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Rio+20: Strong Business Turnout a Cause for Hope

Last week Rio+20 brought together 50,000 delegates from hundreds of countries to discuss “the future we want”. I attended a week’s worth of sessions at the Global Compact Corporate Sustainability Forum and UN-PRME Global Forum which had 2,700 participants from a 100 countries. What I saw was less than five percent of all the discussions taking place simultaneously at Rio+20. I still don’t have a sense of all that transpired there, but even from my limited vantage point I note some reasons for optimism.

Most UN summits on sustainability held over the past two decades were dominated by politicians, or scientists or lawyers. Not so at Rio+20. At this meeting there was no doubt that business and economic issues dominated. It was all about the green economy, sustainable enterprise, environmental technologies and triple bottom line. The overwhelming presence of business at Rio+20 can be seen both as danger and opportunity. Dangerous because sustainability is a multi-stakeholder issue that requires collaborative solutions. Having business and corporations dominate the discussion can detract from reaching implementable solutions. But it is the opportunity that business involvement brings that I want to focus on.

Businesses realize sustainability is a critical issue for their long term prosperity. They were willing to send representatives to discuss a wide array of issues, such as, human rights, water, energy, climate, agriculture, food, finance, social development, urbanization and education. It is not often that businesses devote serious attention to many of these topics. These topics go well beyond the typical CSR (corporate social responsibility) mandate of companies. So their willingness to debate these issues opens opportunities for stretching corporate commitments to sustainability.

Rio+20 is also an opportunity to scale up involvement of businesses in sustainable development. The UN Global Compact’s Corporate Sustainability Forum’s “Overview and Outcomes” report lists over 200 “Commitments to Action”. These are actions that advance at least one UN goal or issue, include a time-bound target, are measurable and include regular annual public reporting vis-à-vis progress. List of actions includes: “CEO Water Mandate” signed by 45 CEOs, committing to broadening corporate water sustainability policies, 25 “Caring for Climate” companies committing to calculate and publicly report their greenhouse gas emissions, 37 financial companies signed the “Natural Capital Declaration” integrating natural capital considerations into their products and services, five stock exchanges (trading in 4600 companies) committed to long-term sustainable investments, 70 businesses and organizations endorsed the Green Industry Platform, 300 business schools committed to incentivize PRME signatory schools to further implement sustainability principles and the 50plus20.org project launched a radical new agenda on “Management Education for the World”. Such collective and individual commitments open up many new opportunities for creating sustainable enterprises.

I also attended the People’s Summit which has traditionally served as a counterfoil to the official summit. It was populated by NGOs, government agencies, Greenpeace, Indian Tribes from the Amazon, … and corporations. I was expecting an anti-business atmosphere. Instead of contentious argumentation and anti business demonstrations, the People’s Summit had the atmosphere of a festival. A surprising number of businesses joined the summit with their own tents and tables, engaged in conversation with local citizens.

Rio+20 did not solve our long standing and urgent sustainability problems, but it gave me hope that plenty of meaningful conversations and actions are afoot. While I am restless for more action, and see what is being currently done as too little and too late, I return to Montreal with a sense of optimism, eager to push harder on our collective sustainability agenda.

Paul Shrivastava is the David O’Brien Distinguished Professor of Sustainable Enterprise and Director of the David O’Brien Center for Sustainable Enterprise at the John Molson School of Business, Concordia University. He also serves as Senior Advisor on sustainability at Bucknell University and the Indian Institute of Management-Shillong, India and he serves on the Board of Trustees of DeSales University, Allentown, Pennsylvania. Dr. Shrivastava has more than 25 years experience in management education, entrepreneurship, and as a consultant to major multinational corporations. He received his PhD from the University of Pittsburgh and has published 15 books and more than 100 articles in professional and scholarly journals.

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