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How Corporations Are Getting Into The Business Of Protecting The Environment

A Q&A with Megan Guy of The Nature Conservancy

The Nature Conservancy (TNC), an international science-based environmental organization, was one of many sponsors of the March for Science on April 22, rallying its supporters under the hashtag #NatureUnitesUs and the slogan "United by Nature, Guided by Science." MTV News writer Marcus Ellsworth spoke with Megan Guy, a director of corporate engagement at TNC, about her unusual past working for Goldman Sachs as a conservationist, how cooperating with corporations is a critical piece of environmental justice, and how TNC pulls together a variety of interests to help protect the future of our planet.

[This interview has been edited and condensed.]

How did you go from working at Goldman Sachs to working for The Nature Conservancy?

Megan Guy: I wanted to work in environmental policy and felt I couldn't really do that without understanding how companies make decisions and how capital flows. I took a job with the natural-resources group in [Goldman Sachs's] investment banking division. I remember at the time thinking I was going behind enemy lines. But they were really interested in sustainability and they were starting to think already, 15 years ago, about things like the climate. They understood that they had dependencies on natural resources and were in the early stages of thinking about how that should shape their business decisions.

Mark Tercek, who's actually now the TNC CEO, was my boss … when we were doing the environmental markets work for Goldman Sachs. I went back to business school and did a joint MBA-M.S. in energy and resources. I got back in touch with Mark and he said, "We're really ramping up this work that [TNC is] doing." [TNC was] simultaneously launching a unit called NatureVest that does impact investing in nature-based projects. So it just seemed like a really cool opportunity to work on something that I cared deeply about and be a little bit closer to the direct impact of some of these choices.

People ask, "How did you wind up working at an NGO after working in finance?" but I think a lot of these worlds are converging. The cool thing with the corporate conversations now is that they actually are looking to get NGO expertise and ecology expertise in-house. It's kind of a fun place to be.

Can you tell us more about what you do now at TNC?

Guy: I am a director of our corporate engagement team. I work with global corporations to help them better understand the impact that they have on nature and how investment in nature can yield better outcomes for the environment, their bottom line, the communities they are working in, their employees, and society as a whole. You can't solve [environmental] problems in silos, and we've tried to do that for a long time without a lot of success. One of the really fun pieces of my job, I think, is bringing together business capacities, engineering, and TNC.

We have around 600 scientists on staff around the world, and we operate in 72 countries. I think bringing [together] science, economics, engineering, and the social piece of understanding people and what matters to them is helping us to create more innovative ways of both doing conservation work and running businesses that will hopefully take us forward into the next century, to a growing world with a lot more needs and a lot more people that we need to provide for.

It's about not only identifying and protecting critically important pieces of our ecosystem, but it's also working with all of the stakeholders — communities, companies, and policy makers — to maximize the benefits to the planet as a whole and the people that reside upon it.

What is TNC's vision for preserving our environment?

Guy: Our mission statement is to conserve the land and waters upon which all life depends. I think any of my colleagues could probably recite that to you in [their] sleep. That's a lofty ambition, right? Conservation as a whole means a much broader suite of activities than it used to in the past. It's about not only identifying and protecting critically important pieces of our ecosystem, but it's also working with all of the stakeholders — communities, companies, and policy makers — to maximize the benefits to the planet as a whole and the people that reside upon it.

What are some of the ways in which you use science to help corporations make decisions about their engagement with the environment?

Guy: Science is the foundation of everything we do. It's our core guiding principle. Companies embrace that because they tend to be empirical in the way that they assess data and make choices. The challenge for my team is how we take our science and translate that into changes in practices and decisions on the ground. We know just doing the science and putting out papers is not enough.

So we partner really closely with companies. We often are working directly with their staff to help understand the specific context in which they're making these decisions. Then we help develop tools, approaches, and data sets that plug into their existing mechanisms and enable them to do things better. ... I think our most successful partnerships have been the ones where we've really established a deep level of trust and understanding of how each of our organizations works. That lets us approach these challenges with a fresh, innovative approach that you don't get when you're just talking to folks that are like yourself.

What is a specific example of how TNC has helped a company align itself with the interests of the community it's a part of and the environment?

Guy: One industry we do quite a bit of work with is the insurance industry, and we've been working with them to help identify new insurance products and new mechanisms to bring insurance to communities that are at risk from severe flooding and increasingly frequent storms. We know that nature can be an incredibly powerful and cost-efficient way to address the challenges that come with those storms and disasters. Coral reefs take up to 97 percent of the energy out of waves before they hit the shore, so if you think about losing a meter of reef, you're losing a huge amount of protection for the community that lives behind that. That's reaping the benefits of what we call natural infrastructure.

So we've been working with the insurance industry and with developers and folks who are engaged in the economies, including companies with industrial operations, along those coasts to better identify how we can actually scale natural infrastructure and investment into nature — like hybrid solutions where you're investing both in restoring a wetland or a marsh that's going to soak up a lot of that water and take energy out of storm systems alongside more traditional concrete and cement solutions that we see in the engineering sector.

Because at the end of the day, people and nature don't exist in separate silos. We're all part of the same system.

Why are corporate interests and policy-making an important piece of our environmental future?

Guy: Because at the end of the day, people and nature don't exist in separate silos. We're all part of the same system. I know that sounds a little bit "kumbaya," but it's true. We really have codependencies and I think companies are in the business of managing risk and creating value. [Most companies today] understand that, first and foremost, without a healthy environment you don't have the opportunity to operate your business in healthy communities in which your enterprise can thrive. Obviously, they're at different degrees of their embrace of that in their specific actions and how long-term they are in their thinking.

The fact is we're heading toward a world of 9 billion people. The conservation of old that maybe was focused exclusively on protection and setting areas aside to be untouched, with a biodiversity focus, isn't necessarily speaking to how we meet the needs of those [growing] communities. We need to feed and provide shelter and fuel for far more people than Earth has ever been asked to do that for in the past. The really cool thing, frankly, is our science tells us that is actually possible. But we can't get there without smarter investments in nature and without conservation to ensure [the survival of] the benefits nature is providing, be it clean water or storm protection or food or any of the tangible things we need every day. Doing right by each other and our communities also depends on us doing right by nature and our environment.

This article has been updated to correct Ms. Guy's title and our description of The Nature Conservancy.