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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.  

For example, the Brazilian arm of WBCSD, known as CEBDS or the Brazilian Council for Sustainable Development, has posted a commitment to offer good and sustainable living conditions to Brazil's 260 million people by 2050. Ecocity Builders and a host of collaborators aim to bring cities and human settlements into balance with nature and culture in the same time frame.

If your business is already on the path towards sustainable development, with your goals in progress, consider registering your commitment.

Issues raised by the critical mass

As we saw during the Arab Spring, the long tentacles of social media have enabled transformational engagement from far-reaching corners of society.  Now several initiatives are enabling citizens from around the world to raise their voice on sustainable development challenges.

Rio+Social, hosted by Mashable, the 92nd Street Y and the U.N. Foundation, provides a digital platform for millions to share their perspectives.  On June 19, on the eve of the summit, there will be a live discussion that will be streamed virtually for global participation.

The U.N. has also set up a separate and slightly cumbersome platform called where anyone can submit recommendations related to conference themes. These will be debated, voted upon and submitted to the U.N. negotiators during the summit.

Game Change Rio, launched this week, allows players to "explore the countless options to ruin our world for future generations or save the planet." Players can choose policies and manage the resulting budget. Each policy has an effect on the resources available. It's a creative engagement tool on issues often thought to be too serious for gamification.

For companies interested in understanding society's concerns related to food security, sustainable cities, employment and other themes, these sites provide new, unique sounding boards and engagement ideas.

Tapping into these platforms may help you learn more about what matters to your current and future customers in countries around the world.  

Business leaders interested in learning more about Rio+20 and opportunities for leadership after the summit are encouraged to visit to learn more.

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