Corporate Sustainateens: What’s Next for Corporate Sustainability?

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Can Rio+20 promote a rebirth for corporate sustainability?

The towering palm trees in Rio’s Botanical Gardens set the stage for yet another event to discuss corporate sustainability in light of Rio+20, the “Sustentável,” organized by the Brazilian Business Council for Sustainable Development (Brazil BCSD).  Maybe it was the setting, which inspired an elevated discussion on Business and Sustainable Development, that inspired the optimism that businesses can reboot their sustainability efforts.  Or maybe it was the realization that corporate sustainability is entering its teenage years and is starting to define itself and stand alone.  A famous Brazilian psychologist, Içami Tiba, calls it a second birth, when a child turns into an adolescent and strives to become emotionally independent. There are still many questions for corporate sustainability to answer in order for it to mature. During “Sustentável,” the scrawny teen was asked: How do you differentiate companies in terms of sustainability?  How do you measure corporate impact in the local sustainable development?  How do you settle the north-south differences in SD?  How do you increase prices in times of economic recession?  How to reconcile long and short terms?

As a teen seeking identity, the first panel questioned the meaning of sustainability.  The Brazillian Embassador André Correia do Lago vigorously defended the notion that sustainability is defined differently in the northern and southern hemisphere due to different development needs, cultures and resource bases.   The Minister of the Environment, Izabella Texeira, responded that she thought the differences in definition are less relevant that the practical outcomes of Rio+20.   “The agreement stage is over,” stated Marina Grossi, president of Brazil BCSD, at the opening of the event. The economist Sergio Besserman agreed and argued that the maturing of the international discussions of sustainability means accepting failures to date. Besserman pointed out that in the 1990s, the world development community agreed to many things without really pondering what was possible.  The natural resources are not in the precarious state now due to a lack of agreements, he argued, but for a lack of reality.  “Rio+20 is already a success,” he emphasized, countering the expectations in the press and of many sustainability experts, because “it is forcing us to face our failures.”

The discussions continued throughout the day, shifting tones, from a hopeful child to a revolted teen.  As Santander’s president presented a list of good deeds performed by the bank, he was humorously interrupted by the mediator and applauded by the carefully selected audience of 500+ people, who probably was tired, as am I, of hearing how wonderful companies are while seeing so little change. On the positive side, the Brazilian mining giant, Vale, was not spared the embarrassment of answering why it got the prize for the world’s worst corporate responsibility from Public Eye.

Most of the panels came back to two central themes – how to incorporate real costs in our pricing system and how to measure sustainable development.  The panel about consumption had a clear message: no matter how conscious we are, our consumption is still over the earth’s capacity.  Natural resources need to be valued and integrated in our economic decisions.  The energy panelists agreed the 45 percent renewable Brazilian energy matrix, which OECD countries envy, is nevertheless unfair and inefficient due to subsidies.  In addition, unless impacts are accounted for in energy tariffs, recent oil discoveries may also threaten this low carbon edge the national companies currently enjoy.

If “Sustentável” can be considered a peek into what will be Rio+20, then I am not so pessimistic about the potential outcomes of this world gathering.  The discussions at the event demonstrated that corporations are generally supportive of metrics, goals and of transparency.  Philippe Joubert of WBCSD said in his keynote address that he envisioned his organization and corporate sustainability as girl from Ipanema, a 17 year old born in Rio. If corporations can commit to measure and report contributions to the proposed Sustainable Development Goals, then I think even Tom Jobim and Vinicious de Morais would have admired this girl from Ipanema.

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