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The Goldman Sachs banker turned Nature Conservancy chief

A Goldman Sachs manager who left the firm to run the Nature Conservancy environmental charity explains why Wall Street should be interested in green policy.

May 04, 2013

Mark Tercek had some horribly awkward moments after he left Goldman Sachs to run a U.S. environmental charity, the Nature Conservancy.

At one of his first big staff meetings, he committed a total eco no-no by drinking from a plastic water bottle. When he got to work the next day, his new colleagues had left him a batch of reusable Klean Kanteen bottles.

At about the same time, he went to a big event packed with luminaries in the environmental field and found himself face to face with Russell Train, founding director of the World Wildlife Fund in the U.S.

"Who are you?" Train asked. Tercek explained.

Train, clearly unimpressed, fired back: "How did you get from Wall Street to become the head of TNC?" Tercek, already feeling well out of his league, fumbled for an answer.

To his credit, the former Goldman managing director tells both stories in his very readable book, "Nature's Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature" — co-written with science writer Jonathan Adams. It is in many ways a long answer to the question of why anyone on Wall Street would be interested in green policy.

Tercek came to the conservancy because it embodies the idea that traditional hostilities between environmentalists and business can be overcome in a way that benefits both nature and annual profits.

This may sound unlikely. But he shows that a growing number of companies claim to recognize that protecting nature is good for their bottom lines in a world with worrying levels of resource scarcity.

Heavily water-dependent Coca-Cola, for instance, has vowed that by 2020, it will return to communities as much water as it uses to make its beverages. Pepsi says it will put back more water than it uses.

Both had reason to act after events such as the water shortages in the early 2000s in the Indian state of Kerala, where a Coke subsidiary had opened a bottling plant that local authorities eventually shut down.

"Kerala was heard around the world, a turning point in the effort of these companies to understand how much water they use, who else will be using the same supply, and how reliable that supply is," Tercek writes.

There are other, more positive, examples. New York's Staten Island, for instance, has saved tens of millions of dollars by preserving wetlands and creating waterways to manage its storm water, rather than building expensive new "grey infrastructure" of pipes and drains.

Tercek concedes there are limits to this kind of thinking. Global problems such as climate change clearly require government action, not just friendly corporations. And he acknowledges that the idea of business cooperating with green groups is not uniformly popular. Indeed, the conservancy itself is not always popular among other green groups. Tremendously wealthy and generally conservative, its members are a far cry from the average Greenpeace eco-warrior.

In 2009, Greenpeace wrote a highly critical report on a conservancy forestry protection project in Bolivia, backed by several big energy companies, that said benefits promised to locals had failed to materialize.

Tercek writes that this was good because it made people think about how to improve. But ultimately he wants environmental groups to work with — rather than against — companies. Once businesses see evidence of a bottom-line payoff from investing in natural assets, they will change their practices to favor nature, he says.

It is so far unproved, despite the hundreds of sustainability reports issued by the world's leading companies each year. But if accounting for natural capital ever does become conventional corporate wisdom, Tercek has a point; and in the meantime, his arguments are very much worth reading.

Clark is the environment correspondent for the Financial Times of London, in which this review first appeared.

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