Nature Positive Isn’t a Negative

Business leaders and CIOs increasingly recognize that a broader and more complete view of sustainability is critical for long-term viability.

Samuel Greengard, Contributing Reporter

May 28, 2024

5 Min Read
Future environmental conservation and sustainable ESG modernization development
Chroma Craft Media Group via Alamy Stock

Curbing emissions and ticking regulatory boxes might seem like a winning sustainability game plan. These actions appease customers, placate business partners and satisfy regulators.  

Yet, at some point, it’s vital to confront an inconvenient truth: Scaling back emissions, while crucial, doesn’t address a larger issue of environmental degradation. Deforestation, diminished biodiversity, and chronic overuse of land and water ratchet up long-term business risks. 

That’s where a “nature-positive” framework enters the picture. The framework, which is embedded in the idea of a “nature economy,” operates under the premise that a healthy planet fuels a healthy business -- and greater long-term economic success for all. Organizations must learn how to operate within natural systems, and account for environmental costs within business models and balance sheets. 

Nature positive slides the sustainability dial past the end goal of net-zero emissions and into more expansive thinking and actions. “Nature positive encapsulates the idea that businesses must move from zero impact to positive impact,” asserts Adrian Dellecker, a senior researcher at IMD business school in Lausanne, Switzerland. 

The upshot? Getting to nature positive means rethinking and reinventing current systems through science-based targets, biodiversity credits and advanced data collection and reporting techniques. This includes tools and technologies like environmental DNA, earth observation, satellite imagery, acoustics, imaging systems and artificial intelligence. 

Related:10 Ways IT Leaders Can Encourage Employees to Be Greener

Evolving Beyond Carbon 

Nature positive is rooted in business sense -- and dollars. It promotes the idea that a more holistic view of nature delivers greater long-term business stability and viability. “Net zero and nature positive are not the same thing. Reducing risk and improving resiliency, while important, isn’t the same as embedding nature into the overall fabric of the business,” says Tony Goldner, executive director of the Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures (TNFD). 

Organizations that adopt a nature positive framework evolve from a transactional sustainability mindset to a more opportunistic and strategic model. “Instead of reacting and responding to highly specific reporting and regulatory requirements and other obligations, these companies view business success through the lens of overall sustainability,” says Adam Cox, a partner at Bain & Company. 

Nine critical factors -- referred to as planetary boundaries -- are at the center of a nature positive framework. These include obvious factors like climate change and biodiversity loss, but also changes to land systems, freshwater use, biochemical flows into the atmosphere and soil, ocean acidification. At present, society resides outside of six of these critical sustainability areas. This puts global economic stability at risk. 

Related:Sustaining Future Workers and Consumers Moves Up in ESG Efforts

Acute shortages of commodities, materials and components are only a starting point. Supply chain disruptions -- potentially far beyond the worst moments of the pandemic -- could become widespread and entire business models could go extinct. “It’s a fallacy to think that there’s a workaround or technology fix for every problem -- and that if we remove carbon from the atmosphere and get to net zero it will solve all of our problems,” Dellecker declares. 

Fortunately, strategies and tools are emerging to get to nature positive. Cox says that it begins with a complete understanding of an organization’s strategic priorities and how sustainability impacts every aspect of the business, from product lifecycles and manufacturing methods to stakeholders and customers. The goal isn’t to achieve best in class status across the board, it’s to identify critical factors, establish metrics, and continually improve. 

Related:Decentralized Renewables Fuel Sustainability

Second Nature 

Advancing from awareness to action is critical. According to Bain & Company, 88% of executives understand that technology is at the center of any effective sustainability initiative. Yet only 24% believe they have the right tools in place to do the job. As organizations attempt to push beyond carbon accounting and into a nature positive framework, this gap will likely grow.  

One effective method, Dellecker says, is to adopt double materiality accounting, which ties in environmental, social, and governance factors. Suddenly, an organization can understand impacts across a broad spectrum of business activities. The ability to quantify how climate change, pollution, land use, labor practices, and human rights impact sustainability reveals the actual business and societal costs. 

Double materiality typically requires a company to expand its sustainability framework to include financial measurements and reporting mechanisms. It includes factors like economic impediments, technical impediments, and cultural factors -- including how business activities impact labor, particularly for traditionally disadvantaged and marginalized groups. Double materiality also touches regulations, science-based targets, and expertise from NGOs and others. 

Another emerging tool for Nature Positive is biodiversity credits. This voluntary method can serve as a financing bridge between policy and action by establishing clear criteria and awards for desired behaviors. “It presents an opportunity for forward-looking companies and business leaders to get ahead of the curve and shape an investment environment that values nature and people as well as the bottom line,” Dellecker explains. 

Other tools, technologies and concepts are also emerging. For example, environmental DNA monitoring can deliver a deeper understanding of a company’s impacts on the environment, including how various activities impact plants, species, soil, water and more. Satellite data, IoT sensors and acoustic monitoring with microphones can capture data and feed it into AI systems for deeper analysis. “These tools allow companies to detect changes in the environment and monitor progress over the span of years,” Dellecker says. 

Ultimately, there’s no single way to become nature positive, and there’s no simple path for arriving at a nature economy. Organizations large and small will have to adapt their sustainability management framework, broaden the role of the chief sustainability officer, adopt new tools and technologies and push the concept deeper into the fabric of the organization. It’s also necessary to reframe language and conversations, Dellecker says. Ultimately, “Thinking has to extend beyond carbon reduction and evolve to a broader view of sustainability.” 

The good news is that nature positive is taking root, and opportunities to create value and expand business opportunities are sprouting. “Organizations should recognize that there’s an enormous opportunity to get ahead of the curve, drive sustainability, and build a more resilient and opportunistic business model,” Cox concludes. “A nature positive approach can introduce improvements in sustainability but also lead to improvements in traditional measures of business return.” 

About the Author(s)

Samuel Greengard

Contributing Reporter

Samuel Greengard writes about business, technology, and cybersecurity for numerous magazines and websites. He is author of the books "The Internet of Things" and "Virtual Reality" (MIT Press).

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