A beauty company has appointed a director to represent nature on its board, giving the natural world a legal say in its business strategy.
Faith In Nature, which sells soap and hair care products, as well as household cleaners and shampoo for dogs, says it is the first company in the world to give nature a formal vote on corporate decisions that might affect it.
The decision by the Edinburgh-based company tapped into a growing global movement to assign nature legal rights, although it has had little traction to date in the UK.
Simeon Rose, Faith In Nature’s creative director, said he hoped other businesses who take their responsibility to the natural world seriously would follow suit.
“We’re really happy to share details of how and why we did this,” Rose said. We’ve always wanted nature to be at the heart of what we do, and this felt like the next serious step we could take to make that a reality.”
Working with lawyers from Lawyers for Nature and the US-based Earth Law Center, as well as a pro bono team of corporate experts at international law firm Shearman & Sterling LLP, the company updated its corporate documents over the summer to say that, as well as benefiting shareholders, it would do its best “to have a positive impact on nature as a whole” and “to minimize the prospect of any harmful impact of its business operations on nature”.
A new non-executive director will join the company’s next board meeting later this month to speak on behalf of the natural world. The first person to hold the position is Brontie Ansell, senior lecturer in law at Essex Law School and director of Lawyers for Nature, who told the Guardian her role would be similar to a guardian acting on behalf of a child in a court of law.
Ansell believes Faith In Nature is serious about the decision and is open to making significant changes to the way it operates to accommodate it. “We needed a really strong methodology for holding this board to account so that it didn’t just become greenwashing. And that’s through public accountability and peer pressure.”
The nature guardian’s pay is ringfenced from the main board so that they can remain independent, and the company has committed to be transparent about its board decisions – even those that go against the representations made by the nature guardian – and to publish its reasons for making them.
Precisely which corporate decisions will require the input of nature is a matter that will be refined as they go along.
Ansell is particularly pleased that the company has agreed to pay for experts to take part in a special committee, which will advise her on the nitty-gritty of key issues such as biodiversity, pollution, plastics, energy or water management.
“It’s not my place to have all the answers. I think my role is about taking complex information and translating it into something that the board can actually do [take] action [on],” Ansell said.
She is even considering asking the board to hold some of its meetings in natural settings such as a woodland “to force them to make decisions about things that affect nature, in nature itself”.
“I don’t think this is going to save the world overnight, but immersing corporates in the place where their decisions are having an effect is really important.”
Simon Tilling, a partner at law firm Steptoe & Johnson UK who is not involved in the move, said it aligned with a growing trend for companies to define a specific corporate purpose beyond that in the Companies Act 2006.
He said: “The purpose here – to have a positive impact on nature, and to minimize harmful impacts of business operations on nature – has many parallels with wording proposed by other initiatives, such as the Better Business Act campaign.”
Last week, the billionaire owner of outdoor brand Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard, announced he would give away the entire company to fight the Earth’s climate devastation.
But Tilling warned that the nature guardian would have the same legal responsibilities as any other director under the Companies Act 2006, including the duty to promote the success of the company for the benefit of its members as a whole.
“Although there has been a trend in recent years to move away from a rigid interpretation that this means an absolute primacy of shareholder returns to include more discretion for directors, there is still much debate in the legal profession over how much freedom directors have.”