Ten years ago, Dow and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) set out to answer: How can we make the consideration of nature in business decisions simpler and more routine? Jennifer Molnar, managing director and lead scientist of the TNC’s Center for Sustainability Science, discusses how the collaboration has relied on science to answer that question and integrate the value of nature into business decisions that lead to better business and conservation outcomes. Find out what was jointly learned and what’s ahead. And, check out the latest TNC-Dow progress report.
I oversee TNC’s science contributions to the collaboration, with a focus on doing science credibly while also ensuring it is relevant in the business context. We have had a variety of scientists and economists on our core team over the years, and I closely work with them, advising and empowering them in leading analyses and tool development, as well as bringing in a variety of experts from across TNC and partner organizations. We have seen how important it is that we do this work collaboratively, co-creating research and tools with Dow experts. As a lead scientist, I also speak for this science as we set direction, challenging ourselves to continue to apply science that is on the cutting edge of conservation science in business.
Ecosystems underpin our economy. Businesses rely on nature in many ways – from forests filtering water supplies to wetlands buffering facilities on coasts from storm damage to healthy soils producing our food. And those ecosystems that they rely on are threatened in many places – from development, climate change or even from the businesses themselves. Not looking at how nature interacts with their operations and value chain can lead to blind spots. There can be unseen risks but also missed opportunities to improve business performance. But once businesses see those connections, they can reduce their negative impacts and look for opportunities to invest in ecosystems, to benefit themselves, their communities and wildlife.
Yes, we had a lot to learn – together and from each other. We were thinking in new ways about nature and how to make business decisions that consider nature. One thing that I think helped was that we approached it as an experiment – testing the hypothesis that valuing nature would be better for business. This allowed us to follow the science and work through uncertainty based on the results of analysis.
This was particularly true in our early pilots, where we identified areas where nature was relevant to business decisions at Dow’s Freeport, Texas, site. It was exciting that our joint analysis found that you could plant a forest in the region to remove NOx and ozone for about the same cost as installing traditional removal technologies. But we also found that, according to our models, there weren’t enough marshes in front of a new levee site to provide sufficient protection from hurricanes to reduce the needed height of the levee. Although the collaboration team had been hoping we would find that nature could provide more risk reduction, it turned out that, in that instance, the level of protection that could be offered by natural defensive system was not enough to replace the concrete levee. The study results did, however, clarify the need to conserve the marshes that were currently present. In addition, the study motivated Dow to consider the potential for habitats to provide coastal protection at other sites.
We weren’t looking to just insert nature-based solutions everywhere, but looking at the business and ecosystems to make smarter decisions for both.
I think two things have been critical in our success: an ambitious, shared vision and a strong relationship built between organizations.
In the 10 years of working together, our work and our organizations have evolved. Our vision – as former CEO Andrew Liveris said at our collaboration launch – is “to incorporate the value of nature into every single one of our decisions, into every single one of our companywide goals and plans.” This vision has been critical to maintain the direction and ambition of our work. For example, it helped us shift from pilot analyses to developing tools that would enable the enterprise-level scale of Dow’s 2025 Valuing Nature commitment.
And building relationships between our organizations – at all levels, from the core collaboration team to staff at Dow sites and TNC field programs to our CEOs – has been critical in helping us adapt, learn and develop joint paths forward.
There are a lot of milestones that come to mind, but I think what most encapsulates what I’m proud of is the shifts in cultures and perspectives in both of our organizations based on our work together. And, I often think of specific moments where these shifts became clear.
Within Dow, the implementation of the Valuing Nature Goal has provided tangible examples of how Dow teams have approached projects in new ways with nature in mind. One that comes to mind is Dow’s restoration of a wetland in Midland as part of a remediation project. It is a great example of how Dow engineers are embedding creative improvements across the company that benefit ecosystems. There are also the more intangible moments – like sitting in a recent meeting with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and realizing that Dow engineers were making the presentations about the value of nature-based solutions that we would have made earlier in the collaboration.
And in the Conservancy, this work has expanded how we think about working with and influencing the private sector. Our work with Dow has provided an important example for how we can achieve conservation outcomes by problem-solving with companies, expanding how our programs partner with the private sector beyond philanthropy. Following our success working with Dow to achieve change, we have added large-scale collaborations with other companies, such as Syngenta, Amazon and AB Inbev, with a goal of helping them bring nature into their operational and strategic decisions as well.
One area where the collaboration is taking another look is how Dow and other companies can consider and invest in biodiversity. It has been a part of our analysis and work over the years and is embedded in the Valuing Nature Goal, but more indirectly due to the focus on the benefits nature provides to business.
You can look at biodiversity – the species and ecosystems – as the stock that provides the flow of ecosystem benefits to business. If we are not maintaining biodiversity, those flows will slow and stop. I’m excited to build on the Valuing Nature Goal momentum and to look more closely at how Dow and other companies can directly contribute to maintaining biodiversity.
We are continuing to work to improve implementation of the Valuing Nature Goal, but it has been great to also look beyond that to tackling big opportunities together in climate resilience, water and carbon.
We have convened key stakeholders to advance coastal resilience opportunities along the U.S. Gulf Coast, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and major corporations. We are investigating a robust internal full-cost accounting water methodology for Dow to inform and implement Dow’s corporate water goals. And, in support of Dow’s newly released climate goal, we are working together to determine how Dow can incorporate natural climate solutions.
As much as TNC and other conservation groups can be advocates for the value of nature, it is so important for companies to see other companies going beyond the “business case” and actually implement changes. I’ve seen the story of Dow’s Seadrift wetland constructed for wastewater treatment get companies’ attention, especially the analysis showing $280 million of added value to the company compared to built infrastructure. Our collaboration pilots, Dow’s Valuing Nature Goal and, most importantly, implemented projects have shown how a company can benefit from nature. We convened a working group of companies who are interested in learning how to better operationalize nature-based solutions. (Learn more.)
We knew we had technical challenges to work out, but in order to change how decisions are made across the company, we also needed to work toward supporting a culture change within Dow. We approached this by not only showing Dow employees how nature provides benefits to Dow’s bottom line, but also by helping Dow employees identify the myriad other ways that nature benefits their sites, projects and themselves.
One tactic was the collaboration conducted workshops at dozens of Dow sites around the world. These workshops are now continuing virtually. The workshops were held to identify a portfolio of projects to meet Dow’s Valuing Nature Goal. The collaboration also used these workshops to strengthen the connection to how staff valued nature personally. It was great to see the inspiration and innovative thinking in staff and leave the workshop with a renewed commitment to consider innovative solutions that incorporate nature.
When we began working together, we laid out a pretty linear path to scale up valuing nature within Dow. We were going to develop a methodology for valuing nature that we would test in pilots and then scale across the company – pulling levers we identified in the pilots.
We quickly learned that it wasn’t that simple. We needed to learn from and build a foundation with the early pilots. That required substantial time in getting to know each other, personally and as organizations. And the detailed analysis also required time. When we stepped back to look at how to scale up, we realized we couldn’t just do more of those pilots. It wasn’t practical to have a team of TNC scientists do detailed analysis every time Dow wanted to value nature. So, we pivoted and used the pilots as proof points, but focused instead on what tools would enable Dow staff to value nature on their own. That led to the development of the ESII (Ecosystem Services Identification and Inventory) Tool. The collaboration has publicly shared the business tools we’ve developed together, which we hope will aid others in their valuing nature journeys.
I think the learning from this pivot was an important lesson for us and can be applied by others. Making a case and scaling are two different things. They need to be approached with their own goals in mind. If we had stayed in the analytical mindset of the detailed pilot analyses, I don’t think it would have been possible for Dow to commit to the Valuing Nature Goal in 2015.
We developed the ESII Tool, so Dow staff could use it for projects at sites. It allows Dow staff – largely without ecology training – to collect data about the landscape. The tool translates the data into useful measures of benefits from nature (“ecosystem services”), enabling comparison of the benefits that could be achieved through different site management decisions.
As with all of the tools developed in the collaboration, we made the ESII Tool publicly available so other organizations could use it as well. The ESII Tool website (www.esiitool.com) has been visited by users from at least 80 countries. Users that created accounts include private industry, NGOs, government representatives, and education and research institutes. Use of the ESII Tool by graduate student programs is robust, particularly at Arizona State University, the National University of Singapore, Ohio State University, the University of Texas and Wake Forest University, where the ESII Tool is used as part of program curricula. In addition, several ESII Tool-based publications are currently in development and are being authored by staff at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley and by students at Avans Hogeschool in The Netherlands.