After Rio, is a sustainability 'holding pattern' our best hope?

It's tempting to use the peace after Rio to craft a single coherent summary of the week's events. But that could never do justice to the cacophony from the event that continues to ring in our ears. So let me fall back to the testimony of a dialogue between Pascal Lamy, managing director of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and Unilever's CEO Paul Polman.

There's a consensus that international negotiations are struggling to deliver concrete outcomes, whether it's at Rio, Mexico's B20/G20 summit or the continuing but stalled WTO negotiations. At a dinner hosted by the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development (ICTSD), Pascal Lamy said: "The economic crisis has shrunk political energy to act internationally" and triggered a "return to domestic agendas."

What he means is that, despite positive economic growth and continued globalization, the ongoing economic crisis has made it difficult for political leaders, even the willing, to support decisions that might harm their domestic standings by undermining short-term economic performance or the competitiveness of their domestic champions.

The consequence, Lamy suggests, is the hidden resurgence of protectionist behavior -- despite the overwhelming conviction across leaders that free trade is good for the world's economic growth, particularly for emerging markets. He does not appear optimistic about the short-term future of multilateral negotiations.


What do we do? Lamy recommends what he labels "a holding strategy" to at least avoid slipping backwards. Focus on the positive components of what many regard as a weak common declaration in Rio, the little concrete progressive steps. For example, trade negotiations around fossil fuel subsidies elimination and free trade facilitation for green goods and services.

Paul Polman's address and response began with the diagnosis that the economic crisis was in fact a crisis of ethics. Hence his affirmation of the fundamental management principle of refocusing business on morality and values and the need to reinvent a moral framework for capitalism. He also reminds us that leaders must "see the reality in the eye," noting having recognized or accepted that they are not the cause of the crisis, they should focus their energy on inventing the required innovative solutions.

Next page: Is there an alternative to business as usual?