In this exclusive Q&A with Critical Resource, WWF International Director General Marco Lambertini shares his thoughts on companies’ sustainability performance, calling on them to play a bigger role in climate, water stewardship and environmental protection.
Marco Lambertini has been Director General of WWF International since 2014. He has over 25 years of experience – and a lifetime passion in global environmental conservation, and has had leadership roles in major civil society organisations such as BirdLife International.
My advice to companies: look at your impact very early on – well before an EIA
“Companies should ask the question ‘What will our impact look like?’ at a project’s very early stage – well before an environmental impact assessment is prepared. They should consider environmental and social issues in an honest and constructive way, asking third parties for help, as such issues are as much a part of due diligence as traditional financial considerations. For example, WWF has developed a system that tracks the issuing of mining licences around the world and matches it with data on protected or otherwise culturally and environmentally important areas. We intend to use it to put pressure on companies, and to help them operate in a responsible way by making sound risk management decisions.
Importantly, companies should be prepared to engage with local and national governments, communities, civil society and other relevant stakeholders – otherwise, there is no point in asking questions about impact in the first place. The fear that other parties will be unwilling to compromise should not discourage companies from having discussions. Assessing environmental and social issues honestly is the basis of responsible conduct and a prerequisite for effective risk management.”
Some companies ‘get it’ on sustainability, and others do not
“Companies’ performance on environmental conservation has clearly been mixed. There are companies that get it and others that do not, some are making progress and others are more static. Some even move backwards. Overall, companies are going through a process of learning and understanding. There are many factors that affect the extent to which they act on environmental issues, including their business model, the leadership’s commitment to sustainability, and the company’s size and geographical area of operations. Typically, a company that has burned its fingers on social or environmental issues has learned the lesson and will take a more proactive stance.
We, as civil society, should understand that companies often operate in difficult realities and embrace a solution-oriented approach while being clear on standards, measurement and objectives. On their part, companies need to realise that failure to engage with environmental and social issues does not only represent a reputational risk – there is also a financial risk associated with doing the wrong things in the wrong places.”
As water risks increase, companies are beginning to take water stewardship seriously
“The good news is that companies are beginning to understand the business case for sustainability. Take water risks in the mining sector, for example. In instances of scarcity, companies risk not being able to access water for their operations, but they also face a reputational risk if they misuse the resource. Indeed, water is probably the most important natural resource for companies, beyond what they extract directly. Climate change, pollution, environmental degradation and social issues all have a direct impact on water resources, and therefore on companies’ operations.
Most companies already realise the need for a strategic approach to water stewardship, not just at the site but also in the surrounding area. Some are also devoting attention to forest conservation upstream of their operations to ensure access to the water resources they need to be sustainable as a business. This is definitely a positive trend that we are seeing, in line with our ‘WWF Water Stewardship’ approach.”
The industry needs to step up its game to reduce encroachment on protected areas
“Conversely, we are not seeing enough progress from companies in terms of reducing their impacts on areas of natural importance, whether legally protected or not. A survey we conducted in 2014 showed that more than five hundred protected areas around the world were de-listed or downgraded to make way for industrial activities, most often for resource extraction. Frankly, there are some places with an important value whether that value is ecological, aesthetic or spiritual, that should simply be no-go zones. In other places, operations could take place with a solid mitigation plan.
Developments on this key issue have been mostly confined to large companies that face greater public scrutiny. We have seen cases where companies have pulled out completely, or decided not to start operations in areas of great natural value. The ICMM has also openly advocated that companies should not operate in World Heritage sites and protected areas. We would like to see the industry working with civil society to include safeguards and standards of operation along these lines. There needs to be a commitment at all levels, including from the oil and gas sector.”
The missing link: integrated land-use planning
“The impact of mining on the environment does not uniquely depend on companies’ operations, it is also a result of the land governance and planning systems that are in place. WWF advocates an integrated land-use planning process that engages local authorities, communities and economic players, including in the mining and agricultural sectors. Ideally, infrastructure and operational plans need to take into account all land uses, and should be embedded in development plans at a regional or other administrative level that would allow for effective implementation.
This sort of integrated land-use planning is mostly absent today. We have come across cases in which one branch of government established a conservation area and then another branch of government granted a mining, agricultural or logging licence due to a lack of coordination or holistic development planning. What is needed is to bring the whole set of players and interests, including those at the local and provincial levels, around the table to come up with a good plan that manages inevitable trade-offs. To this end, the genuine engagement of companies is fundamental.”
Collaboration or campaigning? You need a bit of both
“WWF is a solution-oriented organisation. Our first choice is to engage and support decisions that make a difference. We have significant experience with multi-stakeholder partnerships with companies with very different perspectives and priorities. We are sometimes criticised for this philosophy, because we are prepared to talk to companies with an ecological footprint. Sometimes campaigns to raise public awareness are necessary. One example is the case of the British oil company SOCO exploring in Virunga, an iconic national park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Initially, SOCO dismissed our concerns. We then started a prominent campaign in the UK, followed by a dialogue. In the end, SOCO did not go ahead with the project as they realised they would have encountered significant problems further down the road.
Every civil society organisation has its own strategy, and that is the beauty of it. Sometimes you need organisations to campaign strongly to raise the issue, and then you need organisations that are prepared to engage, discuss difficult issues and take risks in designing solutions. I think that, for civil society organisations partnering with companies, it is fundamental to understand their priorities and perspectives – as opposed to coming with a fixed agenda – and to be transparent, pragmatic and collaborative in developing a joint programme. Trying to create durable and equitable solutions is equally important. For companies, it is essential to engage with all players at the local level and to be able to objectively demonstrate that their practices do not harm environmentally and socially important areas.”