Last week, I attended the Service Design Conference in Berlin. The theme of this year was Catalyst for Change, with several captivating speeches that shared interesting insights and experiences on their approach to sustainable design. During the talks, most of these speakers had one message in common: we need to invite non-human stakeholders to the table.
I was happy to see so many industry leaders conveying that we must include these non-human stakeholders. In today’s rapidly changing world, the concept of sustainability has become increasingly important in business practices. As we strive to create a more sustainable future, it is crucial to recognize and include the voices of non-human stakeholders in our conversations and decision-making processes.
Non-human stakeholders refer to the various elements of the natural environment that are impacted by business activities. This includes:
- Wildlife: All forms of animal life, from large mammals like elephants and bears to insects, birds, and aquatic species. Wildlife can be directly impacted by human activities such as habitat destruction, pollution, and hunting.
- Ecosystems: Entire ecosystems, which consist of interconnected communities of living organisms and their physical environments, are considered non-human stakeholders. Healthy ecosystems provide critical services like clean air, water purification, pollination, and nutrient cycling that are essential for human well-being.
- Plant Life: Plants, including trees, shrubs, and other vegetation, are non-human stakeholders. Deforestation and other forms of habitat destruction can have a significant impact on plant life and the overall ecological balance.
- Natural Resources: Elements such as air, water, soil, minerals, and fossil fuels are also considered non-human stakeholders. Human activities, such as air pollution and resource extraction, can harm these resources.
- Climate and Weather Patterns: The Earth’s climate and weather patterns are non-human stakeholders that can be influenced by activities that release greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane.
- Land and Geological Features: Landforms and geological features, like mountains, rivers, and coastlines, can be affected by human activities such as mining, construction, and land development.
- Biodiversity: The overall variety and variability of life forms in a given region, ecosystem, or on earth as a whole constitute biodiversity. Human actions can either enhance or diminish biodiversity.
- Non-Living Natural Entities: Non-living elements such as the atmosphere, oceans, and geological formations also fall under the category of non-human stakeholders. Human activities can impact these elements and can, in turn, affect human life and society.
Incorporating the needs and perspectives of non-human stakeholders into business practices and decision-making is a critical step toward achieving sustainability and maintaining a healthy planet for all life forms, including humans.
Why Non-Human Stakeholders Should Have a Seat at the Table
One of the main reasons why it is crucial to include non-human stakeholders in business discussions is that our decisions often directly affect them. Environmental degradation caused by human activities, such as deforestation, pollution, and habitat destruction, not only harms ecosystems but also threatens the survival of many species. By including the perspectives and needs of non-human stakeholders, we can better understand the potential consequences of our actions and work towards solutions that benefit both human and non-human interests.
Furthermore, including non-human stakeholders promotes ethical and moral considerations in business practices. As responsible custodians of our planet, we must protect and preserve the natural environment that sustains all life.
By giving a voice to non-human stakeholders, we acknowledge their inherent value and recognize the importance of their well-being alongside human needs. This shift in mindset encourages businesses to adopt more sustainable practices, such as reducing carbon emissions, conserving resources, and promoting biodiversity.
The Benefits for Businesses
In addition to the ethical imperative, including non-human stakeholders also brings practical benefits to businesses. The well-being of ecosystems and biodiversity is closely linked to the long-term viability of many industries. Sustainable sourcing of raw materials, for example, ensures the availability of resources for future generations. By considering the interests of non-human stakeholders, businesses can identify new opportunities for innovation, collaboration, and long-term success.
A recent study by Springer (1) suggests that stakeholder theory has grown into one of the most frequent approaches to organizational sustainability. The research has provided considerable insight into organization-nature relations that consider the value of non-human nature.
Some potential benefits of considering non-human stakeholders:
- Improved brand image: Businesses that consider the interests of non-human stakeholders are perceived as ethical and responsible, which can enhance their brand image and reputation.
- Risk mitigation: Considering the impact of business activities on non-human stakeholders can help businesses mitigate risks associated with environmental degradation, regulatory compliance, and reputational damage.
- Innovation: Considering non-human stakeholders can drive innovation by encouraging businesses to develop new products, services, and business models that are more environmentally friendly.
- Cost savings: Sustainable practices that consider non-human stakeholders can help businesses reduce costs by minimizing waste, improving energy efficiency, and optimizing resource utilization.
- Competitive advantage: Businesses that consider non-human stakeholders are better positioned to meet consumer demands for eco-friendly products and services. This can give them a competitive advantage over their peers.
By considering the interests of non-human stakeholders, businesses can contribute to a healthier planet and improve their bottom line in the long run.
Ways to Include Non-Human Stakeholders
Identifying non-human stakeholders is the first step to include non-human stakeholders. Then, you can consider their interests and needs when making business decisions. For example, if you are making a decision about land use, you could consider the impact on local wildlife and ecosystems. Here are some examples that I came across at the Service Design Conference and from my own research:
IKEA adopts a “planet mindset” in which they, among others, work with planet journeys and add a planet lane to their blueprint. Another very hands-on practice of IKEA is giving the non-human stakeholders a physical place in meetings to include them more organic in the decision-making process. Miranda de Groot, Service Design Leader for Circularity at IKEA, does this by having a plush earth toy that takes a “seat” in meetings. By including the toy, participants are reminded of this important stakeholder and the fact that it has a voice in making these important decisions.
The use of AI
Who hasn’t used CHAT GPT by now? Samuel Huber used Chat GPT during the conference to have a non-human stakeholder write a letter to decision-makers. The river the Spree wrote a letter to decision-makers and thereby literally got a “voice.” It was pretty impressive to hear a river talk directly to the audience.
Another great example highlighted during Samuel’s talk was the organization Trees As Infrastructure (TreesAI), a cloud-based platform establishing nature as a critical part of urban infrastructure alongside bridges, roads, and rail, enabling investment, profitability, and sustainability (3). The platform “seamlessly integrates state-of-the-art technology to map climate risks, model [nature-based solutions], and monitor [their] impact in order to finance portfolios.” (4)
Have you met GAIA?
Milan Meyberg founded Emissary of GAIA, an environmental AI botnet designed to advocate for environmental protection, sustainability, and the global introduction of the Rights of Nature and environmental personhood. He wants to “give nature a voice. We need to listen to the ecosystems of the globe, give them a say, and give them rights. That can be done with AI. That may sound abstract, but we have already built the first models.” (5) They already have a demo online that lets you talk to GAIA and the ocean – check it out https://demo.emissaryofgaia.com/
What is the planet was your client?
One last interesting way of framing it so that we can include non-human stakeholders is to make them the co-client. Alexander Otto from denkwerk challenges clients to see the earth as a co-client and, therefore, to think of the added value for this client as well when designing solutions. When making business decisions, instead of just diving into the pain points and the added value we can have for our human customers, we can also challenge ourselves to look at the non-human stakeholders for whom we are co-designing solutions.
Recognizing and involving non-human stakeholders in sustainable business practices is imperative. The reasons for their inclusion are twofold. Firstly, our actions significantly impact these stakeholders; deforestation, pollution, and habitat destruction threaten ecosystems and species. By considering their perspectives, we can make more informed decisions that benefit humans and nature.
Secondly, it’s an ethical and business imperative. Ethically, we must acknowledge the natural world’s value and shift toward sustainability. From a business perspective, it offers advantages like a better brand image, risk mitigation, innovation, cost savings, and a competitive edge.
In a changing world with pressing environmental concerns, embracing non-human stakeholders is not just a symbolic gesture; it’s a significant step toward a more inclusive, sustainable, and balanced future where all life forms’ interests are respected and protected.
Within Neuromagic, we aim to include non-human stakeholders in our practices. Whether it is when we are mapping stakeholders, creating personas, and thinking about pain points and jobs they need to get done, as well as including them in any perspective that would add value to designing sustainable business solutions for our clients. We have different sustainability solutions around research, workshops, and SaaS in which we, of course, aim to include the voices of non-human stakeholders.
Sustainable Transformation Lead
Bettina is a professional with a rich international background and a deep commitment to sustainability. With her Venezuelan origins and experience across different cultures, she offers a unique perspective that can benefit companies looking to incorporate sustainable practices into their operations.
*(1) Springer – Particularizing Non-human Nature in Stakeholder Theory: The Recognition Approach https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10551-022-05174-2
*(2) Expanding the Stakeholder Approach: The Impact of Non-human Stakeholders in Supply Chain Sustainability https://research.cbs.dk/en/studentProjects/expanding-the-stakeholder-approach-the-impact-of-non-human-stakeh