the effort remains insufficient in the face of the scale of the challenge.

Most of the work on this subject has so far focused on the (fundamental and priority) issues of reducing the impacts of businesses on biodiversity and improving the reporting frameworks for commitments made in this area, and on managing the dependencies and risks of businesses in the face of the degradation of the services provided by nature from which they benefit.

Although related to these issues, my research focuses more specifically on another important dimension of the problem: the ways in which companies are/can get involved in the collective management of ecosystems at the landscape scale, and the need to design new strategic, organisational and accounting frameworks to support these activities.

This has led me to focus on companies operating in the environmental sector as potential : (1) strategic actors for the protection and restoration of ecosystems within the framework of new business and entrepreneurial models ; (2) pioneers of new forms of business governance adapted to the realities of the Anthropocene, based on renewed ecological accounting foundations.

Below you will find details of the research carried out so far on these issues. See in particular this publication and this blog post. I am also continuing my involvement in this topic through my participation in the international expertise process for the scoping study of the future IPBES (International Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) report on “Business and biodiversity”.

Business models for ecosystem management services

In my PhD thesis, and on the basis of a multi-year fieldwork, I was interested in the specific contributions that environmental businesses can make to the preservation/restoration of biodiversity through the development of new activities and services for ecosystem management, as well as in the many questions raised in concrete terms by such a perspective (issues of legitimacy of the intervention of a private for profit actor in ecosystem management, possible roles to play in diverse forms of multi-stakeholder governance, measurement of ecological and economic results, etc.).

On this basis, in this paper in Organization and Environment, we conceptualise a particular type of “business models for ecosystem management services”, where what is valued and what justifies legitimate economic income is the recognised capacity of a company to contribute to the achievement of collectively agreed and measurable ecological outcome objectives at the landscape  scale. This implies not only the development of new professions and services (ecological engineering and restoration, development of innovative tools for evaluating natural environments, territorial coordination, etc.), but also requires a real involvement in the collective governance of ecosystems.

Our work introduces a general theoretical framework for thinking about the development of such business models. Four business models are proposed and discussed. In each of them, the modes of strategic intervention, the relative place of public and private stakeholders as well as the nature of the relationships established between them, the model of collective governance set up, the foundations of the company’s legitimacy in the eyes of others, or the roles and uses of ecological monitoring and assessment vary.

The implementation of these business models is based on the development of ecosystem-centred management accounting, which provide a shared basis for dialogue between stakeholders, for the assessment of their respective responsibilities in the ecosystem degradation, for the monitoring and evaluation of the collective formation of an environmental result, and for the recognition of the specific contributions made by each stakeholder to this result.

The vision developed in this research thus introduces an alternative conceptual basis for thinking about the possible roles certain companies can play in the regeneration of natural environments in contrasting collective action contexts and modes of intervention and on the basis of new ecological accounts. It is thus opposed to approaches based on the attribution of a price to biodiversity and/or on the development of hypothetical “ecosystem services markets” based on economic valuation methods (on this point see this blog post in Business INK).

Renewed accounting foundations for a renewed conception of business in the Anthropocene era

The prospect of developing an environmental economic sector that really (and beyond good intentions and buzzwords) contributes to biodiversity protection thus requires to address key questions about the place and the particular strategic role(s) that some companies can play in the fight against the degradation of ecosystems in different formats of collective governance on the landscape, as well as the conditions for the environmental effectiveness and the legitimacy of such activities (see above).

This perspective also raises the question of the fundamental aims and missions of such companies, their modes of governance and accountability to their stakeholders, and the forms of recognition of the values they create, which must go beyond and relativise the sole objective of generating economic profit.

Moreover, beyond the environmental sector alone, it is all the sectors of activity impacting biodiversity that need to be transformed, and it is the very notion of business and its responsibilities with regard to ecological limits that need to be rethought in the Anthropocene era.

These issues are the subject of research work carried out in particular with A. Rambaud on the question of the “ecological enterprise” (see for example here), on the articulation between ecosystem-centred accounting and the CARE method (see for example here and here, this report and this video), as well as within the framework of the multidisciplinary research team brought together within the programme “Human Enterprises: Ecology and Accounting Philosophies” at Collège des Bernardins.

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