Since the 1990s, most organizational sustainability programs have focused on tracking data-driven, empirical environmental metrics like energy and water conservation, greenhouse gas emissions reduction, and waste minimization. Significant progress has been made in reducing environmental impacts as measured by these metrics, but increasingly rapid global declines in overall ecological health makes clear the measurement of specific metrics doesn’t convey the entire story.
To provide a clearer picture of their overall impact on the environment, more and more companies have begun including discussions about their ecological impacts, both positive and negative while also continuing to provide data on specific environmental metrics. These organizations have found that including ecological enhancement information in their environment, social, and governance (ESG) reporting allows employees and stakeholders to obtain a more accurate understanding of corporate long-term sustainability while helping to bolster reputations as good environmental stewards. An excellent example of this can be seen in those companies that report on the direct benefits their programs have on the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Before an organization attempts to incorporate ecological enhancement measures into their sustainability program, it is important to consider the following questions:
There is not a one-size-fits-all approach to including ecology in organizational sustainability. While several standards exist for measuring the benefits of ecological improvements, the unique nature of most improvement projects makes overall “value scoring” an elusive and even potentially confusing exercise. Metrics, goals, and the associated scoring mechanisms can be flexibly used and can help organizations decide if ecological enhancement measures are the appropriate pathway for them.
Investors and environmental and climate change advocacy groups will want to understand the technical details of an organization’s plan to meet their sustainability goals, including the details of ecological enhancement projects. Regulatory agencies too are expressing increasing interest in all aspects of corporate sustainability programs, and the US Securities and Exchange Commission and others have expressed specific interest in making sure corporate reporting includes no program information that falls into any category of “greenwashing.” In short, more scrutiny is coming for organizations that have previously relied on less accurate reporting, and companies are advised to always provide a clear road map with project-specific details rather than general claims of improvement.
So how does an organization get there? There are multiple guidance frameworks for pursuing ecological sustainability metrics. Regardless of whether these efforts are accompanied by formal certifications or simply meet the requirements defined in the framework, both approaches define how your organization is protecting the connections between organisms and their environment — often through the lens of habitat protection and restoration.
Program or project certification is the prevailing means of formally incorporating ecology into an organization’s sustainability program. Many of the requirements to achieve these certifications fall directly in line with UN SDGs. There are several avenues to accomplish certification, with programs varying based on approach and requirements.
It should also be noted that ecological enhancement measures such as conservation, restoration, and improved land management for both terrestrial and aquatic habitats can also represent essential opportunities for implementing natural climate solutions. Natural climate solutions can increase carbon storage and help avoid greenhouse gas emissions while also slowing the degradation of ecosystems and restoring biodiversity. Proponents should be sure to redouble their efforts to define potential climate change impact improvements with accuracy, as the general area of ecologically based carbon offsetting is increasingly the subject of regulatory agency concerns about greenwashing.
The Wildlife Habitat Council (WHC) Conservation Certification is the only certification that primarily addresses biodiversity enhancement and conservation education. Designed to guide activities on corporate landholdings, this program is a fit for a multitude of land uses. In Woodard & Curran’s role as supervising contractor for the Beede Waste Oil Superfund Site since 2006, we collaborate with the project team and spearhead the technical strategy to remediate the 40-acre site. The multi-component remedy integrates conservation efforts in various design aspects. Having been restored with native flora, habitat brush piles, bat boxes, and bird nesting boxes, the site has maintained WHC Certification since 2015.
The Sustainable SITES Initiative is a LEED-like framework for new construction that outlines performance measures to protect hyperlocal ecosystems. The program exclusively targets project site activities, addressing everything but the buildings — making it a complementary certification to LEED. According to the organization’s website, “SITES-certified landscapes help reduce water demand, filter and reduce stormwater runoff, provide wildlife habitat, reduce energy consumption, improve air quality, improve human health and increase outdoor recreation opportunities.” Commercial residential, institutional, streetscape, and open space projects can all quality for SITES certification given they cover a minimum of 2,000 square feet.
Focused on infrastructure, the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure’s Envision program promotes sustainable, resilient, and equitable projects. The Envision framework, like other programs, addresses a project’s impact on its immediate surroundings as well as broader environmental impacts and resiliency. Like projects rated via SITES and LEED certification, Envision projects are rated on a flexible, scale from Bronze to Platinum. It is most effective when employed throughout the lifecycle of a project, helping owners and their teams identify sustainable practices, materials, and approaches.
EcoDistricts is a community-oriented environmental certification program with a strong focus on inclusivity. Catering to a swath of stakeholders including community members and policy makers as well as investors and developers, this program offers a roadmap for collaborative, sustainable, and equitable place-making. Given continued growth in cities throughout the U.S., EcoDistricts integrate sustainability and ecology into the planning, design, and management of urban neighborhoods.
There are also state and federal funding programs that designate grants to projects that meet specified ecological benefit parameters. For example, Woodard & Curran is providing ecological habitat enhancement and restoration services to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Georgia Power Company (GPC), to develop series of demonstration projects to restore pollinator habitat on utility line right of ways in Georgia. The program achieves NRCS goals by working to develop pollinator habitat using alternative methods on non-traditional sites (ex. linear utility corridors), which supports the goals outlined in the 2018 Farm Bill for pollinator conservation. In addition, the program achieves GPC corporate stewardship objectives by identifying powerline corridor sites where special vegetation management practices might be implemented to enhance conservation values.
Aside from funding and certification avenues, organizations can include informal ecology-centered objectives in their sustainability programs. Choices can be made during project planning and the engineering design process that may not necessarily guarantee formal certification but may be required as part of the permitting process or simply satisfy a cultural environmental interest. Green infrastructure is a common practice, including the use of bioretention cells, enhanced swales, rain gardens, or green roofs. Property owners may elect constructed wetlands for drainage or make habitat preservation a priority during the site design process, whether or not those parameters meet formal permitting requirements or program criteria.
In summary, stakeholders and decision makers should pragmatically consider the options that are available to them and how they will affect their organization both in the short and long term before committing significant financial resources to ecological enhancement measures. Ecological enhancement measures may have an upfront cost associated with them and will require thoughtful planning and implementation, but they may provide increased social license to operate (SLO) and contribute toward the achievement of meaningful, SDG-driven sustainability goals.
For more on leveraging ecology to achieve sustainability metrics, tune into Birds, Bats and Bees: Using Ecology to Support Corporate Sustainability Metrics, a NAEM webinar presented by myself and Raina Singleton on July 22 at 2 p.m. Eastern.