What’s the Added Value of an Ecosystem Services Approach for Business?

I’ve been up to my eyeballs in grey literature reports (eg, TEEB for Business), guidance (eg, Corporate Ecosystem Services Review) and tools (eg, InVEST) on integrating ecosystem services in the corporate world. Pretty much all of these sources talk about a business case for ecosystem services. Let’s say a company is convinced and tries to figure out what it means to integrate ecosystem services in their business. I think it gets tricky here because many companies are already undertaking corporate sustainability activities. Indeed, many of the actions held up as examples in TEEB, in the Corporate EcoForum’s “Valuing Natural Capital” commitments, and others could be put in the sustainability box. For example, commitments to tree-planting projects to offset a company’s impact on global climate regulation (an ecosystem service).

So what’s the difference between sustainability and ecosystem services? Look, there’s no guidance out there answering this question. I received some input from the Business & Ecosystem Services Professionals LinkedIn group that may help and I’ve got some ideas of my own, so I’m going to put out as a working hypothesis that the difference is thus:

  1. A company has taken a holistic look at their impacts, dependencies and opportunities related to ecosystem services. This may be just a check-the-box process thing, but it indicates an intention to look at the big picture.
  2. The action that a company is taking is somehow additional to what they’re already doing. I know a lot of companies are already thinking about their impacts on global climate change. So does that mean if they’re already buying carbon credits that they’re *check* done and done? Somehow that doesn’t seem right, even if it’s good work. In the above-mentioned LinkedIn discussion, Eric Landen noted “one of the key aspects of the ES approach is that it lets you examine tradeoffs and interconnections across multiple services, which doesn’t happen when you focus on one ES (such as water) to the exclusion of others.”
  3. The company is somehow communicating their action on ecosystem services: in an annual report, in external voluntary reporting, in media communications… I know a lot of folks don’t like the term “ecosystem services” (see reports on messaging ecosystem services here and here), so it could be communicated in other ways.

I’m really interested in what other folks think about this. What do you think is the difference between regular corporate sustainability and corporate integration of ecosystem services? How can you tell/ what would be your indicator(s) that a corporation is taking action on ecosystem services?

OK, so now I’ll get to my original punchline: What’s the added value of an ecosystem services approach? That is to say: why would a company try to integrate ecosystem services instead of just doing their normal sustainability activities? I think the Dow/TNC partnership on ecosystem services just provided a good answer to this. In their recently released 2nd annual report on their collaborative, Dow/TNC report on their pilot project at their huge facility in Freeport, Texas along the Gulf Coast.

Dow TNC 2012 annual report

They determined priority ecosystem services for the facility (aka #1): impacts on air quality/opportunities for air quality mitigation, coastal hazard mitigation, and water supply. Then they did some specific studies looking basically at whether green infrastructure solutions would maintain or improve these ecosystem services, and whether it was more cost-effective than a grey infrastructure solution (a #2 activity). And here’s where I think they win on the value-added factor: they talk about the green infrastructure solution AND the additional ecosystem benefits that would occur (over and above the grey infrastructure solution). Maybe the green infrastructure solution didn’t slam-dunk win out in the cost-benefit analysis for all of the projects, but I think the additional ecosystem service benefits to the community are important. It’s fantastic that Dow/TNC have communicated these benefits in their annual report (a #3 activity). If they do end up implementing the green infrastructure projects, I wonder how they will communicate these benefits to the public? There aren’t a ton of examples of corporate communication of ecosystem services, but here are a few.

Please send your comments if you have other ideas on the value-add of an ecosystem services approach for a corporation.