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Tercek: Environmental movement needs to 'cross boundaries'

Tercek: Environmental movement needs to 'cross boundaries'

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The Nature Conservancy's president and CEO, Mark Tercek, says environmental groups need to communication the 'value' of nature, not just its beauty.

AUSTIN, Texas – Although some hardcore environmentalists may be suspicious of partnerships between environmental groups and the corporate world, these alliances are necessary if environmental movement hopes to remain relevant.

That was a central theme of a keynote address this week by Mark Tercek, the former Goldman Sachs executive who is now the president and CEO of the world’s largest environmental non-profit organization, The Nature Conservancy (TNC).

“We are a pretty optimistic organization, but we are also realistic,” Tercek told attendees of the inaugural SXSW Eco conference on sustainability issues.

Tercek added: “We are not getting the job done as environmentalists; it is worse when you look ahead.”

With 130 million acres of land under protection, one could argue that the TNC has been pretty successful so far. But Tercek said the message needs to shift away from “isn’t nature wonderful” to “isn’t nature valuable.” This theme, he suggests, will carry more authority and credibility with the government and with the business community, he said.

Tercek offered a constructive example of this philosophy in the work that TNC did in 2010 to help shape and pass conservation legislation in Iowa, a state that has not in the past been especially supportive of environmental legislation.

By using science to show how conservation could directly address an economic concern – the devastating impact of flooding – TNC helped encourage the creation of a new Iowa sales tax. The revenue from that tax will raise $150 million annually that will be invested in land conservation efforts to reduce floods and thwart top-soil erosion, Tercek said. The tax passed with two-thirds of the vote, he said.

TNC will also continue to build bridges with key businesses. “The reality is that we can’t just keep talking to ourselves. They understand in a sophisticated way the value of nature as capital.”

One example of those partnerships is the somewhat controversial $10 million alliance that TNC struck with Dow Chemical in January 2011 to help the company better reflect nature within its specific operational and social sustainability goals.

In response to criticism from a SXSW Eco audience member, Tercek said TNC has in the past found itself defending certain partnerships and it has learned from these mistakes, such as its ties to British Petroleum, which came under fire after the tragic Gulf oil spill.

Tercek admitted that TNC has been burned by some of its agreements but he defended the organization’s need to advance this strategy. “You can’t achieve important change without taking important risks,” he told the SXSW Eco audience.

Tercek said TNC and other environmental groups need the credibility offered by business alliances to convince the federal government to develop smart policy. “We need more people pushing the environmental agenda. People need to speak up and get engaged. What I'm against is people on the sidelines,” Tercek said.

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Heather Clancy

Section Editor

Heather Clancy has written for United Press International, ZDNet, Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. She holds a degree from McGill University. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure