Transnational corporations and the challenge of biosphere stewardship

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Sustainability within planetary boundaries requires concerted action by individuals, governments, civil society and private actors. For the private sector, there is concern that the power exercised by transnational corporations generates, and is even central to, global environmental change. Here, we ask under which conditions transnational corporations could either hinder or promote a global shift towards sustainability. We show that a handful of transnational corporations have become a major force shaping the global intertwined system of people and planet. Transnational corporations in agriculture, forestry, seafood, cement, minerals and fossil energy cause environmental impacts and possess the ability to influence critical functions of the biosphere. We review evidence of current practices and identify six observed features of change towards ‘corporate biosphere stewardship’, with significant potential for upscaling. Actions by transnational corporations, if combined with effective public policies and improved governmental regulations, could substantially accelerate sustainability efforts.

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Fig. 1: The biosphere in the hands of a few.


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We are truly indebted to K. Arrow for deep insights and for inspiring our discussions at the annual Askö meetings in the Stockholm archipelago. Thanks also to K. Nyborg, S. Barrett and P. Ehrlich for valuable comments. Support is gratefully acknowledged from The Beijer Foundation, The Erling-Persson Family Foundation, The Marianne and Marcus Wallenberg Foundation, The Walton Family Foundation, The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and Mistra: The Swedish Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research.

Author information

C.F., H.Ö. and J.-B.J. designed the research, collected the data and performed the analyses with support from E.F.L., W.N.A., M.S., B.I.C., M.N., S.A.L., S.R.C. and A.D.; C.F., H.Ö. and J.-B.J. led the writing of the paper, with input from E.F.L., W.N.A., M.S., B.I.C., M.N., S.A.L., S.R.C., J.M.A, S.C.III, A.-S.C., A.D., V.G., L.J.G., N.K., B.H.W., J.R.W., J.W. and A.d.Z.

Correspondence to Carl Folke.

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Competing interests

C.F., H.Ö., J.-B.J., B.I.C. and A.D. provide scientific support to companies in the seafood sector through the Seafood Business for Ocean Stewardship (SeaBOS) initiative ( The remaining authors declare no competing interests.

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