Balancing the wisdom and business of faiths may unlock trillions for conservation

Last September, a Christian charity in the UK launched a ‘bin-twinning’ campaign. People in the UK who donated toward the campaign to support waste collection projects in Haiti, Pakistan, and Uganda, received a sticker to put on their own garbage bin. It was a nice reflection of a quiet but powerful campaign that has been going on for quite a few years now, to encourage faiths to reflect on their own environmental impact and to act to protect nature.

“As Christians, we’re called to be good stewards of God’s creation; so reducing our waste footprint should be part of our response, especially as so much UK plastic ends up abroad,” said the campaign’s CEO Lorraine Kingsley. “We hope twinning their bin and seeing the Bin Twinning sticker will help people become more mindful of how much waste they generate, as they support innovative start-ups tackling the waste crisis overseas.”

Low angle of fresh bamboo branches and green leaves growing up at sky in bamboo grove
Photo by James Wheeler from Pexels

This kind of faith-based approach – both to raise awareness, and to take practical action – is something I first became aware of some years ago when I learned about the Alliance of Religions and Conservation. It began in 1995 as a World Wildlife Fund initiative to bring conservation groups together with the world’s major faiths, championed by HRH Prince Philip and representatives of nine major religions. It did amazing work over many years to encourage faiths to develop environmental programs based on their core teachings and practices. While ARC shut down in 2019, its influence has been profound.

Part of what ARC realized was that there were two aspects to faith – there was the wisdom of the world’s religions, and there was the business of the world’s religions. And that business aspect is a significant one.

Faith-based organizations own 8% of the habitable land surface, 5% of all commercial forests, 50% of the world’s schools (64% of the schools in sub-Saharan Africa), 10% of the world’s total financial institutions, and 14% of its community development corporations. There are 37 million churches in the world with 34,000 (Christian) denominations, four million mosques, 20,000 synagogues, and countless temples. They own more television and radio stations than the European Union, produce more books, newspapers and journals than any other network, and run, manage or founded half of all schools worldwide.

“Simply focusing on the wisdom without appreciating the business dimension is to produce a lopsided view,” ARC said when it published guidelines for faith-consistent investing in 2017. “To only concentrate on the business without understanding the beliefs and values which motivate it, is to miss the point of why the faiths are potentially so vital to planning environmental and sustainable development around the world.”

The guidelines grew out of a meeting in Bristol, England, two years earlier. The United Nations had invited ARC to convene a meeting to discuss its forthcoming Sustainable Development Goals, which envisioned a world with good health and well-being, quality education, clean water and sanitation, affordable and clean energy, and an end to poverty. While 24 faith groups presented Commitments to support various SDGs, many faith representatives also critiqued the ideas of consumer capitalism and economic growth on which they felt the SDGs rested.

The UN Development Program and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, intrigued that some faiths had moved investments into environmental and sustainable development ventures or planned to do so, asked ARC to research the potential for faiths to become more pro-active environmental investors. The resulting booklet, Faith in Finance, explored how and why faiths invest, and led to the 2017 guidelines. It was the start of a new level of engagement for a sector that could have up to $3 trillion US to invest, and whose overall membership may total as much as 6.5 billion of the world’s people.

FaithInvest, the platform which developed from that work, says faiths are the heart of a new and emerging category of investors they call the Financial Third Sector which wants their investments to not just make money but to deliver environmental and social benefits while doing so. Its goal is to share information and support faiths as they make their own investment decisions, and increasingly, that seems to be happening.

Last month, for example, FaithInvest reported that the body which manages the Church of England’s assets has become the first investor to join a new program, the Science Based Targets Network, that will develop targets for protecting the Global Commons – our land, oceans, water and biodiversity – by 2022. The Church Commissioners for England, who manage assets worth £8.7bn including large land holdings in the UK, are the third largest charitable endowment in the UK.

In 2017, building on the work done by ARC, the UN Environmental Program launched the Faith for Earth Initiative to partner with faith groups in working to achieve the SDGs. “Faith communities – motivated by spiritual values and driven by an ethical responsibility – wield enormous social and political influence when it comes to promoting action to restore ecosystems,” says director Iyad Abumoghli. Faith for Earth has been exploring the ways faith actors could contribute to the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030, he says.

That kind of work has been underway for a while now. The Interfaith Rainforest Alliance aims to protect the world’s endangered rainforests and the indigenous people who care for them, working in Brazil, Colombia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Indonesia and Peru, which together contain 70% of the world’s remaining tropical forests. It was created in 2017 when, in a first-of-its-kind summit, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu and Taoist religious leaders came together with climate scientists, rainforest experts and indigenous peoples representatives from Brazil, Colombia, DRC, Indonesia, Meso-America and Peru.

Faith investment in environment and ecosystem restoration is diverse. UNEP gives some examples:

  • In Ethiopia, the Orthodox Tewahedo churches to which more than half the country belongs are working to protect the 35,000 forests of 3-300 ha which surround their buildings –  remnants of the natural forests that once covered Ethiopia;
  • Sikhs around the world are planting one million trees as part of celebrating 550 years since the birth of the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak. Tens of thousands have been planted, mostly in India, but also in Australia, Kenya, the UK, and the US;
  • In India, about 1,000 farmers, inspired by the Brahma Kamaris, are engaged in “sustainable yogic agriculture” –  traditional organic farming practices, ethical animal husbandry, and other sustainable practices;
  • In Japan, 50,000 pilgrims come to Hakusan, one of Japan’s oldest sacred natural sites. Founded in 717 by a Buddhist priest, it was designated as a national park in 1962 and biosphere reserve in 1982;
  • In Qatar, a Koranic botanical garden with 60 plant species mentioned in the Koran was created in Doha by the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development;
  • In the Philippines, where Christians believe they are required to plant trees as stewards of the natural environment and where commercial logging and typhoons have destroyed lives, animals, trees, crops and infrastructure, a disaster risk reduction project called Plant with Purpose is underway.

As the Parliament of Religions says: “We live in a world of difference. Yet, we are interdependent. Nowhere is learning to live with difference more important than religion. Too often, religion is misused as an instrument for division and injustice, betraying the very ideals and teachings that lie at the heart of each of the world’s great traditions.

“At the same time, religious and spiritual traditions shape the lives of billions in wise and wonderful ways. They gather people in communities of shared beliefs and practices. When these diverse communities work in harmony for the common good, there is hope that the world can be transformed.”