Nature’s Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature

Mark R. Tercek & Jonathan S. Adams

272 pages, Basic Books, 2013

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Conservationists and sustainable development advocates must collaborate with companies that seek to use environmental strategies to make their businesses stronger. So argues Mark R. Tercek, CEO of the Nature Conservancy. “The bigger the company’s footprint, the bigger the opportunity for the company to reduce its impact by changing its behavior,” Tercek observes in Nature’s Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature (written in partnership with science writer Jonathan S. Adams).

The call for collaboration by environmental organizations with business is not new. It’s consistent with the track record of the Nature Conservancy, a 62-year-old organization that operates in 35 countries and in every US state. Few other environmental organizations with global reach have embraced collaboration with business to nearly the same degree. No doubt, many fervent environmentalists will view Tercek as naïve—or worse, as a shill for greenwashing corporations. Nature’s Fortune won’t convince everyone, but members of the conservation community and the entire nonprofit sector will find much that is worth considering within its pages. It’s also written in such an engaging and casual style that one is apt to forget that it is, in essence, a polemical work.

In the book, Tercek sets forth his practical philosophy regarding natural capital. “Viewing nature … through basic business principles focuses more attention on the benefits of conservation,” he writes. “You may not become a conservationist, but you will realize that conservation—protection of nature—is a central and important driver of economic activity, every bit as important as manufacturing, finance, agriculture, and so on.” He developed his perspective by drawing on his two decades as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs and by integrating that experience with a careful reading of writers such as E. F. Shumaker (Small Is Beautiful), Gretchen Daily (The New Economy of Nature), and Paul Hawken (The Ecology of Commerce).

Tercek makes the case for collaboration by presenting numerous examples of the Nature Conservancy’s work with companies to reduce the environmental impact of their operations. Conservation, Tercek asserts, can help businesses “manage risks to their supply chains, keep costs down, identify new market opportunities, and protect essential business assets.”

Early on, we meet Carlos Salazar, who runs the world’s largest independent bottler of Coca-Cola. Tercek recounts a meeting at which Salazar seeks to understand the economics of preserving forests in Latin America. Salazar’s goal is to provide his company with clean water, an essential raw material for the production of soft drinks. Implicit in the questions that he asks is the view that conservation is an investment and that, as with any investment, he must ascertain its potential return.

Tercek writes: “Salazar, intense and focused as CEOs often are, sought answers from me and the conservation scientists he had invited to join the lunch. ‘Tell me this,’ Salazar said. ‘If I want to produce water, should I protect an existing forest, or restore a forest that has been cut?’ … Most important, at least from a business perspective, Salazar wanted to know this: ‘How much water will I get from each dollar I spend on conservation?’”

Certain companies—those with an extensive environmental footprint—should receive serious attention and encouragement from conservation advocates, Tercek argues. He calls such enterprises “keystone companies.” Biologists apply the term “keystone species” to any species that, relative to its abundance, has a disproportionately large impact on its environment. Such species affect not only other species, but the structure of their entire ecosystem. Among the keystone companies that Tercek discusses are Cargill, Coca-Cola, Dow, Levi Strauss, McDonald’s, Pepsi, and Xerox.

Despite the reference to “investing” in its subtitle, the book does not convey much in the way of financial detail. That omission is disappointing. The growing literature on the subject of mission investing suggests that many readers would be highly receptive to a well-grounded discussion of the ways and means of achieving conservation gains.

One strength of Nature’s Fortune, meanwhile, lies in the model of social change that Tercek presents. Responsible stewardship of natural systems at the scale and complexity that he describes aligns closely with the collective impact model. Many of his examples, in fact, meet the essential conditions—shared measurement systems, mutually reinforcing activities, and so forth—that apply to other efforts to build multi-sector coalitions that leverage broader results than any single project could achieve.