The world faces many critical challenges, from climate change to crushing rural poverty, massive species decline and widespread land degradation. More and more, businesses are joining governments and civil society to create solutions bold enough to have a global impact. But much more needs to happen for the corporate world to help turn the tide.
Those were the major takeaways of a recent high-level panel discussion hosted by 1000 Landscapes for 1 Billion People’s (1000L) partners and supporters EcoAgriculture Partners, Rainforest Alliance and the Laudes Foundation. The event, Better Business Through Integrated Landscape Management: An Executive Roundtable, featured 17 participants from global companies in finance, agriculture, food and beverage, retail, cosmetics and apparel.
Panelists said the business community is starting to converge on a couple of approaches to address the most pressing issues. Chief among these is a landscape-based approach enabling sustainable development, biodiversity conservation and ecosystems restoration while also making supply chains more resilient.
”What you have now is the world’s leading consumer goods companies, both manufacturers and retailers, seeing the importance of landscape programs,” said Natasha Schwarzbach, PepsiCo’s director of procurement sustainability. “But that means a complete mind shift from focusing on your own supply chain to something much broader to really drive that systemic change that’s needed.”
To achieve these bigger goals, businesses are engaging in collaborative alliances with communities called landscape partnerships.
A landscape partnership describes the relationships between different stakeholders, from financiers to government bodies, farmers and Indigenous communities. According to Sara Scherr, co-chair of 1000L and CEO of EcoAgriculture Partners, landscape partnerships are growing more effective as businesses become increasingly involved.
She said companies across sectors are coming to realize that they need to focus beyond the level of individual production units to the bigger picture for their health. A more expansive view makes better business sense–it’s what investors and consumers want, and it helps improve their financial position by reducing risks and costs.
Scherr pointed to a 2015 EcoAgriculture Partners report that found 428 landscape partnerships worldwide to show how quickly this realization is taking hold. Back then, only a quarter of the partnerships included private-sector partners.
Since then, “there’s been kind of an explosion in the visibility of businesses in landscape partnerships, especially international corporations in food, fiber, fashion and botanicals,” Scherr said. “This is a very fast-moving space of businesses engaging much more substantively with landscapes and integrated landscape management.”
She outlined various reasons why interest has increased. Some of the most substantial drivers are the corporate need to meet sustainability and other ESG initiatives and to ensure the supply of limited natural resources.
Partnerships in practice
Kennedy Ntoso of global agri-business group Olam International presented a case study in Ghana’s cocoa forests to highlight the benefits his company is realizing by being part of a landscape partnership. Using sustainable farming practices in more than 70 communities, Olam achieves sustainability goals like carbon sequestration through forest conservation along with business objectives by mitigating competition in the country’s highly competitive cocoa sector.
Working in a landscape approach has changed how Olam views its business. “Landscape [partnerships] gives us an overview beyond our normal supply chain,” Ntoso said. “In the normal supply chain, you are involved in your own corner…landscapes give us a bigger reach to look beyond our own communities.”
Landscape partnerships have the potential to transform both individual businesses and entire sectors. But to accomplish this goal, there needs to be buy-in from investors. But due to the unorthodox financial nature of landscape partnerships, it can be challenging to get that, said Kaspar Baumann of Swiss investment advisor Clarmondial.
“Some of the…risk-return profile is not clear, so the business case you want to have as an investor is not always clear cut,” Baumann said, remarking that many farmers could not afford to absorb risk, making them unappealing as an investment counterpart.
So, instead of sticking to typical financial processes and instruments, the sector must become flexible to foster change. “[We are] seeing a lot of willingness to address these financial challenges…but of course, there is also a need [for behavior changes],” Baumann said. “Those different sides are being asked to be flexible, to abandon to some extent the way they have done business.”
Becoming more responsive is a challenge for many. Still, the panelists said that adjusting to new realities and backing landscape partnerships is necessary for the good of businesses, communities and the environment.
Cotton: The change maker
This adaptability is perhaps no more apparent than in the organic cotton market. According to Textile World, organic cotton is an increasingly in-demand crop, with farmers converting at least 50,552 hectares of traditional cotton fields into organic cotton in 2019-20 alone. As consumers want more sustainable production and sourcing practices, companies like Neutral and Lush are ready to meet their demand, said panelists with those two organizations. But sourcing organic cotton comes with its own set of challenges.
Patricia Bech of Neutral explained that organic cotton outputs are declining as demand rises. As a result, farmers are under increasing pressure to meet changing tastes, which lowers the desire to participate in the organic cotton-growing business. Neutral’s remedy is paying farmers a premium to grow the crop organically.
The company’s move arose through listening to and partnering with locals at the foundation of Neutral’s supply chain. The premium they chose to pay guarantees that they can rely on farmers to grow the resource they need to do business, which lowers the venture’s risk. For Neutral, the landscape partnership provided insight and actionable information that it may have otherwise missed.
Ruth Andrade, a sustainability executive with cosmetics maker Lush, said her company also uses landscape partnerships as a risk-mitigation solution for its cotton supply. In one project, Lush offered money upfront for raw materials to help farmers invest in more sustainable practices.
“We were able to purchase cotton two years ahead of schedule, and that helped to fund the transition to regenerative agriculture,” Andrade said. “Sometimes it’s something as easy as paying upfront for materials to de-risk a transition to regeneration.”
Both Neutral and Lush moved away from business as usual in the interest of sustainability and risk mitigation. Landscape partnerships offer companies the opportunity for this transformation while providing environmental and economic benefits.
The roundtable speakers offered many reasons for other businesses to embrace landscape partnerships. They demonstrated that companies are planning for the long term through sustainable development and agriculture initiatives. With these promising results as a guide, more companies will become involved in landscape partnerships and the integrated landscape management movement.