—— Biodiversity is declining worldwide. Climate change and resource exploitation are to blame. This is dangerous for humanity, and there are as yet few effective countermeasures. What can companies do?

Blumenwiese unter blauem Himmel.

The figures presented by the World Biodiversity Council in 2019 were shocking: one million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction around the globe. And not in the next century or two, but within the next decade. The greatest blame lies with humankind. Both global warming and (over)exploitation of resources are threatening to massively reduce biodiversity worldwide.

This poses a huge problem for humanity, because any decrease in the number and variety of different species endangers life and health everywhere. Food, raw materials and clean drinking water will become more difficult to obtain if ecosystems are out of balance. Natural protective systems such as mangrove forests, which protect coastlines from flooding, disappear. Germany’s Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU) and the consulting firm BCG compiled a study to calculate how much added value people derive from their surrounding ecosystems. The figure they landed on was 170 to 190 trillion US dollars, about twice as much as total global GDP.

Yet the damage inflicted on biodiversity by the economy isn’t really a major topic. “Society and the big protest movements are focusing instead on the climate,” says Magdalene Trapp, a biodiversity officer at NABU who also contributed to the abovementioned study. One problem is that ecosystems and the changes to them cannot easily be broken down to just a few variables. “For the climate, the 1.5 degrees Celsius target is very clear and can be broken down into individual sectors,” Trapp explains. For biodiversity, even the experts in the field often disagree about what objective criteria could be used to describe its decline.

Accordingly, it’s difficult to set clear targets. Certificate trading—as used for carbon dioxide, for example—isn’t really possible. Although there’s been an international treaty since 1993, to which 196 countries are a party, the implementation of this Convention on Biological Diversity has been problematic. In 2010, the signatories agreed to the so-called Aichi Targets, named after the location of the conference in the eponymous Japanese prefecture. Improvements to be made by 2020 included the fight against loss of species, the protection of ecosystems and the promotion of more sustainable forms of use. Yet in 2020, the secretariat responsible had to admit in a report that none of the goals had been achieved. “These targets are only useful if they’re actually implemented,” Trapp says. This is the responsibility of the individual countries.

But even at a lower level, the topic of biodiversity doesn’t seem to be very high on the agenda. In its new Common Agricultural Policy, the EU has issued few new regulations to preserve biodiversity. As Trapp explains, “It would be important to at least eliminate the incentives detrimental to biodiversity.” Farmers in particular need to be empowered not to always choose the cheapest option, so that they can produce products that don’t destroy nature yet remain affordable. Today’s economic pressures result in monocultural farming that diminishes diversity.

Similar mechanisms should also apply to consumers, who must often pay more for environmentally friendly products than for the alternatives. But many people aren’t even aware of the impact that the disappearance of just one species could have on an entire range of products. In 2018, a discounter in Hanover, Germany, tried to draw attention to the issue with an unusual action, whereby the employees removed all the products that would no longer exist without bees: fruits, coffee, ready-made products, frozen food. All at once, the shelves were fairly empty.

“You can’t just dump all the responsibility regarding this issue on consumers.”

Magdalene Trapp, biodiversity officer at NABU

Still, as Trapp explains, “You can’t just dump all the responsibility regarding this issue on consumers.” Nonetheless, consumers could rely on certifications to ensure they aren’t buying products produced at the expense of biodiversity. “Ultimately, education is key because many people don’t realize how many products contribute to the loss of biodiversity through their supply chains.”

Many companies have recognized this. The retailer Otto Group in Germany, for instance, takes a very close look at how its wood furniture is produced. The company’s buyers are obliged to ensure that they don’t purchase any endangered types of woods or products resulting from over-exploitation when sourcing wood. The office supplies manufacturer Faber-Castell also monitors where the wood for its pencils comes from and purchases only from certified cultivators.

Biodiversity management doesn’t have to come at the expense of profitability. On the contrary, HeidelbergCement, for instance, actively manages the biodiversity in the areas surrounding their active quarries. This saves the company money over the long run when the environment around decommissioned quarries must be recultivated. For some companies, targeted measures promoting biodiversity can even reduce risks for their own supply chains. Confectionary producer Mars, for example, is committed to ensuring that other trees and a wide variety of other vegetation grow on its cocoa plantations. The reason: cocoa trees need the shade of larger trees. In this way the company secures the supply of the raw materials it needs by protecting other species.

In addition, this can also improve a company’s image, although the results can be difficult to measure. Ideally, companies can link their biodiversity campaigns to their own brand. One example is the detergent manufacturer Werner & Mertz. Its most well-known brand, Frosch—frog, in German—supports campaigns to renature river floodplains across Europe, which has the effect of strengthening local flora and fauna populations. Including, of course, their mascot, the frog.