Making corporate strategy part of planetary health

Humanity is dependent on the environment and natural ecosystems for livelihood, food security, health and quality of life. However, by exploiting natural resources, humanity has reached a tipping point whereby the impact of human activity on the environment is starting to have a negative impact on our health and well-being, from an increase in water-related diseases and air pollution to food scarcity and deforestation.

The concept of planetary health has only recently entered debates of global health and environmental issues, but it is particularly distinguished from current narratives on health and the environment in that it makes an explicit link between human activity, environment and health through a multidisciplinary approach. Advancement towards planetary health requires an understanding of the connections between the environment and human health and how to conserve and rehabilitate ecological pathways to provide human health benefits. To achieve these objectives, collaboration and coordination between different stakeholders and shareholders, particularly in the private sector, are necessary.

Today, large private corporations find themselves in the spotlight like never before for contributing to exhausting natural capital. Businesses depend on natural resources for direct inputs, for instance, water and materials, and suffer indirect impacts when events caused by environmental degradation, such as floods, impede production and distribution activities.

Illustrative photo of flooded vehicles after a storm (Photo by Chris Gallagher)

Traditionally, the main success indicator of performance measurement and management in corporate businesses has largely been financial profit. This traditional way of making and assessing performance, however, is being increasingly challenged due to multiple stakeholder pressures on corporations: consumers are shifting towards products that are produced using sustainable, environmentally friendly methods and technologies; employees demand transparency from corporations, and governments are increasingly enforcing regulations to lower waste and pollution levels.

A responsible business, therefore, balances the needs of all of its stakeholders with the need to make profit and aims to create profitable solutions for environmental and social challenges that adversely impact people and the planet. Companies need to be aware of the impact that their operations and products have on the environment and human health and well-being. As such, it is predicted that large multinationals will play a leading role in enhancing the well-being of communities surrounding their operations and protecting the environment upon which human well-being is contingent. They are expected to actively and responsibly participate in achieving the globally agreed-upon Sustainable Development Goals to build a more environmentally secure planet and ensure that nine billion people can live well by 2030.

To do so, businesses are moving beyond profit-centric and sustainable strategies to exert a positive influence on society and the environment. This includes incorporating non-financial metrics into accounting and profit and loss statements to develop long-term human, social and natural capital and improve societal and environmental conditions, which may, then, have a positive impact on human health and well-being. It is worth noting that it is only recently that corporations have become concerned with and vocal about sustainable business practices. Corporations, such as BASF, Mars Corporation, LafargeHolcim and Conservatorio – to name a few – are at the forefront of redefining their purpose and performance. These companies are incorporating a range of non-financial assessment approaches, such as impact valuation and non-financial metrics, as well as the Exploring Natural Capital Opportunities, Risks and Exposure (ENCORE) web-based tool that conducts natural capital assessments for economic sectors, and the Economics of Mutuality (EoM) framework into their corporate strategies. Basing their decisions around these approaches, tools and frameworks will allow businesses to improve their overall value creation and become more responsible and sustainable in their impacts on society and the environment.

These approaches, however, often ignore the interconnections between the multiple impacts that businesses may have on society and the environment. Corporations often do not make explicit the link between the environment and human health and well-being in their non-financial measurement approaches, as health and the environment are mostly considered to be separate and are measured by independent metrics. This needs to change.

The links between the environment and human health cannot be understated, as environmental degradation is increasingly having an impact on human health and well-being. It would, therefore, be valuable for corporate businesses to expand their approaches and tools to consider the connection and interdependency between natural systems and human health and well-being and start to operationalize the notion of planetary health.

By Priya Sajjad, PhD candidate in Anthropology at the University of Oxford