What are ecosystem services and how can you find meaningful links with the third sector to develop opportunities and reduce risk? Laura King explores some options.

Ecosystem services are the benefits provided by ecosystems that make life possible. Some examples are apparent, such as the production of food, or water that is free of contamination. Others, like the regulation of climate or provision of aesthetics are less obvious. Many ecosystem services will be applicable to businesses and each organisation will have a unique portfolio of ecosystem services that it both depends and impacts on.

To help tease out the different types of services, the UK National Ecosystem Assessment classifies them based on function.

  • Provisioning services: Products provided by ecosystems, eg food, water and resources.

  • Regulating services: The benefits provided by a well-regulated ecosystem, eg flood and hazard regulation and the provision of clean air and water.

  • Supporting services: Processes that are necessary for the production of other ecosystem services, eg water cycling.

  • Cultural services: Benefits that are enjoyed by people, eg recreation and cultural heritage.

Why do they matter?

Managing ecosystem services reduce risk around regulation, reputation and resources. It can also offer opportunities for new markets, improve customer relations and help develop efficient operations. Forward-thinking businesses already recognise the interdependency between ecosystem services and risk and opportunity, and where they are identified many are already investing to restore, maintain and enhance natural systems and processes. And, in general, this investment is because it benefits the bottom line.

A report written in May this year by Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), The Benefit Multiplier of Investing in Nature: Solving Business Problems and Realizing Multiple Returns through Working with Ecological Systems provides a number of case studies showing how companies have been able to build the business case to find the capital to invest in natural processes.

What is interesting about these case studies is that many of them develop opportunities for utilising ecosystem services. Businesses are well-versed in tackling traditional impacts on ecosystems such as resource consumption or controlling pollution — and as such they focus on risk. The case studies in BSR’s document highlight that there are also many opportunities that can be used to significant benefit.

Why work with a TSO?

In some cases, it will make sense to deliver ecosystem service projects in-house, particularly where a high degree of control is needed. However, in many cases a third sector organisation (TSO) rooted in the conservation industry will already be doing what you need, and will be able to deliver work (or augment existing efforts) to support an ecosystem service approach. Furthermore, TSOs can offer a wide variety of benefits to an organisation. This can include:

  • expertise, and in-house knowledge

  • inspiration, passion and conviction

  • an infrastructure that is already in place to deliver specific ecosystem-related projects

  • a network of contacts and influences

  • potential to apply for funding from a number of different schemes — this might provide the opportunity to multiply any capital invested

  • a strong volunteer and support base

  • a good reputation, both locally and nationally.

As with any good partnership, there are also the additional benefits provided by working with TSOs, such as:

  • helping to promote a positive corporate identity and improving customer relations

  • enhancing employee relationships — especially if there are opportunities for staff to get involved

  • building a sense of pride in the organisation.

Types of TSO that deliver ecosystem services

As the list of ecosystem services is long, so is the type and number of TSOs that deliver these services. Some examples might include conservation organisations that create, manage or restore habitats, those that protect certain species, or those that promote responsible use of the environment. Some examples of where TSOs have linked with companies on specific ecosystem service projects include the following.

  • Water companies, such as Yorkshire Water investing in moorland blanket bog restoration through organisations such as Moors for the Future, and in rivers through The Wildlife Trusts to help improve water quality — ultimately reducing the need for water to be treated downstream.

  • Food producers, such as Marks & Spencer, linking with Butterfly Conservation to raise awareness about the importance of pollinators and to encourage sustainable agriculture.

How do you use the expertise of TSOs to meet your aims?

Identify what your priorities are and what scale

First, you need to determine the relevance of ecosystem services and the “why” for your organisation. There may be an obvious “win” that needs to be explored but developing a strategy for valuing ecosystem services can be an involved process that requires more thought. To help develop your thinking there are a whole host of tools that can be used to form the business case for investing in ecosystem services. Some of these include the following.

  • The World Business Council for Sustainable Development’s Guide to Corporate Ecosystem Valuation.

  • World Resources Institute’s publication, Ecosystem Services Review for Impact Assessment.

Many consultancies will also offer risk and opportunity assessments, economic valuation/cost-benefit analysis and audits of policy or strategy in relation to ecosystem services.

Find a TSO that has common goals

Once you know what you are looking for, find a TSO that has common goals. As part of this process, it is worth identifying any organisations with which you already have links through staff or previous projects, or organisations that have already approached your company looking for a partnership.

You will need to ask the following questions.

  • Is the TSO a good fit with your organisation?

  • Where do the parallels lie?

  • Does the TSO have the ability to form a meaningful partnership?

Be clear about objectives

Remember that TSOs are passionate about what they do and will have a strong focus. To create a strong partnership you will also need to be clear about your corporate aims and work on finding the parallels between both organisations. An open and honest discussion will be needed from the start to work out where these common interests lie and what options are on the table for exploring.

Make a good project great

A good project will ultimately be of mutual benefit to both parties. However, a truly successful project and partnership is one that goes beyond the main outputs, and so any partnership or project should be developed with the following three aims in mind.

  1. It should help both parties stand out.

  2. The partnership should enhance credibility, improving the authority of both organisations.

  3. The project should be greater than the sum of its parts. A strong, ongoing partnership has the ability to achieve more than each individual entity could alone, and can make a lasting, long-term impact.

For ecosystem service projects, this should be particularly easy as everything is so closely inter-related. For example, natural flood risk management schemes not only reduce flood risk they can also offer improved biodiversity, recreation and water quality. Use the expertise of the TSO and its network and ability to work across projects to draw out any additional benefits, turning a good partnership into a great partnership.

Last reviewed 13 December 2016