Restoring the future: First investment, now invention  

By Brendan Foran, CEO at Greening Australia

In my nine-year career at Greening Australia, the demand for and investment in nature-based solutions has never been stronger. The increasingly tangible impacts of climate change are propelling individuals to advocate for greater environmental responsibility, and both government and the private sector are listening.

There’s a tsunami of capital coming but we’ve got to be realistic – the environmental sector isn’t ready. It isn’t currently equipped to deliver against the demand that’s coming down the pipeline. But it will be, because it must be. The future of our planet depends on it.

We need investment momentum to continue to grow exponentially but our rate of innovation must keep pace. As a sector, we have to stand up to the challenge of scaling the supply side of the curve.

We must reimagine the way we deliver environmental impact through proven tools for scale: technology, people, and collaboration.

Noongar Rangers on Country. Credit: Jesse Collins

Now is the time for invention

To achieve true scale and real impact, the sector needs to re-evaluate the way we deliver nature-based solutions on the ground. To develop the right tools, processes and technology for scaling, environmental organisations must invest in research and development.

Traditionally, environmental and other not-for-profit organisations have been restricted by short-term grant cycles, restrictive contract terms and unrealistic timeframes for return on investment. We simply haven’t had the capital or the resources to invest in new technology and ways of working.

The tap has been turned on and capital is starting to flow more freely, yet the sector is weighed down by external perceptions about not-for-profits investing in innovation, in our people, and in marketing – all proven instruments for growth. There remains a crippling bias for dollars to go directly into the ground on sub-scale activities, when mother nature and the global community need us to find faster and smarter ways to get those dollars planted and growing. After all, isn’t necessity the mother of invention?

We have been preparing for this moment at Greening Australia, and despite the significant volatility in funding to the sector over the last decade, we are spending several million dollars on directional and growth studies, the development of digital portals, and capital investments to secure native seed supply for large scale biodiversity and carbon projects.

Exploring innovation in the native seed space. Credit: Nick Wood

Promising examples of investment in research and development can also be seen in global organisations such as Conservation International, who are currently developing tools to enable the identification, valuation and protection of natural capital to support the business case for environmental restoration.

Applying our brightest minds

Whilst technology is a critical enabler, innovation comes from people. That’s undeniable. To attract individuals with the skills the sector desperately requires, we need to be able to offer more competitive salaries and job pathways.

Too often top talent is drawn away from not-for-profit organisations because their earning potential is significantly greater in the private or public sectors. It has been reported that the average salary of an Australian CEO in the not-for-profit sector is $133,260 compared to a median realised pay for an ASX 100 CEO at $4.5 million.

These are the numbers as they stand at the top, but this pay gap filters down throughout all levels of not-for-profit versus private salaries, and it unequivocally has to change. The point here is clearly not that all not-for-profit CEO’s should be earning $4.5 million, but that we need to eradicate the need for our brightest minds to compromise in choosing between cause and comfort.

Collaboration is king

The environmental sector does not currently possess the might or balance sheets of the private sector, but we can tap into it with strategic partnerships that go deeper than traditional corporate social responsibility.

Despite the instability the pandemic has caused across global economies, the second half of 2020 saw some major moves from global players such as KKR and Shell investing in Australian environmental organisations. Companies like these may seem like strange bedfellows, but if we are to apply out best collective knowledge to our toughest challenges we need to truly embrace cross-sector collaboration. This means moving past a black and white view of organisations that are traditionally deemed as ‘the problem’ or ‘the solution.’

The opportunities for joint investment are staggering. Businesses can advance their sustainability commitments and develop new market offerings through partnerships that create both financial and impactful environmental returns, whilst environmental organisations can leverage private resources and knowledge to enhance operations.

Large scale restoration at Sukey Hills, WA with Woodside. Credit: Jesse Collins

As an example, last year Greening Australia completed our largest-ever single season planting as part of our partnership with Woodside, planting a biodiverse mix of three million native trees and plants in Western Australia’s Gondwana Link in just three months. We couldn’t have achieved this scale of impact alone.

Corporate powerhouses like Microsoft are also recognising the immaturity of the environmental sector and are proactively stepping in to help. Earlier this year, Microsoft made a public commitment to help expand the market for negative emissions technologies – or carbon removal – as quickly as possible to bring global targets into reach.

The bottom line

Technology, people, and collaboration. The tools for growth are within our grasp, but we need to think differently and to think bigger to transform the way we work. Without invention, we won’t be able to deliver at the speed or scale demanded by the influx of capital coming our way and demanded by our planet.

It’s not going to be easy, but to borrow a quote from a leading global thinker in this space, Dan Pallotta: “we use our intelligence as a substitute for courage, but intelligence alone is going to get us nowhere.”

Much of our time in the environmental sector is spent looking at the ground, but it’s now time to look up and ahead as well.

The view from above – Fishery Beach, SA. Credit: Trim Photography

Greening Australia welcomes offers of partnership and support from solution-focused individuals, businesses and governments that share our vision for a low-carbon planet, have a demonstrable commitment to addressing and acting on critical environmental issues, and are ready to embrace new ways of working to create a sustainable future. If you’d like to talk to us about how we could work together, please contact us!