Businesses given tool to measure use of resources.

You don't always know what you've got until it's gone, but a new tool is helping businesses appreciate the natural resources they use.

The Natural Capital Protocol provides a standardised system for measuring and valuing the natural resources that businesses rely on, particularly in New Zealand.

The new framework was launched globally last month, and companies in the Sustainable Business Council (SBC) network are now beginning the work of testing and modifying the tools to suit New Zealand businesses.

Council chief executive Abbie Reynolds says that unless there is a way of valuing natural capital - everything from bee pollination to soil and water - it's difficult to know how to respond best if it's under threat.

Advertisement

She gives the example of clean water, which in most instances is free or costs very little. "That's actually not a very useful signal in terms of how we design our business models," she says.

"The cost versus the disproportionate impact, they're out of whack. So that's part of the reason we're so keen on the Natural Capital Protocol, because it will help our members and people who use it to consistently start to think about how they value these things, because at the moment we know it's important but we haven't got a way of feeding that into our business models."

Reynolds says some SBC members have already done work to understand the risks and value of certain natural assets to their businesses, but it's not consistent.

"We've got accounting frameworks for how we value financial capital so this is a way of saying: OK, so we're really good at financial capital; how do we really think consistently and, the same way, repeatedly about natural capital?" While the initial work is likely to be the realm of sustainability or supply chain managers, Reynolds says she sees a time when the Natural Capital Protocol will begin showing up in the boardroom to assist directors get a deeper understanding of the risks and opportunities the business faces in relation to natural resources.

The Natural Capital Protocol is the first of several priorities for Reynolds, 43, as she hits month six of heading the organisation that helps lift the environmental sustainability of some of the biggest, and smallest, names in New Zealand business.

With 85 members ranging from Air New Zealand, Fletcher Building, SkyCity and Vodafone down to the Ecostore and recycling experts 3R Reimagineers, the SBC is what Reynolds describes as "a curious mix".

"I think what they all have in common is that they want to be leaders in sustainability and we ask them to meet minimum standards to be members.

"That says: if you're in the tent you're serious about this stuff."

Reynolds left a career working in telcos, most recently leading the Vodafone Foundation and heading sustainability at Vodafone, to run the organisation.

"For me, the reason I'm in sustainability roles is I want to make a real difference in the world and the question I ask myself is where is the place that I can stand with the greatest ability to influence the outcomes I think we need to see in the world," she says.

"Some of the people I get to work with, some of these CEOs, are just so enormously passionate about how they want to see their businesses and New Zealand business be different.

"These are people who have got the most tremendously deeply held values and I can't tell you how hopeful and excited that makes me."

Translating that investment in sustainability into recognition from consumers has always been a struggle for businesses, she says, but it's more of a priority than ever with the rise of the socially aware millennial generation.

The most educated generation ever, who have high expectations for getting a job, but low expectations of owning their own home, have grown up knowing about the issues of sustainability and climate change - it's there in their social media feeds, she says.

"They see that they have a role to play as consumers and activists.

"If brands don't do it for them, they'll do it for themselves.

"We're seeing that in the number of young people setting up social enterprises and wanting to do that kind of work." This is a demanding employee group, she says, who only want to work for companies that reflect the values that they care about.

The result is that the latest review of the business case for sustainability threw up employee engagement as a common driver across SBC members.

Reynolds credits Air New Zealand's very public declaration last year on sustainability as pushing the issue into the business mainstream.

"I think that did something in the New Zealand leadership."

She says sustainability won't be something businesses do just for moral reasons; it will be because it is very good long-term business sense.

"I'm no different from any other business leader except I think that I might just have a slightly longer view and slightly broader set of perspectives about who are the important stakeholders.

"Sustainability is really about the longevity of your business and that's about not just what's happening within the walls of your business but what is happening outside as well, so part of it is how we help businesses thing about those things."