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The vital alliance.

Business leaders and conservations each have a unique and increasingly interconnected role in preserving the earth's precious resources.

I doubt there are many challenges more complex or pervasive than those involving the reconciliation of human economic activity with the natural environment. As a first step, though, we need to acknowledge that the two poles can and indeed must be reconciled for the good of both.

This means conservationists must recognize that the succesful management of this planet demands more resources than even the best-funded conservation group could ever hope to muster. According to Maurice Strong, the secretary-general of the U.N. Conference of Environment and Development, preserving the Earth's natural systems could require a long-term annual investment of $125 billion to $150 billion -- including $70 billion in aid to developing countries.

Whether or not this estimate is completely reliable, the kind of investment necessary to reverse environmental degradation is far too vast to be taken on by conservation groups, even with the help of individual governments. It is critical therefore for conservationists -- especially in the United States, where two-thirds of the land is privately owned -- to harness the energy, creativity, and resources of the private sector, particularly corporations. Unless conservationists do that, they doom themselves to failure.

Corporate leaders, on their side, must recognize that ignoring the environment carries a high cost -- that engaging conservation issues is not just a cosmetic gesture but a way of achieving bottom-line results.

Take the hypothetical case of an oil company that, before arriving at a new overseas site, fails to build links with local communities and grass-roots groups, fails to develop adequate safeguards for initial exploration and drilling, fails to address how its operations will affect the local people and their natural resources. I would submit that such a company is crippled from the start and that its chances of success will diminish with each passing day.

A good case study in this regard is the saga of CRA, a major Australian corporation that won a concession from the government of Papua New Guinea to develop a large copper mine on the island of Gougainville. Unfortunately, the company never got around to consulting the Gougainville residents or giving them a stake in their own economic future. When pollution from the mine migrated to the local river and killed off scores of fish, a major food supply, the already aggrieved communities rose up in violent protest. The result? The mine was shut down, and the company withdrew. Today, a military stand-off is still in place between outraged Bougainville residents and the Papua New Guinea government that first granted the company mining rights.

Clearly, environmental concerns, even when regarded in strictly pragmatic terms, are capable of making or breaking a business initiative. But, of course, there is a far more meaningful incentive for industry to turn itself into an active conservation partner, and it is this: Our planet's economic well-being depends on the continued health of its natural resources. We cannot sustain one without sustaining the other.

Seen in this light, clear-cutting a forest in the Amazon basis thus sacrifices not only an extraordinarily rich biological diversity but also the opportunity for future generations to earn a livelihood from that forest. Similarly, the sediment washing from fields in Pennsylvania not only destroys the rich marshes of the Chesapeake Bay but also drains away the basic capital of agriculture -- soil. More and more, we find that the loss of valued ecological resources stems from a wasteful and ultimately unsustainable economic activity.

Ethic of Sustainability

That is why it is so important for businesses to develop, as part of a commitment to environmental quality management, an ethic of sustainability. That means, among other things, responsibly managing natural resource bases, restoring depleted and damaged areas wherever possible, and developing alternative and renewable energy sources. But more important than any single one of these initiatives is a change in the very philosophy of business.

Conservationist Aldo Leopold once wrote, "We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect."

Industry, in its pursuit of financial capital, has traditionally regarded the consumption of natural capital as a one-time, one-way proposition. And economists have traditionally categorized any costs borne by the environment as "externalities" -- outside the proper sphere of economic analysis and accounting. After all, an economist might argue, how can we assign a price tag to nature?

Nature may not in fact have a price in the classical sense of the word, but unless we attach some economic value to it, we are more likely than ever to lose it. So economists must devise new "true-cost" accounting methods and fiscal incentives that encourage more efficient use of scarce resources and boost long-term economic performance around the globe. And owners and managers must remember that they, too, are citizens of the world, as dependent on that world's bounty as the rest of us.

Tangible Innovations

That is a high-minded principle. How can any business actually realize it in practical, everyday ways? There are, to begin with, a number of tangible innovations that businesses everywhere can adopt, including:

Environmental Risk Management. Industry has a duty to ensure that its products are safely manufactured, handled, transported, used, and disposed of, without unacceptable risks for the environment.

"Life Cycle" Assessment. Manufacturers should account for the environmental impacts of their products over the entire life cycles of those products -- from extraction of resources and manufacture to use and disposal.

Environmental Auditing. To be accountable to the public and to the government, industries should disseminate accurate and available information on the environmental performance of their construction contractors, plants, technologies, waste contractors, products, distribution systems, wholly owned and partly owned businesses, and overseas agencies.

Source Reduction. Ideally, products manufactured by industry should either require no disposal at all or be completely recyclable. Barring that, industry should find ways to reduce both the quantity and toxicity of environmentally hazardous products and the waste generated by manufacturing.

Training. Companies must train their employees to become the environmental auditors, risk managers, and source reducers who convert policy into ongoing daily action.

It is important to keep in mind that many of these actions are necessarily long-term efforts which involve some still unresolved issues. Part of World Wildlife Fund's mission, though, is to craft practical conservation solutions that work not just for scientists and conservationists but for businessmen and private landowners -- solutions that give everyone a stake in conservation.

We are not, of course, about to abandon our role as advocates for the environment. What we are doing is exploring ways to work with corporations to make sure their ventures incorporate conservation concerns.

Beyond Philanthropy

In the past, corporations have confined their environmental initiatives mostly to straightforward philanthropy -- making donations to existing projects, as American Express and DHL did for a WWF conservation program in Mexico, or as Exxon had done in Colombia. Now, though, WWF and other groups are working with manufacturing and extractive industries at important tropical sites to develop comprehensive programs of balanced land management.

Building bridges of understanding with the corporate world is not a role that environmental activists have always been comfortable playing. In the past, more often than not they have devoted their energies to impeding corporate projects. But many conservation groups have come to realize that halting economic growth is not only impractical, it is a disservice to the millions of poor people who desperately need stronger financial underpinnings to their daily lives. It is also a disservice to the conservation effort, the scope of which demands ever greater resources.

This new conservation-business dialogue, however, brings about new dilemmas. How do conservations go about engaging a corporate culture that has come to regard them as naive at best and anti-capitalist at worst?

One of the most important ways is to provide practical tools that allow business leaders to become environmental managers. WWF is currently developing model guidelines to help corporations integrate conservation of biological diversity into their land management decisions. These new guidelines may soon be adopted by President Bush's Commission on Environmental Quality, on which I serve along with leaders from business, academia, and the environmental community.

In addition, WWF is working to engage the business community through the National Commission on the Environment (chaired by WWF Board Chairman Russell Train), whose deliberations seek to chart a new national environmental policy. We recognize that any such strategy must incorporate all affected segments of society, so among the members of the Commission are executives with Alcoa, Southern California Edison, Browning-Ferris, and BankAmerica.

Environmental purists, alarmed by these kinds of alliances, charge groups like World Wildlife Fund with being inappropriately coopted corporate interests. But I would argue that we are all necessarily co-opted in a much greater struggle: the struggle to preserve and renew the earth's precious natural resources. The business and conservation movements each have a unique, irreplaceable and increasingly interconnected role in that struggle.

Kathryn Fuller became President and Chief Executive Officer of World Wildlife Fund in February 1989. She served previously as WWF's Executive Vice President, General Counsel, and Director of Public Policy. Before joining WWF in 1982, Fuller worked as a trial lawyer and later as chief of the Wildlife and Marine Resources Section of the U.S. Justice Department, a section she helped to create. With over 3,000 projects in more than 140 countries, WWF describes itself as the leader in taking practical and positive action to conserve the living environment.
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Title Annotation:Meeting the Environmental Challenge; reconciling business leaders and conservationists
Author:Fuller, Kathryn
Publication:Directors & Boards
Date:Jun 22, 1992
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