By identifying overlaps between environmental and corporate interests, and forming multi million-dollar partnerships with international companies, Mark Tercek of the Nature Conservancy is seeking to change the relationship between big business and the environment. He’s also trying to save the planet in ways that charity alone can’t achieve. 

What’s the Big Idea?

How do you get people to care about the environment? Nalgene bottles and woven hemp grocery bags are a start, but major conservation projects – like saving entire watersheds and rainforests – require a serious, collective commitment of resources to see through. You need money, time, and sustained energy, things that people – no matter their ideological sympathies – are reluctant to part with even at the best of times, let alone in the midst of a global recession.

The Nature Conservancy, by far the leading and most trusted conservation agency in the world, was hit hard by the crisis. Like most nonprofits, its heavy dependence on charitable donations leaves it vulnerable to fluctuations in people’s (and corporations’) cash reserves.

In 2008, faced with serious financial concerns, TNC brought in Mark Tercek as President and CEO. Tercek  – Goldman Sachs’ former champion of green corporate initiatives – saw untapped opportunities in the corporate world for lasting environmental partnerships. Convincing companies like Coca Cola to invest heavily in, say, watershed conservation, is often a matter of demonstrating how such projects can benefit their bottom line.

While some environmentalists see corporate interests as antithetical to their own, Tercek believes that such partnerships benefit both the environment and the global economy, and reflect a necessary balance between what the planet needs from us and what we need from the planet.

Mark Tercek: So that's our business.  More and more it's navigating forward trying to balance on the one hand what people need through economic growth and on the other hand, what people need from healthy ecosystems.  And you'll see people like the Nature Conservancy therefore working with some strange bedfellows.  We have partnerships today with people like Dow Chemical, Rio Tinto, China's Three Gorges Dam Company.  Lots of people say to me, "why would the Nature Conservancy ever work with companies like that?"  And I say, "Why not?"  Those are indeed the very companies whose behavior we need to guide and influence so that we can move forward and again, achieve the economic growth and the protection of the natural systems that humankind requires.

What’s the Significance?

The question is whether the danger posed by such partnerships to environmental initiatives that don’t happen to benefit any major corporation’s bottom line, or that stand in the way of a partner corporation’s interests, outweighs the good they can achieve.
That is, should non-profits like TNC avoid these partnerships entirely, for fear of conflicts of interest or corruption of their core principles?  For example, what happens when a close TNC partner wants to drill for oil on Conservancy-protected land? Alternatively, what kinds of safeguards could organizations like TNC build in to guide them through these ethical grey areas? These are legitimate questions, and need to be asked in an ongoing and serious way both within and outside of conservation organizations.

But global businesses are here to stay, they’re essential drivers of the world economy, and one way or another, they are going to continue to impact the planet in a significant way. If managed intelligently, efforts like Tercek’s with the Nature Conservancy may succeed in funding ambitious environmental projects that would otherwise remain on the drafting table, and transforming the way industry understands its relationship with the Earth.

This post is part of the series Re-envision, sponsored by Toyota.

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Photo credits (in order of appearance): Mark Godfrey © 2008 The Nature Conservancy, © Jeff MacMillan for The Nature Conservancy, Erika Nortemann/© 2010 The Nature Conservancy, © Greg Miller, Erika Nortemann/© 2010 The Nature Conservancy, Erika Nortemann/© 2010 The Nature Conservancy, Erika Nortemann/© 2010 The Nature Conservancy, Erika Nortemann/© 2010 The Nature Conservancy, Mark Godfrey © 2008 The Nature Conservancy, ©Ami Vitale, ©Ami Vitale 

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