Before our eyes, nature is vanishing faster than we might have imagined. The bird population in the U.S. has fallen by more than 30 percent in the past 40 years, as have insect populations in Germany. In the U.K., 60 percent of mammals and birds have disappeared since 1970. Meanwhile, nearly one-third of marine mammals worldwide face extinction.
The problem seems especially daunting because it results from vital human activities, including industrial agriculture and fishing, fossil fuel extraction and use, forestry, and mining. It’s long been taken for granted that the enormous transnational corporations that dominate these basic industries are unwilling to compromise their profits to benefit nature.
But that may no longer be the obstacle it once was. Big companies face increasing pressure from governments and from their own investors to adopt sustainable practices. And sheer size gives the companies the power to carry them out on a large scale.
The industries most responsible for global ecological decline, like other industries, have become extraordinarily concentrated. Just 100 coal, oil and gas companies supply the fuels that account for 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, the Swedish ecologist Carl Folke and his colleagues found in a recent analysis of company profits, sales, market share, exports and other data. Only 10 firms manufacture most farming fertilizers, four produce most other agricultural chemicals, and three dominate seed production.
The story is the same everywhere: A few huge companies are largely responsible for the depletion of fish stocks, as well as the environmental damage linked to the farming of palm oil, cocoa, soy and bananas.
Such companies are thus in the best position to enact meaningful changes. It’s true that their own voluntary efforts have fallen short. Often when companies have claimed to manage their supply chains for sustainability, they have set only modest goals — to improve labor conditions, for example, or to follow national laws.
In recent years, though, some governments have begun to push harder for more ethical and sustainable practices. A 2017 French law, for instance, obliges large companies to prevent environmental and human-rights abuses in their own operations as well as those of their subsidiaries, subcontractors and suppliers.
Companies also face new financial pressures, as pension funds and institutional investors shift capital away from firms with unsustainable practices. International institutions are emerging to help this effort. The United Nations Global Compact Action Platform for Sustainable Ocean Business, for one, brings together companies in fishing, mining and finance to find ways to protect the seas.
Ten of the 13 largest seafood companies have committed to the Seafood Business for Ocean Stewardship program, agreeing to be more transparent and to reduce illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. And the global forest products industry has promised to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and manage forests more sustainably. More than 50 percent of the world’s total forest area is now managed by businesses committed to an international forest management certification plan, up from just 12 percent in 2000.
As Folke and his co-authors note, last year, nearly 30 percent of some 700 of the world’s biggest global companies included the UN’s sustainable development goals in their business strategies. Sustainability is no longer merely an option for the most progressive companies; it’s become a central goal for entire industries.
Let’s hope this movement for “corporate biosphere stewardship” proves more broadly effective than earlier calls for “corporate social responsibility” — which turned into a slick way for corporations to shield themselves from criticism while pursuing business as usual. If it does, the industries that have been most voracious in consuming the earth’s resources could become the most effective at protecting them.
Mark Buchanan is a physicist and science writer. This column was written for Bloomberg Opinion.