The business view from Rio, in 3 minutes or less

Two Steps Forward

The business view from Rio, in 3 minutes or less

Where you stand on last week’s Rio+20 conference depends largely on where you sit. You can pretty easily divide the opinion about the United Nations conference into three camps:

  • The policy crowd — the government officials and others from 120 countries who negotiated the "outcome document" (download-PDF) that the United Nations event produced — are largely glum, the realization that, despite putting the best face on it (a “strong step forward”), the product of the negotiations was largely a cold cup of tea. Nobody, it seems, got much of what they wanted.
  • The NGO crowd — the activists who came in droves, variously holding protests, workshops, and other events — are largely angry, condemning the official business variously as “rubber stamping and Greenwashing” (Greenpeace) to “Nothing more than a political charade” (Care International – PDF). From groups representing women’s rights to sustainable agriculture to plastics in oceans, there is a lot of bitterness in the UN process.
  • The corporate crowd — the thousands of executives here in Rio, supported by the business-friendly NGOs like The Nature Conservancy and Conservation International — are largely ebullient, or at least energized. For them, the UN document was, at best, neutral, but the dialogues and information sharing that took place both inside and outside of RioCentre was seen as extremely positive and valuable.

Over five days last week, I had a chance to participate in Rio+20 sessions and meet with dozens of corporate and NGO leaders to get the business-eye view of Rio: why they attended, the opportunities for business they saw coming out of Rio+20, and other observations. I also did 3-minute video interviews with a dozen or so corporate and NGO leaders in Rio, and interviewed another dozen or so off-camera. The consensus, as you can see from this compilation video, produced by my colleague Kristine Wong -- is fairly positive: business leaders have finally become key players in the global sustainability conversation.

This is nontrivial, and a long time coming. At the first Rio summit, in 1992, companies had no voice and were barely present. “This time, there are more businesses, and business events that are really well attended,” Peter Bakker, president of the World Business Council for Sustainable Business, told me. “This is the first time that the governmental leaders realize that without the buy-in of business, the solutions they're going to produce are not going to meet the challenges.”

In the end, the governmental negotiators at Rio produced few tangible solutions — they largely reaffirmed the outcomes of the original 1992 event. (The Associated Press reported that the word “reaffirm” appears 59 times in the final, 50-page document.) And there were few specifics as to how the sustainability goals would be achieved or who would pay. Pretty much status quo.

But the business community didn’t hide behind that fig leaf. Well before the summit’s uneventful conclusion, coalitions of companies and business groups were making their own commitments, or urging governments to do so. A sampling:

  • 45 CEOs called on governments to increase the price of water and committed to improve water-management practices.
  • More than 25 companies from the insurance industry, worth over $5 trillion in total assets and representing over 10 percent of world premium volume, joined to promote a set of Principles for Sustainable Insurance that aim to provide insurance tools for risk management in support of environmental, social and economic sustainability. 

It wasn’t just companies. Cities, too, were at the front of the parade. At a Rio event sponsored by C40, an organization representing the world’s largest cities, a new report revealed that 45 cities, accounting for roughly 14 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, were implementing a range of carbon emission reduction activities and 71% of those had made citywide reduction targets. “The vast majority of the conversation in Rio is around cities,” Jay Carson, C40’s executive director, told me.

Rio+20 represented the largest corporate participation of any United Nations event in history, so I was eager to hear from some of those present. Most of the corporate types downplayed the importance of the official conference, but played up the conversations going on around it.

“For me, the lesson of Rio is that national governments will not resolve the issue,” said Harry Hendriks, Global Head of Government Affairs and CEO, Philips Benelux. “You need go to regions, to cities; you need to turn to practical examples in order to move to action.” Clay Nesler, VP, Global Energy and Sustainability at Johnson Controls called the official UN document “a very interesting outcome that not everyone will love, but not everyone hates.” Faint praise, indeed.

“I'm really heartened and enthusiastic,” said Neil Hawkins, Vice President of Sustainability and Environment, Health & Safety (EH&S) for Dow Chemical. “I see the business community mobilizing. The commitment to sustainable business is huge, and I saw some really excellent work going on in ecosystems services valuation that the business community is leading. I think with us leading the way, we'll find a way to build this right into our practices and make a big difference for the planet.”

Hawkins wasn’t the only one talking about natural capital and ecosystems services, the result of the Natural Capital Declaration signed in Rio by more than 80 CEOs. “One of the most exciting things we've found here is a bubbling up of interest in the idea of natural capital — the idea that nature has value for the economy,” said Glenn Prickett, Chief External Affairs Officer at The Nature Conservancy. “So you can think of forest, coral reefs, and wetlands as infrastructure that provide water, clean air, and protection from storms. “We think that will be one of the legacies of Rio: the world really getting serious about internalizing the externalities, really incorporating the value of nature in economic development, and we're excited to work on that.”

WBCSD’s Bakker agreed. “There is a real momentum building toward natural capital accounting -- the fact that we all are getting a little more serious about the actual impact or what are the benefits to business and companies from nature. There are a lot of meetings where you hear that reflected. That could well be the start of a real solution for the next few years.”

The elevation of natural capital notwithstanding, the biggest boon to business at Rio+20 may have been the overall recognition of the vital role companies play in sustainability. “I believe the sustainable development world has forgotten that a lot of sustainable development is actually economically good,” says Yalmaz Siddiqui, Senior Director of Environmental Strategy at Office Depot. “And I think they tend to focus on social and environmental reasons to do things, forgetting that, economically, a lot of what we're talking about are actually very good: energy efficiency, conservation of resources, lower toxicity -- all of these things can result in good returns for companies. I think a lot of companies should be talking about these things.”

And they were.

Photocollage of Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio by GreenBiz Group.