Skip to main content

Will there be icebergs near Rio?

<p>A hundred years since the sinking of the Titanic,&nbsp;we fear a similar fate for our planetary ship. Here&#39;s how business needs to step up.</p>

One hundred years since the sinking of the Titanic, it is still debated why that fabled and fated ship hit an iceberg and went under. But surely the root cause was the widespread belief that she was unsinkable.

Twenty years since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro -- which did so much to elevate environment and development on the global policy agenda -- we fear a similar fate for our planetary ship.

Global policymakers have failed to take the hard decisions outlined in Brazil two decades ago as necessary to create a sustainable economy. Earlier this year we surveyed over 1,600 sustainability experts in 117 countries. Sixty percent rated the contribution of national governments to sustainable development as “poor,” and nearly eighty percent think governments won’t take action until catastrophe hits. This suggests too many global policymakers believe that the planet can’t or won’t founder.

Now, as Rio+20 unfolds, we ask: What new leadership will help us to avoid another titanic collision, this time with the eco-system?

Many will judge Rio based on what government negotiators formally agree. But the role of business will be critical to the outcome also. While less pageantry and lower expectations precede Rio+20 than its predecessor, we think it will yet prove a turning point, particularly for private sector engagement.

Business was largely absent from - or at odds with - sustainable development debate twenty years ago. Since then, business attitudes on sustainable development have changed markedly, and corporate sustainability initiatives are now among the most ambitious emerging from any sector. In this category: Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan, which aims to halve absolute environmental impacts while doubling sales by 2020, and GE’s ecomagination, which commits GE to “imagine and build innovative solutions to today’s environmental challenges while driving economic growth,” or Interface’s Mission Zero vision, which has not only resulted in reducing the energy intensity of its products from 90% to 60%, but has more importantly created a shared culture of innovation and discovery in a way that no other strategic imperative could.

While government must play a leading role, corporate potential is massive. Given its ambition, capability and scale, business is well-positioned to pressure and collaborate with national governments and international bodies to accelerate and scale sustainability.

We see three areas of high potential for corporate leadership: partnerships, performance and policy.

  • Second, performance. While eco-efficiency - which has the most obvious impact on bottom lines - has been the starting point for many companies, we think the next big opportunity is meeting social and economic needs currently underserved by markets. Consider Kenya’s Equity Bank, which has grown by engaging lower-income Africans and introducing technological solutions for small farmers to grow livelihoods, and Natura, the Brazilian cosmetic company which has transformed the economic circumstances of so many women and their families by tirelessly advancing the interests of its nearly 100% female sales force.
  • Third, policy. It’s become almost fashionable to pre-judge the failure of summits such as Rio. But business leaders who approach Rio+20 openly can seek ways to make the event and its policy aftermath – which will examine new standards for sustainability reporting, green job creation and multi-stakeholder partnerships – succeed. Rather than reflexively resisting new policy, business has an essential role to play in establishing governance mechanisms that are competitively neutral and sustainability positive. The World Business Council on Sustainable Development’s Changing Pace initiative, which provides a private sector perspective on the kinds of policies that will enable sustainable development, stands out.

Whatever Rio+20 delivers, accountability and results will be universally shared, for the Summit will reflect the total progress made to date building the sustainable economy needed to thrive in the coming decades when demographics and eco-system limits will intersect so dramatically.

To stretch the Titanic metaphor, while government sets course, business might keep watch and periodically take the helm.

If government does not set clear direction at the Summit, the private sector must act regardless. As the only other entity with the capacity and reach to address sustainable development globally, a robust response where business helps fill any leadership vacuum is essential. But the first step towards any success is acknowledging our planetary craft is not unsinkable, and then acting with the urgency that entails.

More on this topic