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The Role of Business in Ocean Conservation

The launch of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015 was a rallying cry to businesses and governments around the world to direct their efforts toward solving 17 pressing global issues — among them, improving the health of the world’s oceans. A World Wildlife Fund report that year estimated the ocean’s value at $24 trillion — making it the world’s seventh-largest economy — but recent research shows that SDG 14, aimed at protecting “life below water,” was almost universally considered the least important of the goals among business leaders.

Still, the business world has unleashed a growing wave of campaigns, coalitions, and collaborations singularly focused on cleaning up and preserving our oceans and their ecosystems.

Cleaning up our mess

According to National Geographic, each year, an estimated 18 billion pounds of plastic waste enters the oceans from coastal regions. While commercial manufacturing and distribution of single-use plastic is largely to blame, luckily, many of the companies responsible for it are stepping up to try and undo the damage.

In 2017, companies including Dell, General Motors, Interface, Bureo,and Herman Miller launched NextWave, a coalition to develop the first ever commercial-scale ocean-bound plastics supply chain.

Since then, NextWave members — which now include HP Inc and IKEA — have been developing a sustainable model that reduces ocean-bound plastic pollution at scale, while creating an economic and social benefit for multiple stakeholders. Convened by the nonprofit Lonely Whale and backed by UN Environment, NextWave members are sourcing ocean-bound plastics from Cameroon, Chile, Denmark, Haiti, Indonesia, and the Philippines, and are on track, in alignment with UN SDG 14.1, to divert at least 25,000 tons of plastics — equivalent to 1.2 billion single-use plastic water bottles — from entering the ocean by the end of 2025.

Sounding the alarm

While businesses are cleaning up their plastic mess, media giants have produced campaigns and documentaries aimed at alerting the public — not just about the issue itself, but also their role in both creating and solving it.

In 2017, Sky unveiled its Ocean Rescue digital campaign, which included a 45-minute documentary along with responsible consumption tips from celebrities, including Sir Richard Branson, Prince Charles, and astronaut Tom Peake. In 2018, the BBC investigative documentary “Drowning in Plastic” arose from the success of its critically acclaimed series “Blue Planet II”, which briefly touched on marine plastic pollution. Then, National Geographic dove in with “Planet or Plastic?”, a multiyear initiative aimed at raising awareness and reducing ocean plastic through storytelling and science.

Promoting healthy oceans

In late 2014, JetBlue partnered with the Ocean Foundation on a first-of-its-kind report correlating the long-term health of its bottom line with that of oceans and beaches, particularly in the Caribbean. The resulting EcoEarnings analysis marked the first time a commercial airline attempted to quantify nature’s wellbeing and directly correlated it to product revenue. As Latin America, South America, and the Caribbean make up one-third of JetBlue’s destinations, their long-term appeal to travelers — and therefore their health — is well worth the airline’s consideration.

JetBlue has clearly kept this in mind: Last month, it partnered with The Nature Conservancy on a follow-up study, examining the connection between natural resources and tourism, particularly coral reef-adjacent activities such as sailing, diving, and snorkeling. With 65 percent of the Caribbean’s reefs generating tourism dollars, the study revealed an opportunity for tourism-associated businesses — such as cruise lines, airlines, and hotels — to work together to protect the region’s environmental health.

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