Investing in Nature

The ecological restoration segment of the construction industry represents a $48 million business for contractors.

Sustainable construction isn’t always about building something new. In some cases, it’s about learning from the past to help ensure a better future. What was once destroyed in the name of progress, has left parts of our world in ruin, incapable of sustaining a future.

The United Nations estimates that over 25% of the earth’s lands (an area approximately the size of the North American continent) are now considered to be “highly degraded” due to poor management practices that have resulted in deforestation, desertification, wetland destruction, severe erosion and contamination.

As the earth’s population grows from 7 billion to over 10 billion in the next few decades, restoring the health and productivity of our natural infrastructure will become paramount for addressing the growing need for food, clean air and clean water. 

According to a new study, “Estimating the Size and Impact of the Ecological Restoration Economy,” environmental regulation to fix what was once destroyed is driving a $25-billion-per year “restoration industry” that directly employs more people than coal mining, logging or steel production.

Report authors defined ecological restoration as any activity intended for ecological uplift resulting in a functioning ecosystem that delivers a suite of ecosystem services. They defined the restoration economy as economic activities that contribute to these efforts thus including the industries that carry out the work.

“People want to know big picture numbers on industries,” said report author Todd BenDor, an associate professor of city and regional planning with an environmental specialty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “We basically find ecological restoration is a $9.5 billion industry employing about 126,000 people directly.”

On top of that, he found, the restoration economy indirectly generates $15 billion and 95,000 jobs, bringing restoration's total economic output value to nearly $25 billion.

Impact of Construction

The construction sector has a big role to play in natural restoration. Whether it’s turning an old rail road track back into the wetland it once was or transforming old mines in Pennsylvania into grazing land for the state’s wild elk, equipment and manpower is needed to do the heavy lifting and contractors can cash in on these projects.

In 2014, $48 million was generated by the construction industry on natural infrastructure restoration. However, that’s only 0.5% of the total revenue generated by these projects. The majority of the money, over $3.5 of the $9.5 billion, is generated by the architectural and engineering sectors.

It seems there is a huge opportunity for contractors to work with these firms to gain a bigger piece of the pie. Caterpillar, Inc., long a champion of construction sustainability, wants to help contractors in these efforts.

Their Natural Infrastructure Summit, held November 4th, convened leaders from the engineering, construction and financial sectors, as well as thought leaders from academia, non-government organizations and government officials to engage in a discussion on the need for and the benefits of restoring degraded natural infrastructure – such as forests, prairies, agricultural lands, estuaries, coastal landscapes and wetlands – as well as the opportunities it offers with respect to the global sustainable development goals.

The outcomes from the dialogue will hopefully drive significant recommendations for both the public and private sectors. See more on the Summit in the Sustainable Innovations section of this issue.

Have you worked on a unique restoration project? Let me know at We’d love to learn how this growing construction segment is impacting your business.