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How Can We Address the Whale in the Boardroom?

May 05, 2016 |


Mark Gough asks what it will take to address the whale in the board room

This article has been submitted as part of the Natural Capital Coalition‘s series of blogs on natural capital by Mark Gough, Executive Director, Natural Capital Coalition.

Deciding where to go on holiday, what to have for dinner, or even what type of coffee to drink in the mornings; we make thousands of decisions every day. But what do we base our decisions on?

Decisions are made for a variety of reasons; the expectations of friends and family, the information available to us at the time, our system of beliefs, and on our intuitive feelings.

Sometimes making even the simplest decision can feel overwhelming. This is especially true when we start to realise that every decision has many implications. These implications affect us directly, but they also impact on many other people around the world, through our vast and globalized supply chains.

We can’t though take responsibility for everything, so where do we draw the line? When buying a coffee on the way to work on a cold and blustery Monday morning, with a growing queue of impatient people waiting behind us, it is impractical, even for the most committed person, to weigh up every implication before they decide. We need help.

At present the information that is available to help us in our decision making is reasonably good at including financial considerations. But viewing the world purely through the lens of finance produces a very narrow picture of what’s really going on. While finance is undoubtedly an essential tool to make sense of society, both society and finance are critically dependant on the natural world. If the global financial system collapsed tomorrow, there would certainly be much suffering and turmoil, but this would be nothing compared to even a single key component of nature, say fresh water or fertile soil, collapsing. Money is worthless without the wealth of nature to underpin it. None of us can survive without air to breathe or water to drink. And yet we continually choose to forget this and maximise financial returns by pillaging social and natural capital.

I just watched the movie “In the Heart of the Sea” and this clearly sets out the problem. Whale oil was essential to illuminate the world and help us to create the industrialization we live in today, but in order to achieve this we had to kill many of the most impressive creatures that have ever lived on this planet. We took from our natural world to create financial and social gain. Nature can support this for a short period of time, but there are limits. At some point the world stops giving…. And then what happens? Well, our social and financial systems will also fail.

So how do we make the natural world more visible in our decision making, and encourage boardroom discussions around protecting and enhancing natural capital? There have been many people over the years who have tirelessly attempted to do just this. They have used moral and philosophical arguments to try and convince people, but often with limited success. More recently, we have become very good at measuring the collapse of our natural systems as they happen. We have not though, until now, identified what this means to us.

That is where the natural capital approach comes in. It helps us to identify and measure the value that the natural world brings to us, and illustrates the way that nature safeguards thriving societies and prosperous economies. It challenges the financial system to account for our impacts and dependencies on nature, rather than ignoring them or taking them for granted, as we have done for so long. It is a way to start balancing the books so that we optimise financial, social and natural capital, and continue to progress human wellbeing without exhausting the resources we depend upon.

Some organizations have been developing ideas around natural capital for several years, but this is a global problem and it is no good if just a handful integrate their relationship with nature into their decision making frameworks. It must become part of how we make all of our decisions, and therefore it must become a social norm. The only way to achieve this is if all parts of the system are involved in developing the solution; where conservation bodies provide the way, science and academia the how, business the engine for change, and the financial system the fuel. How we share and standardize the approach, and our success in influencing policy at local, national and international levels, will ultimately create the enabling environment that we need to support a more balanced and healthy world.

The Natural Capital Coalition has formed organically to try and encourage and strengthen this shift, and over the next several months people from this community will be blogging on this site to explain what they are doing and how you can play a role in a creating a world where the decisions you make support a planet you want to live in.

Mark Gough is the Executive Director of the Natural Capital Coalition, a role he took on in March 2015. A strong believer in integrating sustainability into decision making where it becomes everyone’s opportunity, Mark previously worked for The Crown Estate, helping to develop its integrated vision and approach to value measurement.

Prior to this he was the Global Environmental Manager for the information company, Reed Elsevier PLC. Mark is a Director of the Aldersgate Group, which brings together business, politics and civil society to drive action for a sustainable economy, and has sat on a number of national and international committees, including the Steering Committee of the United Nations CEO Water Mandate and the Board of the Alliance for Water Stewardship.

Keep up to date with Mark Gough on Twitter: @Mark_Gough

On 13th July 2016, The Natural Capital Coalition launched a standardized framework for business to identify, measure and value their impacts and dependencies on natural capital. This ‘Natural Capital Protocol’ has been developed through a unique collaborative process; a World Business Council for Sustainable Development consortium led on the technical development and an IUCN consortium led on business engagement and piloting. The Protocol is supported by practically focused ‘Sector Guides’ on Apparel and Food & Beverage produced by Trucost on behalf of Coalition.

Keep up to date with our series on natural capital here.

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