Business not as usual

With more than one billion people still lacking access to food, water and electricity, a rapidly growing population, and the majority of the world’s ecosystems in drastic decline – there really has never been a more critical time to address the environmental, economic and social future of our world. And that’s exactly what today’s Rio+20 Conference is gearing up to do.

Taking place between 20th and 22nd June, Rio+20 will see thousands of participants – from world leaders, to governments, businesses, NGOs and other groups – coming together in a global push towards more sustainable development. This will not only involve reflecting on progress since the Rio Earth Summit 1992 (hence ‘plus 20′), but a united effort to address key priority areas such as jobs, energy, food and water, to come up with a focused political document that drives real change.

Yet, despite its political slant, it might well be that business and industry has one of the most crucial roles to play in this venture. As Peter Bakker, head of the WBSCD remarks, “not only is business now seen as a credible party in the discussions, but some people even argue that the key solutions will come from business, as politicians are struggling to provide leadership.” Indeed, whilst the 1992 Earth Summit resulted in some pioneering policies for sustainable development, these actually delivered very little tangible action, creating what one columnist calls an unfulfilled promise. And as WWF-UK point out in their recent article, there seems to be a real political reticence in the push towards sustainability – meaning business might well be the catalyst needed for change.

But how will business drive this change? Well, the first step is to do so at an individual level. As the global situation starts to reach a real tipping point, outward facing commitments (such as CSR reports or employee engagement campaigns) will do very little to stimulate progress – for business to truly pave the way for change, they need to drive sustainability right into the heart of their business models, adopting innovative strategies that challenge the status quo. There are already some great examples of this – most particularly our current client Kingfisher, whose pledge to become Net Positive moves far beyond the ‘zero impact’ strategies adopted by other companies. And, at the very least, it’s these types of commitments that we hope to see emerging from the Rio+20 conference.

However, while new business models provide a great stepping-stone for sustainable development, the kind of wide reaching, transformational change that we need now more than ever depends on coordinated action at a collective level – through integration and collaboration between business, government and groups worldwide. This is a view advocated by Friends of Rio, a campaigning group lobbying Rio+20 members to commit to multi stakeholder action. As their spokesman points out, “multi stakeholder efforts can often achieve, through collaboration, what governments working alone cannot…they can share costs and risks, and produce practical outcomes at scale, in a specific timeframe.” And to prove the point, Friends of Rio have provided a plethora of examples – from the Consumer Goods Forum to Sustainable Energy for All – of how this type of innovative, pioneering coalition has worked out.

Ahead of the official conference, The Corporate Sustainability Form has been taking place at Rio, with more than 1,000 private sector leaders and thousands of activists, investors and governmental groups, coming together to reach consensus on action for a more sustainable world. With some 37 financial CEOs already committing to the Natural Capital Declaration – a pledge to integrate the Earth’s natural capital into loans and investments, Rio+20 looks set to deliver some of the most exciting advances in sustainable development for decades. We just hope that the corporate world takes inspiration from its current pioneers, galvanising their efforts to deliver real global change. And that they start to adopt the unconventional, cooperative business practices that will impact on issues such as energy access, water security, and carbon emissions – moving above and beyond the initial frameworks first created at Rio 20 years ago.