From the early days studying the behaviour of a troublesome little beetle in Tanzania to working with WWF around the world, Mark's knowledge of the natural world goes deep.
But it wasn’t until relatively recently that Mark realised the power of getting business involved to address the environmental crisis. After advising on Netflix’s hugely popular Our Planet series, he now spends quite a bit of time helping businesses understand just how they can contribute.
Over to Mark and his experiences, which will leave you inspired about the role business can play.
“My dad was in the Air Force. We moved every few years when I was a child, so I was regularly confronted with new environments, cultures and languages. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in the natural world – there was something magical and endlessly fascinating about it. My parents called me a grubber, because I was always scrabbling around in hedgerows or turning over rocks – they even found a mole in my pocket once!
“The more I looked, the more stories nature gave me.”
I studied zoology and then crop protection at university. My PhD in insect ecology then led me to work in Tanzania, where a small beetle that had been accidentally introduced was destroying the two main crops of maize and cassava. I worked with subsistence farmers on mechanisms to protect their harvest for a few years, and then worked on similar projects in other parts of the world after that. When my children reached secondary school age, we returned to the UK to give them a bit more stability.
These days I’m the director of science at WWF-UK, leading a phenomenal team of thematic experts who collect and analyse data to inform our work and advise our partners around the world. As an organisation, we strongly believe our work needs to be grounded in good science, whether that’s advising on camera trapping for lions in the Serengeti or helping inform government policy. I feel privileged to be able to work with people who’re passionate about the work we’re doing and, hopefully, to make a difference.”
“For too long, we’ve seen this dichotomy between the conservation community and the business community. There’s perhaps been a naivety on behalf of environmental organisations witnessing these changes – we thought that if we said it loudly enough or often enough, then everyone would get behind us and follow our advice. But of course, that’s not how the real world works.
“I quickly realised these two worlds had to meet if we wanted to make a real difference.”
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to work as science advisor for the 'Our Planet' series. After seeing its huge success – it’s now the most popular documentary series ever on Netflix – something clicked. We decided to create a spin-off aimed specifically at the business community, which resulted in two shorter documentaries: Our Planet: Our Business, about how business can tackle the environmental crisis, and Our Planet: Too Big To Fail, about the role the finance sector can play.
We’d found a way to speak with businesses about the climate and nature crises in a language that they understood. Many of the people featured in the films are world-recognised business leaders who really understand their respective sectors. But they also recognise that this isn’t just a moral and biological issue – it would have a material impact on business if they didn’t act now. Seeing people whose bread and butter is driving multinational organisations share these messages was very powerful.”
“Wherever you look, whether it’s Greta Thunberg talking about climate or the G7 discussing green recovery, one thing is clear – protecting the future of our planet has become part of the zeitgeist. Just like being vegetarian is no longer considered fringe, talking about climate change is now mainstream. And more and more people are realising business has a powerful role to play, not just in terms of budget and outreach, but to show leadership and drive change in their own sector.
I read some interesting findings in the Deloitte survey of millennials a few years back. Many of the respondents thought the purpose of business should be to improve society and protect the environment. Sadly, not many believed businesses were actually doing this. Some leaders might shrug this off, but this generation will have huge spending power, and will only want to work for, and buy from, companies living those values.
“Businesses that don’t take action will become the fossils. The writing is absolutely on the wall.”
The follow-up films to Our Planet have surpassed all our hopes and expectations. They’ve been shown by hundreds of corporations, and I’ve presented at many organisations with big audiences who are genuinely interested. It makes people realise we can’t continue like this, but more importantly, it gives an indication of what we can do collectively to turn things around.”
“It’s heartening to see that climate change has become part of everyday conversation. But many don’t realise that we’re also facing a biodiversity crisis, with huge declines in wildlife due to the destruction of natural habitats. We call it a triple challenge: we need to find a way to meet the needs of the growing human population while facilitating the restoration of nature, and staying within the safe operating space of 1.5 °C in terms of average global warming.
These three areas are intrinsically linked. Any business wanting to do the right thing will need to address not just their carbon footprint but also their environmental one. For example, we all realise that reaching net zero means both reducing our emissions as well as trapping carbon that’s already been emitted. Nature-based solutions, like restoring peatlands or protecting forests, are our ally in drawing down this carbon.
“You won’t solve climate change if you don’t address biodiversity.”
Business can play a huge role here too. They have the ear of a large customer base, so they’re able to raise awareness and support people in making more sustainable choices. They can also have a huge influence on their supply chains. And importantly, they operate in a policy environment, so demanding positive change from governments will be critical.”
“Sometimes this topic can feel overwhelming, because we look at things on a daily basis. But if you look longer term, over multiple years or decades, that’s where you start seeing positive trends. For example, did you know that in Scotland 97% of energy came from renewables in 2020? This is up from 37% in just 10 years. Elsewhere change is far too slow. For example, when I see UK garden centres are still selling peat-based compost (peatlands are one of the best ways of storing carbon, great for water storage and have fascinating biodiversity) it makes me so frustrated because there is absolutely no need for them to do so.
There are some great innovations happening too. In Portland, Oregon, an energy company realised they could use the power of water rushing through the mains pipes supplying homes. They simply installed mini-turbines and are now generating clean electricity for free. How clever is that? And in the fish sector, some companies have taken to scale ways to replace the fish meal used to feed farmed fish, which is of course very inefficient. Instead they use maggots laid by black soldier flies on food waste which is saved from being dumped in landfill – a win win scenario.
The younger generation gives me hope, because they’re having live discussions on these issues. They’ve been rightfully holding us to account and saying this isn’t the future they want. COVID-19 has shown us that we can work in a different way, and societal shifts can happen quite quickly with the right impetus – just think about plastic bags in supermarkets, or the transition to electric cars. We’re capable of change.
“We need to fundamentally review the way we live. We need to halve the impact of what we produce. And it’s a mindset change that has to happen now.”
The biggest lesson I’ve learnt from creating the films and speaking with businesses is that people genuinely care and want to find solutions. We often refer to business as an amorphous entity, but all companies are made up of people just like you and me. We all want a pleasant world to live in, regardless of whom we work for. By bringing together those individual hopes and aspirations, we can creating a collective voice that can, and must, change the world for the better.”
Thanks for reading
We hope you feel inspired by Mark’s message and his belief in how business can contribute to a better world. Our biggest takeaway is that the climate emergency is just part of the picture – addressing biodiversity loss is just as important. But if business and the communities it represents can address both, we can make a big difference.
Watch the films Mark has worked on
Our planet: Our business
The global business community can be a powerful force to drive action for nature - find out why the WWF are confident that change is possible.
Our planet: Too big to fail
How can the finance sector help save the planet? The sector’s leading voices explore the crucial role of finance in turning the tide on climate change and nature loss.
Lessons from starting a movement
The climate race is not a competition
When clear evidence turns into powerful action
Our net zero resources
Towards net zero, together
From sustainable finance to operational resilience, our climate content hub is full of resources and ideas to help you on your journey to net zero.
Ideas to help you on your journey
Climate change can be the catalyst to help us rethink how we do business. Discover the people leading the change and what could be possible for your business.