A coral restoration project in Indonesia. Martin Colognoli/Ocean Image Bank , CC BY-NC-SA

Big businesses say they are helping to restore ecosystems – but there's little evidence

The world’s ecosystems need to be restored – and fast. Large corporations are well-placed to do so.

Tim Lamont, Research Fellow, Lancaster University • conversation
Sept. 8, 2023 7 minSource

Many large corporations are enjoying a boost to their green credentials by saying they have launched projects to help restore ecosystems. But according to a new study , which was carried out by myself and several colleagues, they are failing to back these claims up with evidence.

The world’s largest businesses are powerful entities. They possess the resources, wealth, logistics expertise and influence to play a pivotal role in the mission to restore the world’s ecosystems.

But we found another story when we delved into the publicly available sustainability reports of 100 of the world’s biggest businesses, aiming to summarise the extent of their restoration work and its impacts.

Two-thirds of these corporations stated that they carry out restoration activities. However, the devil lay in the detail — or, in this case, the lack thereof.

Many of the corporate sustainability reports gave very little evidence to back up their claims about ecosystem restoration. They lacked rigour in defining restoration, outlining methodologies and quantifying outcomes.

They also failed to clearly distinguish between projects designed to merely align with legal responsibilities and those that would genuinely contribute to global restoration goals.

The majority (80%) of the reports failed to disclose how much money they were spending on ecosystem restoration. And 90% didn’t report any of the ecological impacts that their work had. A third of the reports didn’t even say how big their projects were.

In essence, the evidence supporting many corporate-led ecosystem restoration projects is glaringly inadequate.

Two people restoring a coral reef.
Coral restoration in Indonesia. Martin Colognoli/Ocean Image Bank , CC BY-NC-SA

Ecosystems must be restored

That said, the enthusiasm of big businesses to restore ecosystems is encouraging. And in some cases, corporate-led projects to restore ecosystems are even delivering significant benefits .

Imagine a world where corporations use their vast finances, labour forces, manufacturing capabilities and social influence to help rebuild forests, wetlands, savannas and coral reefs around the globe. It’s a vision of corporate responsibility that goes beyond mere compliance with environmental regulations.

Read more: Four reasons why restoring nature is the most important endeavour of our time

But ecosystem restoration is notoriously difficult to do well. It requires careful and strategic consideration of a range of environmental and social factors.

Genuine attempts to restore ecosystems can also sometimes do more harm than good . They can, for example, accidentally cause environmental damage, disempower local people and landowners or destabilise local governance. Some corporations also oversell their efforts to gain an undeserved boost to their reputation (a practice known as “greenwashing”).

We’re now more than a third of the way through the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration – a global movement “to prevent, halt and reverse the degradation of ecosystems on every continent and in every ocean”. And we’re still witnessing first-hand an alarming decline of the world’s ecosystems, which is having a devastating impact on the people who rely on them.

Restoration projects around the world will need to be expanded at an unprecedented rate. We need to be sure that efforts aimed at restoring degraded ecosystems are actually taking place, and that they truly are as effective as they are claimed to be.

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon.
Deforested area in the Santarem region of the Brazilian Amazon. Adam Ronan/ Rede Amazonia Sustentvel , CC BY-NC-SA

Improving transparency and accountability

Better reporting will be essential for big businesses to become genuine leaders of global ecosystem restoration. It will allow us to properly track the progress of corporate-led initiatives, hold businesses to account against the claims they make, and learn from those businesses that are leading the way.

The rigour of corporate reporting could be improved by implementing several key principles taken from restoration science .

For example, reports could meet the principle of “proportionality” (understanding how much restoration activity has been carried out) by providing information about the spatial extent and number of organisms planted in each individual restoration project that a company carries out. It would then be possible to evaluate the likely scale of the project’s impact.

The principle of “permanence” (committing to long-term restoration commitments) could be evidenced by companies reporting on the number of years they’ve committed to maintain, monitor and report on projects after they’ve been started.

By reporting in ways that adhere to scientific principles like these, companies will be able to demonstrate much more convincingly that their efforts in ecosystem restoration are delivering the environmental and social benefits that they claim.

A woman holding a bowl of urucum in a forest.
A smallholder shows urucum produced in the Santarem region of the Brazilian Amazon. Marizilda Cruppe Rede/Amazonia Sustentavel , CC BY-NC-SA

Big business is showing an increasing interest in contributing to global sustainability. As part of this movement, corporate-led ecosystem restoration could become a valuable asset in the battle to protect our planet’s vulnerable ecosystems. But it will only work if we can ensure transparency, accountability and adherence to best practice.

The idea of big business helping to rebuild the planet is an alluring rhetoric. Now it’s time to back it up with evidence.

The Conversation

Dr Tim Lamont is a research fellow at Lancaster University. He receives funding from the Royal Commission of the Exhibition of 1851, and the Fisheries Society of the British Isles.

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