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Biodiversity is the new buzzword in sustainability marketing, but it comes with risks


By Ellen Ormesher | Senior Reporter

July 19, 2023 | 8 min read

Marketers are appealing to regulators to clarify how they can communicate brands’ commitments to biodiversity.


Over half of the world's GDP is reliant on nature / Adobe Stock

Following scrutiny over the validity of carbon offsetting schemes, brands are shifting their sustainability strategies and communications in favor of compensation. Giving back to nature is in vogue, but experts say clear guidelines and regulations must be implemented to avoid greenwashing.

When PwC assessed the dependency of more than 160 sectors on nature, deriving what proportion of their revenues and profits are either moderately or highly dependent on natural resources and ecosystem services, it concluded that 55% of global GDP, or $58tn, is dependent on nature and therefore exposed to risks relating to nature loss and degradation.

Patagonia made headlines around the world last year after its founder Yvon Chouinard announced it would donate all of its profits not reinvested into the outdoor brand to “protecting nature and biodiversity” and “fighting the environmental crisis,” supporters called it “a turning point in predatory capitalism” and the kind of thinking beyond B-Corp status and carbon reduction required to fight the climate emergency. In hindsight, Patagonia was a first-mover regarding its communication of nature as a priority in combatting climate change.

The target has kept moving for sustainability comms ever since, as the reputation of an unregulated carbon offsets market has questioned brands’ net-zero strategies. Anti-greenwashing regulations and guidance have quickly followed.

Decarbonization across supply chains is vital for companies claiming carbon neutrality. Still, pioneers within the space are now looking at nature restoration to combat their environmental impacts. As Allbirds recently told The Drum, it stuck its neck out to claim the world’s first net-zero shoe, partly based on its commitment to regenerative farming practices to acquire its merino wool.

This has spawned a biodiversity trend, where brands boldly claim they’re giving back to nature.

Ella Moore, head of sustainability and corporate communications at WPP’s Design Bridge and Partners says it plays into the fact there’s more awareness than ever before within the industry of the interdependencies and connections between biodiversity impacts and climate impacts. Previously, assessing and reporting on a company’s nature impacts was “a black hole,” but now she says companies are waking up to the financial implications for their business if they do not put biodiversity at the center of the conversation.

“For brands with complex supply chains and many dependencies on that supply chain like nature-related services or raw materials, they are being pushed towards a much more nuanced understanding,” she says.

But Hélène Valade, LVMH’s environment development director, stresses that it is not easy unpicking the tangled web of production and consumption across the supply chain, citing that across its over 75 prestigious brands across fashion, perfume and cosmetics: “We have concrete action plans on achieving circularity, transparency and traceability and climate and biodiversity because all our products are dependent on the environment. There’s no champagne without grapes, no perfume without flowers, no cotton, no silk. Preserving biodiversity is a responsibility not just for us but for society.”

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LVMH is one of 17 companies, alongside the likes of AB InBev, GSK, the H&M Group, Kering and Tesco, currently piloting a framework for nature laid out by The Science Based Targets Network (SBTN) with a full roll-out expected by 2024. But as Ruby Gurdon, sustainability director of Design Bridge & Partners, explains, when aligning strategy with marketing and communications, “biodiversity is such an encompassing, broad term, a lot of brands and businesses don’t know how to approach it.”

Gurdon says that the key challenge around incorporating biodiversity or nature-based solutions into any campaign is that the vast majority of work needs to be done behind the scenes first “before we can even talk about building it into the brand.”

Furthermore, brands wanting to get involved might be doing the right thing for the planet, but they wouldn’t necessarily reap the rewards on the consumer-facing front. “We might only be able to take tidbits to build a communications strategy that lives outside a corporate sustainability report,” Gurdon concludes.

Richard Boon, chief executive of B-Corp-certified marketing agency, Webmart, says the advertising and marketing community needs stricter guidelines on how biodiversity schemes can be communicated to customers, suggesting that it would help brands communicate the importance of nature restoration to citizens. “We are strong at communicating and could really amplify the power of legislation.”

“There is no law on biodiversity and nothing obliges us to take action on it,” says Valade. Although this may change imminently with the passing of the EU’s Nature Restoration Law, which would commit to EU countries taking measures to restore at least 20% of degraded land and marine ecosystems by 2030, rising to 60% by 2040, and 90% by 2050, it remains unclear to what extent these standards will apply to individual businesses.

Before its favorable vote on July 12, CEOs and executives from more than 80 companies, including Danone, H&M, Holcim, Iberdrola, Ikea, Kellogg, Schroders, Salesforce and Tetra Back, signed an open letter urging EU leaders to adopt the law, in a move Alex Wilson, a senior consultant at Design Bridge & Partners, says is indicative of businesses taking biodiversity into their own hands, adding that governments around the world have stalled on progress when it comes to mandating reporting for biodiversity impacts. She calls their reactions to Cop15 and the EU’s knife-edge passing of the Nature Restoration Law “disappointing.”

Boon appeals to the EU to take a more emboldened stance on guidance around biodiversity and its communication, recalling past regulatory overhauls with dissatisfaction. “I saw it with GDPR and then again with Brexit; when things are legislated, they tend to be poorly transitioned, leading to six to 12 months of panic for everyone.”

Therefore while the EU’s passing of the Nature Restoration Law is a hard-won victory to be celebrated, it remains unclear how businesses and their communications will be affected. Businesses are keen to report and restore their impacts on the natural world and share that with customers, but greater clarity is needed to prevent biodiversity from becoming the new frontier of greenwashing.

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