Why businesses shouldn't ignore Rio+20

It is awfully tempting to ignore the Rio+20 Earth Summit.

If you've been listening to the echo chamber of low expectations surrounding the summit, you can't be blamed for doing so. Many companies and even some environmental NGOs are keeping their heads down.

But it's not in business' best interest to ignore the summit. We're in the midst of a tipping of the scales of power, where nation states have less of it, and companies -- and some civil society groups -- have much more.

General Motors, for example, now has annual revenue larger than Bangladesh's gross domestic product (GDP).  Walmart's revenue surpasses Norway's GDP. Meanwhile, the Gates Foundation has a larger annual budget than the World Health Organization.

Regardless of whether the shift in power to private sector leaders is right or fair, business must be part of the sustainable development dialogue. Even sustainability pioneers like Gro Harlem Brundtland and Achim Steiner speak of the need for the business community to see itself as part of the sustainable development dialogue.

Despite the negative press, several positive developments are emerging from summit stakeholders. Interactions (some public, others private) with a few colleagues deeply involved in the summit -- including Clarissa Lins of FBDS, Jacob Scherr of NRDC, Chantal Line Carpentier at the United Nations, and Pavan Sukhdev of GIST Advisory -- have shed light on innovative opportunities for business to be involved, demonstrate leadership and learn about issues in the pipeline. 

Accelerating new leadership

Ideally, we'd like a stellar "Rio Outcome Document" that puts forth plans for a green economy and offers a new governance structure for sustainable development. But any consensus that emerges at Rio+20 -- with national interests and negotiators' egos at stake -- is bound to be weak. 

Waiting for nation states to drive the development of new regulation won't get us far. As we give up the fantasy that heads of state will deliver a solution at Rio+20, we will likely see new leaders emerge.

Take for example, Aviva, which has led the charge to develop a convention that would mandate corporate sustainability reporting. Unilever's Paul Polman has also spoken of the need for more world leaders to attend the summit.

Although it's uncertain whether Barack Obama or David Cameron will attend, executives from Aviva, Bank of America, Deutsche Bank, Eskom, Puma, Novo Nordisk, Schneider Electric, Siemens, Total and Unilever, among others, are expected to participate. We're looking forward to seeing business leaders emerge during and after the summit. 

A cloud of crowdsourced commitments

Several entities, such as the United Nations Global Compact, Sustainia, and the U.N. summit organizers, have created platforms that give new leaders the opportunity to gain visibility when they make a commitment related to the sustainable development agenda. 

These platforms give bold companies and civil society groups an avenue through which to share their initiatives, set an example for others and invite collaboration.