When companies give nature a voice

While COP15 on biodiversity calls on companies to participate in environmental protection, some are betting on introducing non-human creatures as decision-making members of their companies.

When companies give nature a voice

“Can nature really be a decision maker? » That’s the challenge Simeon Rose, creative director of British beauty company Faith in Nature, presented last summer to lawyers at the Earth Law Center, an American “rights of nature” association. In other words, how to ensure that nature is a stakeholder in the company and that its decisions are more respectful of the environment?

The organization investigated the question together with Lawyers for Nature and lawyers from the international firm Shearman & Sterling. Although it quickly became apparent that nature could not take the place of a director within a company, lawyers offered a solution. Thus, in September, Faith in Nature became the first company to place nature on its board as a non-executive director. This position was shared in practice by two women, one representing the Earth Law Center and the other Nature Lawyers.

Towards a pilot project in France

In the process, the French non-governmental organization Notre Affaire à Tous, which originated the Case of the Century, announced that it wanted to develop a similar initiative in France. The pilot project will be created by a coalition of experts on company law and the environment.

For Marine Yzquierdo, the lawyer responsible for this initiative within the NGO, the project is an opportunity to implement structural greening against greening initiatives: We expect a change in the corporate governance model to integrate living organisms into their economic model and reduce negative externalities. », he explains.

Notre Affaire à Tous is starting a new exchange with potential partner companies. In England, Belief in Nature was voluntary. It is up to us to meet companies in France, not all of them are ready to make this transformation “he regrets. However, the lawyer wants to be optimistic: The fabric of entrepreneurship is full of solutions. Its economic model is one of the reasons for the destruction of biodiversity, however he but also full of innovations. »

In 2019, the PACTE law already made it possible to strengthen corporate social responsibility (CSR) measures by amending Article 1.833 of the Civil Code. This means that the purpose of the company is no longer limited to the interests of the partners, but also takes into account social interests and the environment.

“Representing nature within the Council is in the right continuity of work, moving from the status of an object of consideration to the status of a decision-making actor.Marine Yzquierdo says. If we appoint a manager trained in the environment, he will be able to spread his knowledge within the company and thereby guide the strategies of the company’s projects. This will also strengthen the CSR aspect. »

Initiative towards history

Franz Gault is currently thinking about these questions from an anthropological perspective. In his opinion, the initiative launched by Faith in Nature and Notre Affaire à Tous represents real progress. Finally, we stop treating nature as an object, a slave, he says. Today, we are willing to treat nonhumans as sentient beings with will and interests. »

The anthropologist goes further by suggesting that non-humans who work or contribute to the company’s success are given a stake. For example, in the case of a cosmetics company, this would refer to the plant communities used to produce the products.

At this stage, the representation of non-humans will no longer depend solely on the goodwill of shareholders. », It points to what calls for a real philosophical shift in the West. This idea is reminiscent of the gesture of Yvonne Chouinard, founder of the Californian technical clothing company Patagonia. Last September, the boss announced that he would sell all his shares to a trust and NGO that would receive the group’s annual dividends to invest in the environment.

It would not necessarily be a question of giving a majority of shares, but of having significant voting shares, even veto rights on environmental issues. », Franz Gault thought. In practice, these actions should allow the contribution of non-humans to be fairly represented. In the case of a furniture company, a fair distribution of dividends would allow, for example, to invest in research and development aimed at restoring exploited forest capital or reducing the amount of wood used.

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And for Frantz Gault, the legal instruments are already in place to make nature a shareholder in France. Since 1917, the public limited company with the participation of employees (Sapo) allowed employees to issue shares in addition to “classic” shareholders. Therefore, it would be possible to go further by applying this system to the non-humans who make up nature. », specifies. Making this idea a reality has become increasingly possible since 2001 with the creation of cooperative societies of collective interest (SCIC). Their membership must actually consist of at least three categories of members, which opens the door to association administrators.

In the case of a classic company, the appointment of non-humans can be done through independent bodies such as NGOs or trade unions. The anthropologist also recommends the development of a new form of trade unionism that aims to defend non-human workers and negotiate on a case-by-case basis.

As the attribution of legal rights to non-human persons has been widespread for several years, this idea is far from absurd. In 2008, Total was held responsible for massive marine pollution during the Erika oil tanker sinking lawsuit. At the same time, the court recognized the existence of environmental damage as a result of environmental damage. This is evidence that nature has begun to appear as a legal subject, including in French courts. », Franz Gault explains.

A post to build

Alexandra Pimor, director of corporate governance at the Earth Law Centre, which specializes in the management of conscience, has taken on the role of nature representative for the first time under Faith in Nature, in tandem with Brontie Maria Ansell, Master of Laws lecturer at Essex Law School. Director of Natural Lawyers. Our role right now is primarily to observe and listen to what is happening at Faith in Nature. The idea was to build a loose framework to gradually create our new role », he explains, returning from COP15 on biodiversity in Montreal.

This initiative enables a cultural change in society, especially in terms of its governance. But bringing nature on board won’t change things right away. », the lawyer warns, he is realistic. He will have to reconcile nature conservation and company sustainability with his new role. As for decisions, they will continue to be adopted by majority vote, including if the voice of the representative of nature is not part of it. However, the company has promised to be transparent about the board of directors’ decisions, including those that contradict statements made by the conservationist.

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Hence a station still under construction and proving to be complex to say the least. In every discussion, the Board is invited to go deep into nature to act on nature’s behalf. For this, it is recommended to create a committee of experts to support the work of representatives of nature in one of the clauses that envisage the presence of nature within the Council. It should include not only scientists and lawyers, but also economists and farmers, everyone with knowledge and perspective in this field.

There are still many complex issues to be resolved », Franz Gault emphasizes. The anthropologist especially emphasizes that nature remains an abstraction, a concept to be determined: ” If we make nature talk like a ventriloquist, we should know who we are talking about: plants, soil, atmosphere.… »

Once nature is determined, it remains to be seen who will be better represented. If “Faith in Nature” has chosen to vote for lawyers, Frantz Gault suggests that it should be left to scientists with a precise and deep knowledge of reality. But make Science exclusive spokesperson for nature because it is constantly developing, it can also cause problems », before adding it says: Another idea would be to follow sociologist Bruno Latour’s idea of ​​a Parliament of Things by giving all users of nature a voice.. »

New management methods

So far, Notre Affaire à Tous has not approached the Ministry of Economy to discuss its initiative. For its part, the Mouvement des entreprises de France (Medef) says it is ready to consider new management methods. On December 20, the employers’ organization amended the Afep-Medef code, which regulates the organization of listed companies. This new version places climate issues at the center of board of directors’ missions and recommends that company directors’ remuneration be calculated” by integrating several criteria related to social and environmental responsibility, including at least one criterion related to the company’s climate goals “.

The agreement reached at COP15 asks states to ensure that large companies and financial institutions regularly share information about their risks, dependencies and impacts on biodiversity. Although this measure is not binding, it reminds companies that their commitment is necessary to buck the trend. The World Economic Forum estimated that in 2020 nature-based economic activities accounted for $44 trillion, more than half of world GDP.

“Mostlysmiles Franz Gault, If we really listened to nature, we would surely oppose the idea of ​​Patagonia continuing to manufacture plastic-based sports goods to occupy the smallest corners of the planet.. »

Would it then be wishful thinking to reconcile nature and business? This is clearly ambiguous, since the company is more or less based on the exploitation of nature. It’s like voting for someone who is being bullied.” Franz Gault explains. However, the anthropologist reads in it a beautiful hope: the hope to gradually change things by breaking out of this asymmetrical relationship.

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