NEWS 2019-09-18

Time for corporate biosphere stewardship?

A recent article in Nature, Ecology and Evolution identifies a handful of transnational corporations that disproportionately influence the planet’s climate and ecosystem. This concentration of power comes with a great deal of responsibility and opportunity. Although voluntary corporate responsibility so far has proven ineffective, market concentration could be turned into a positive force for sustainability, the authors claim, and identify seeds of change that could be scaled up.

Tracing back emissions to 100 companies

The author team, lead by Carl Folke, first review some of the evidence behind this statement. For example, they refer to other studies which show that more than 70 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions can be traced back to 100 companies. Similarly, a handful of transnational companies dominate agriculture, forestry and fisheries, which are major drivers of environmental change and biodiversity loss.

Examples include the four companies that control 84% of the agricultural pesticides market, and the five companies which account for 48% of global farmed Atlantic salmon (see infographic).

“Transnational corporations in agriculture, forestry, seafood, cement, minerals, and fossil energy cause environmental impacts and possess the ability to influence critical functions of the planet’s climate and biosphere,” the authors say.

Roadblocks or role models?

The authors emphasise that, so far, voluntary corporate social and environmental responsibility has been too ineffective. They also dwell on the risk for market concentration and corporate power to act as roadblocks due to prioritising economic profit over non-market values. In addition, some transnational companies have used their power to lobby regulators to weaken environmental and social standards.

“In the face of insufficient environmental agreements and regulations, dominance poses a threat to sustainability. For instance, companies able to set barriers to entry in a sector can stifle sustainable practices and technological innovation in general,” they write.

Consequently, corporate leadership in itself is unlikely to be sufficient, the authors say. The global-scale corporate biosphere stewardship they suggest will only be possible if governments around the world also provide “a regulatory context that safeguards non-market ecological and social values”.

“If combined with effective public policies and improved governmental regulations, actions by transnational corporations, could substantially accelerate sustainability efforts”, says Beijer Institute director Carl Folke

Six positive signs to build upon

So, what needs to happen to ensure that these big corporations live up to their potential as sustainability leaders on a global scale? To answer this question, the authors identify six observed positive signs of change towards ‘Corporate Biosphere Stewardship’, which they believe could and should be scaled up:

1) “Alignment of vision” – new norms are emerging among some of the largest brands, broadening the vision from profit only to responsibility, ethics, and purpose

2) “Mainstreaming sustainability” – in 2017 more than 70% of global companies mentioned the Sustainable Development Goals in their corporate reporting and 27% included them in their business strategy

3) “License to operate” – governments increasingly create legal requirement for large companies to identify and prevent abuses on human rights and the environment along global supply chains

4) “Financing transformations” – major pension funds and other institutional investors are slowly starting to redirect capital away from unsustainable practices and towards biosphere stewardship

5) “Radical transparency” – novel technologies, like smart algorithms that track movement of fishing vessels, are enhancing transparency along transnational corporations’ supply chains

6) “Evidence-based knowledge for action” – science-business collaboration is becoming increasingly common and important to ensure that companies’ sustainability agendas are framed by science rather than the private sector alone.

The foundation for this article was laid at the Beijer Institute’s annual Askö meeting 2015.  The Askö meetings are informal workshops for internationally leading ecologists and economists.

Folke, C., H. Österblom, J.-B. Jouffray, E. Lambin, M. Scheffer, B.I. Crona, M. Nyström, 2019. Transnational Corporations and the Challenge of Biosphere Stewardship Nature, Ecology and Evolution 3:1396–1403 Time for corporate biosphere stewardship?