Corporate sustainability seems to be on many people’s minds in recent weeks, maybe even more so than usual. Recently, a few of my erstwhile CBERN colleagues participated in the Canadian Responsible Investment Conference from June 17-19 in Montreal, while another veteran member of our organization – Simon Handelsman – was a world away attending the Rio+20 Earth Summit hosted by the United Nations in Brazil. Set almost twenty years to the day that the famous 1992 Earth Summit was held in the same Brazilian metropolis, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development 2012 brought together captains of industry, corporate titans, national leaders, and policy experts from around the world with the aim of establishing a concrete plan to encourage sustainability amongst nations.
Now as with any international conference that aspires to find a common denominator between the world’s diverse nations on a hot-button topic such as sustainable development and corporate responsibility, many attendees agreed to disagree on what the drawing board should look like for a sustainable future. According to one of my colleagues who studies political science at Queen’s and recently wrote a recap on Rio+20, one of the major obstacles to achieving the stated objectives of the summit is the inherent gap that exists between core and peripheral nations on how to achieve sustainability evenly across the board.
This rift, writes my colleague, is moreover complicated by the fact that countries like the United States “have refused to directly transfer green technology” to developing nations, while the latter “have claimed that they cannot afford to buy more expensive industrial materials, nor can their citizens afford to live more greenly unless subsidized by outside sources.” The global financial crisis is another trying impasse that is negatively affecting the ability of peripheral nations to meet sustainability standards. New austerity measures enacted by many developed nations have resulted in deep-seated foreign aid cuts, drying up important revenue streams for peripheral countries which they have tapped into frequently in order to finance local development projects, including sustainability efforts.
Enter corporations and business ethics into the fray, and I (like many at Rio) have arrived at the conclusion that the standard-bearers of sustainable development in this new century will no longer be the traditional nation-state actors which have dominated the sphere of international relations for generations, but rather socially responsible corporations and investors who are increasingly shouldering the responsibility to produce a greener tomorrow. While the proceedings in Rio can be summed up from many different perspectives, the main theme that I took away from this year’s summit is a plainly seen passing of the torch from nations to business leaders in enacting environmental change and securing a green future. All told, this changing of the guard is rather unsurprising considering that political leaders are nowadays so preoccupied with securing their places in an increasingly multipolar world that they are left with very little time to deal with globally important issues when weapons, wars, and economic collapse are not on the agenda.
In an effort to promote collaboration amongst the private sector and other key players in civil society, the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC) – the world’s biggest corporate responsibility initiative – organized the Rio+20 Corporate Sustainability Forum last week as a means of bringing together corporate heavyweights within the framework of the larger Earth Summit at Rio. It goes without saying that world leaders are placing great pressure on the corporate world to become the main front in the quest for sustainability; the UNGC stated on its website that “the private sector has a critical role to play” in the consensus-building process that is meant to put humanity on a “more sustainable course.” The forum produced several notable accords at UNGC-sponsored event and all attendees agreed that “new approaches to low-carbon solutions, reducing poverty, empowering women and restoring fresh water resources” are required to ensure sustainable development.
Forum participants also agreed on engaging in a sustainable development goals process, while more than 300 universities signed an agreement to make sustainable development and social responsibility a core of their degree programs. In total, more than 200 agreements were produced by business leaders outlining wide-ranging commitments to a sustainable future, with talks covering energy and climate, water and ecosystems, agriculture and food, social development, urbanization and cities, and economics as well as the finances behind sustainable development initiatives.
While some believe that the outcome of Rio signals an unabashed disengagement of governments from international development projects with the goal of encouraging corporations to take the lead, the fact of the matter is that government policies are what set the agenda for international organizations to arrange conferences like Rio. Without governments, businesses, NGOs, and other sectors of society working together to combat pressing environmental, social, economic, and humanitarian issues, little progress can be made. Commitments signed in Brazil at the +20 Forum are a step in the right direction, and it seems that the corporate sustainability paradigm emerging from the private sector is finally rubbing off on national governments. More, as always, remains to be done however.