The Business of Conservation


What do you see when you think of a conservationist?

Most people think of a hippie in hemp clothing and a picket sign.

That’s old school. The new conservation is all about incentives. Conservation today understands behavioral economics and uses ideas from the business world to save the environment.

I discussed this live on Facebook (you can tune in every weekday at 9am PT here), and shared some cool new environmental business models.

We’ve long thought of conservation as something to do with the money we make from business — that we should first make a lot of money, then donate it to charity. What we really should be doing is questioning the business model that led us to the problem we’re trying to fix with philanthropy. Traditional business (maximize profit at the expense of community, environment, or workers) tends to perpetuate those problems, and a charity-only model isn’t sustainable.

I’m especially excited about conservation incentives.

My friend Dale Lewis moved to Africa in the 1980s to stop elephant poaching. He soon realized that local farmers were killing elephants because they needed the income to survive. So he got them together, told them he’d pay them a premium price for their crops, and started a brand to retail the finished products. The farmers realized they’d make more money with Dale, so they stopped poaching.

Voila — conservation incentives began. Dale created an organization called COMACO that organizes the farmers, and he retails premium products like jam and peanut butter under the brand “It’s Wild” that uses those peanuts to make peanut butter that is sold to consumers at a premium price. The sales revenue is then used to pay the farmers more for their effort and to expand the COMACO program.

I was inspired by Dale to form our new luxury skincare line, Laxmi. Our star ingredient, Nilotica, is in danger due to land-clearing for cash crops. To help preserve the plant and the region, we’re creating a market for premium Nilotica — showing local women that they can earn more by sustainably harvesting ingredients than by clearing land for cash crops. (You can try out our product at

What’s cool about conservation incentives is that they appeal to people’s actual, observed behavior, rather than asking them to be saints. This approach is realistic, and it works in the long run. It also takes local needs into account — conservation isn’t just about keeping the earth beautiful. It’s about ensuring no one lives in poverty.

Did you like this? Please join me on Facebook Live every weekday morning at 9am (unless otherwise posted). Or join my weekly letter here.

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