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Nature for Business, Business for Nature

Nature for Business, Business for Nature

Jakki Mohr

Missoula's Rattlesnake Valley, Montana

A call for marketers to acknowledge the economy of the great outdoors during this time of social distancing

During this time of shelter-in-place, social distancing (really, physical distancing) and working from home, those of us who live in areas with ready access to nature have been fortunate. I can literally step outside my front door and be surrounded by wilderness, including creeks, trails, pine forests and a plethora of wildlife and birds. The sights, sounds and smells of nature are soothing: rushing creeks, wind in the trees, geese flying north, chickadees calling, owls hooting back and forth to their mates in the evening dusk, fragrant blossoms of spring, vibrant colors of leaves.

Many media have noted the resurgence of nature during this time of human quietness: sights of the Himalayas from previously polluted cities in India, sightings of cougars and coyotes in areas previously not seen; even pandas mating in the relative quietness of the Ocean Park in Hong Kong in April.

The fact is, even without COVID-19, humans rely on and appreciate nature, and marketers must consider nature and its processes in their strategies.

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Nature is Big Business

Outdoor Recreation and Amenity Lifestyles

Visitor spending in communities near national parks in 2018 added $40.1 billion to the nation’s economy and supported 329,000 jobs, according to the 2018 National Park Visitor Spending Effects. Of that, $20.2 billion occurred in communities within 60 miles of a National Park. Indeed, spending on outdoor recreation is twice that of spending on pharmaceuticals. Related to this, communities that are surrounded by protected lands or wilderness are also benefitting economically, as people who want to take advantage of an outdoor lifestyle choose to live and work in these areas. Companies and industry organizations alike recognize that protecting nature is key to preserving these economic benefits.

Ecosystem Services

As another example of the value of nature, it provides important “services” to people in the form of the ecosystem (rainfall, carbon cycles, soil health, etc.). The first valuation of ecosystem services done in 1997 estimated that ecosystem services worldwide are worth an average $33 trillion annually ($44 trillion in today’s dollars), nearly twice the global GNP of around $18 trillion ($24 trillion in today’s dollars). That number was disputed, but an estimate made in 2011 on a similar set of data estimated the value at $125 trillion. Some companies, such as Dow, have realized that by allowing nature to perform key functions—using wetlands to manage water run-off, for example—they save on costly industrial processes. In fact, Dow’s 110-acre Seadrift project to handle water treatment via building a natural wetlands cost $1.4 million, compared to $40 million for a typical water treatment plant. At a micro level, human health depends on nature’s micro-biota that colonize and regulate our immune systems and it is particularly important during childhood. Immersion in nature offers a source of emotional well-being as well. See, for example, Florence Williams’ fascinating book, The Nature Fix, and Emma Marris’ Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World.

Implications for Marketers

Naturally, companies that rely on the “outdoor economy” realize that if there is no nature, the value of outdoor recreation and related amenities declines precipitously. And marketers of outdoor gear and experiences understand that if future generations don’t value outdoor experiences, their markets are less viable. For example, fewer young people are engaged in recreational fishing than past generations.

Marketers—particularly those engaged in supply chain management, sourcing and new product development—appreciate that many of their raw materials and supplies come from nature. These raw materials include not just forests and wood or coffee and cacao, but also the ecosystem services mentioned previously. Companies such as Conagra Brands and Nestle are dependent on healthy soil and water to grow foodstuffs, and managing the risk of natural disasters are not only important for cost management, but the very survival of the business (it’s worth noting that the insured losses because of natural disasters in the U.S. in 2018 came to $52 billion).

Considering the ways in which nature benefits businesses, both economically and in terms of ecosystem services, it behooves companies to think about the ways they can invest back into nature. Here, I highlight three organizations that are at the forefront of the trend of businesses proactively being engaged in ensuring nature’s survival.

1. Business For Nature

As stated on this organization’s website, “forward-thinking businesses understand that global economic prosperity relies on a healthy natural world and are already making commitments and acting on nature protection and restoration. Business for Nature is amplifying this business movement by demonstrating the breadth and depth of existing business ambition and action.” This organization is hosting a virtual event on June 15 to discuss how business resilience is tied to nature and how collective leadership will reverse nature loss.

2. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, Business and Biodiversity

Founded in 1948, the IUCN works with the business community to help conserve nature and ensure the use of natural resources is equitable and ecologically sustainable. The organization offers resources that include a “Building Bridges” Newsletter and its IUCN Business Engagement Strategy. As the IUCN explains on its website, “Many businesses rely on natural resources for their production processes and depend on healthy ecosystems to remove waste, and maintain soil, water and air quality. … Business can offer innovative solutions to conservation. By addressing their environmental footprint, companies can open up new opportunities, respond to consumer demand for responsible products, pre-empt new regulations, and save both costs and natural resources.”

3. The United Nation’s Environment Program

This program is focused on, among other things, engaging the private sector in transformative change to address environmental challenges. Its North American office in Washington, D.C., works with the private sector to protect and restore the quality of the natural environment, improve the livelihoods of people and broaden the prospects for future generations. The UN declared 2021 through 2030 as its Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. The “restoration economy” devoted to restoring degraded, damaged or destroyed landscapes is itself a multibillion dollar industry, which includes jobs such as the environmental scientists and engineering companies that plan wetland restoration projects, construction firms hired to complete the work and greenhouses and nurseries that grow plants.

4. The World Economic Forum

This organization has launched a series of reports in 2020, to explore and underscore the business case for protecting nature’ assets.  Its initial report, Nature Risk Rising, focuses on how nature-related risks must be incorporated into businesses’ risk management strategies. 

The time is not just ripe for marketers to be engaged, but it’s overdue. Whether engaging locally with a group such Business for Montana’s Outdoors (an example from my own back yard), or thinking about your company’s environmental footprint by engaging with a group such as Sustainable Brands, attending a nature-based workshop through a group such as Biomimicry 3.8 or Terrapin Bright Green, I urge marketers to get involved and to lead the charge in their business. Nature is big business. And business needs nature.

Photo: Rattlesnake Valley, Missoula, Montana by Jakki Mohr.

Jakki J. Mohr, Ph.D., is the Regents Professor of Marketing, the Poe Family Distinguished Faculty Fellow, and Fellow at the Institute on Ecosystems at the University of Montana.