This post is by Brontie Maria Ansell, a director at Lawyers for Nature and senior lecturer in law at the University of Essex.
The news that outdoor clothing company Patagonia will use all future profits to tackle climate change has put the responsibility businesses have to protect the environment back in the spotlight. However, in spite of leaders like Patagonia, the depleted state of nature and accelerating climate breakdown show that collectively the business world is not doing enough to meet its stewardship obligations.
The company Faith In Nature came to us at Lawyers for Nature asking how taking a rights-based approach could help them realise their duty to protect and preserve the natural world. We helped them to amend the company’s constitution to make nature a company director, giving it legal rights and recognition at the heart of the business’s decision making. This is a bold move that will change the way the company operates for good, and set a precedent for others to follow.
The natural world is given a legal right
‘Rights of nature’ is the understanding that nature (that being ecosystems and things like trees, animals and forests) has legal rights. It’s about giving nature ‘legal personhood’ and acknowledging that all of it, both sentient and non-sentient, has the right to persist, maintain and regenerate through vital cycles.
In recognising the rights of nature, we are starting to acknowledge that all life forms are interconnected, and that the decisions we make should be based on what is good for the whole planet, not just humans. Furthermore, we are accepting that we must stop treating nature as the property of humans, where it can be destroyed at will, and instead recognise it as having its own legal status, rights and remedies.
Companies can move faster than governments
We know governments can be very slow to enact constitutional change. Very few around the world have enacted rights of nature provisions into their constitutions. However, corporations are generally independent of the political system and can move much faster to change, and that can have a cascading effect.
That said, while in other arenas the ‘rights of nature’ concept has gained traction, the business world has so far been reluctant to pick up the baton. That’s why Faith in Nature’s decision to give nature an official role in the company is so momentous.
Through the model of legal personhood and ‘guardianship’, whereby nature is represented by a proxy on the board, Faith in Nature has given itself the mandate to take rights of nature into account in company decision making.
The new non-executive director for nature can call on a sub-committee of experts to advise the board on nature’s voice and vote, and what would be in its best interests. In addition, we’ve built in transparency and independence provisions for the nature director, to ensure their decisions can be made and delivered as free from influence as possible. We’ve also changed the objects clause of the company to specifically entrench rights of nature. Finally, we have installed further transparency provisions to ensure that the board as a whole is held accountable in the public sphere for its decisions when it disagrees with the nature director’s recommendations.
This could transform the impact of businesses
Faith in Nature’s move is about taking the responsibility it has for nature seriously and showing that the business can be a force for good. Now, all the company’s decisions will have their impact on the environment considered. Not only that but, for each decision, nature will have a vote.
Faith in Nature’s move sets an important precedent and has the potential to transform the relationship between business and the natural world.
While it is the first company to implement this change, it need not be the last. We hope this will pave the way for other corporations to make informed and responsible decisions about doing business in a world that is seeing the effects of climate breakdown and natural decline daily.
This is not just the right thing to do, it makes business sense too. It will be the businesses that put nature first that will survive long into the future, and help the rest of us to survive as well.
For far too long, nature has been unable to speak for itself. Giving it a seat at the table has huge potential to change this and move the dial on action.