Danish billionaire Anders Holch Povlsen is devoting much of his money and time to work towards his dream of creating a greener world – as well as showing that ecological restoration can be commercially viable.
The privileges associated with being one of the richest people in Europe are extensive, but perhaps the greatest among them is choice. You can work or not work. You can buy a house or even an island. You can live wherever you please, or travel constantly with no single place to call home at all. Or, as Anders Holch Povlsen did, you can buy huge swathes of the Scottish Highlands and dedicate much of your life to preserving the environment and replanting trees.
Povlsen may not be a household name, but his determination to use his vast fortune and commercial might to tackle the huge environmental crisis has marked him out as an ecological role model. The Danish entrepreneur, whose net worth is estimated to be around USD 10 billion, is best known as the owner of clothing company Bestseller, which is the biggest shareholder in retailer ASOS, but in many parts of Scotland he’s far more famous as an environmentalist with a rapidly expanding empire. In 2018, he and his wife Anne bought a 1,100-acre estate near Aviemore in the Cairngorms National Park which, together with their six other estates, made them the biggest private landowners in Scotland.
Today, the Povlsens, who generally shun publicity, do much of their conservation work through WildLand, Scotland’s largest private conservation organisation, which the pair founded in 2010.
“When Anders Holch Povlsen presented me with his vision for ecological restoration on such a big scale, I knew this was something I wanted to be a part of,” says Tim Kirkwood, the Chief Executive of WildLand and a close adviser to the couple. “Not just for me, but for my children and grandchildren.”
Awareness around the need to preserve our natural environment has never been greater, and there’s a growing acknowledgement among people that behaving and investing sustainably can create a bedrock for economic as well as ecological prosperity.
Analysis published by asset management industry bellwether BlackRock earlier this year showed that investment funds tracking the performance of corporations considered to be more committed to environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues fared far better than others during the early stages of the global Covid-19 crisis. More companies than ever are vehemently committing to a model of business that treats every stakeholder with the same care as shareholders, and entrepreneurial ventures dedicated to a greener future are also prolifically emerging.
Our abiding hope is that by demonstrating how nature and good business can work hand-in-hand, we can be part of a global movement for change.
Berlin-based Ecosia, for example, is a search engine that channels advertising revenue directly into projects that plant trees in areas of the world where biodiversity is most under threat. Similarly, the clothing company tentree has committed to planting ten trees for each item it sells.
But although reforestation is widely focused on as an important goal within the broader sustainability mission, Kirkwood emphasises that it’s just one component and that it’s important to consider land and the environment in a far more holistic way. He explains that on Glenfeshie Estate, in the centre of Scotland’s Cairngorms National Park, WildLand hasn’t planted a single tree. “Instead, we have created the conditions for the ancient forest to regenerate itself through herbivore management and other practices,” he says.
The estimated total value of the world’s forests is between USD 50 trillion and USD 150 trillion.
By contrast, on neighbouring estates WildLand has planted more than five million trees in areas that are too far from a natural seed source. “The result is a forest, yes,” Kirkwood says, “but more importantly the return of an array of flora, fauna, and wildlife who call the forest home. A reviving, balanced ecosystem that can sequester carbon and support diverse new life.”
The pandemic as a catalyst?
The spread of Covid-19 has presented perhaps the greatest test yet for the resilience of investment strategies built around sustainability. But so far, both quantitative and qualitative evidence show that the pandemic is likely to provide a long-term catalyst for a general move towards a less shareholder-centric model of business – a model in which the environment is valued as precious global capital.
Philanthropists and environmentalists such as the Povlsens have become important role models and have contributed to shining a light on the ways in which conservation can be commercially viable while also being financially lucrative. WildLand offers a range of cottages and what Kirkwood describes as “artistic reimaginations of the Highland sporting lodge” that attract international guests seeking a respite from their urban lives. “We are continually developing new ways to show that nature can pay her way, and look forward to sharing more about these opportunities in the future.”
The green dollar
Yvonne Suter, Julius Baer’s Zurich-based Head of Corporate Sustainability and Responsible Investment, agrees that investing in a greener future is far from a zero-sum game. “The estimated total value of the world’s forests is between USD 50 trillion and USD 150 trillion,” she says. To put things into perspective, she explains that the top end of that range is nearly double the cumulative value of the global stock market. “The ability of forests to regulate our climate through carbon storage is by far the largest component of that total value, accounting for 65–90 per cent.”
She acknowledges that forests are disappearing at a rapid pace – driven by deforestation and degradation – and that this is a serious concern, but she’s also optimistic that in the financial industry, for one, attitudes are changing. “ESG investing has already become mainstream investing, and the lines between the two have become blurred,” she explains, adding that the “ever increasing pressure by investors to integrate relevant ESG considerations in any investment decisions will lead to a 100 per cent alignment over time.” The next step now, she says, is to elevate the popularity of so-called impact investing – which refers to investments that intentionally create a positive impact on the environment or society rather than just protecting them from harm.
“While the market [for impact investing] has grown to about USD 700 billion already, we still need more proof points of successful investments and better ways to measure and monitor impact so that large asset owners and managers feel comfortable deploying significant allocations through this investment approach,” Suter says.
Direction of travel
Asked about the greatest challenge faced by WildLand and the Povlsens, Kirkwood says it’s about demonstrating that conservation can be sustainable on a major scale. Mass tourism has for years been in the crosshairs of environmental campaigners, and Covid-19 has in many cases sharpened the focus on the damage wrought by extensive travel around the planet.
Scientists estimate that at least a million species face extinction in the next few decades, mostly driven by human activities including habitat loss, pollution, and climate change. Although travel restrictions have decimated the tourism industry and pummelled national economies around the globe, they’ve also highlighted the extent to which nature can thrive if left undisturbed by humans.
“Our abiding hope is that by demonstrating how nature and good business can work hand-in-hand, we can be part of a global movement for change,” Kirkwood says. “We fundamentally believe that a rising tide lifts all boats, and already we are seeing new ventures take root here in Scotland and much further afield that place an emphasis on conservation and commercial outcomes. The opportunity is clear – Scotland is different but we all share one world.”
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