Georg Kell Under Fire: Insights into the Global Compact

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In 2012 the Global Compact raised a lot of attention, as the face of businesses at Rio+20, and consequently in the media.  The United Nations body sets sustainability principles for the world’s corporate elite. Only recently the Compact even held a workshop for journalists to be part of the Compact’s advocacy of sustainable business practices, writes Guardian’s sustainability evangelist Jo Confino.  A striking call to delve more deeply into the Compact’s strategy.

The UN Global Compact’s head Georg Kell, an affluent UN diplomat with a slightly German accent, formulated in a New York Times article before Rio+20 what seems to have been the common denominator of business representatives at Rio+20, “Businesses are more advanced in sustainable development issues than governments are.”

A liberal market advocate, the co-authoring Kell wrote in the same NYT article in June, “Businesses don’t need governments to tell them whether or where to treat their workers properly, invest in their communities, or contribute to the broader social fabric from which they source both their customers and their employees.  They can — and should — do these things by themselves.”  On the contrary, in an earlier article, Confino wrote, “Kell is anxious to act because he recognizes that the corporate sector is moving far too slowly to deal with the enormity of the social and environmental challenges heading this way.”

With recent voices such as Patrick Haack, a researcher at the University of Zurich, arguing that the corporate misuse and disregard of the Compact’s principles discredited the Global Compact as a vital instrument for private governance, Kell must have put his colleagues at the Compact under pressure in preparation for Rio+20. Mr Haack conducts research in the legitimacy of global participant organizations such as the Global Compact that rally for transnational governance solutions.

Only some months before Rio+20, the Global Compact initiated a “cleaning up the organization” – a change in strategy and discourse in response to its loss of credibility.  Kell said to The Guardian in March, that he is dealing with member companies who were acting as “free riders who joined but had no intention to stay engaged.”  Conscientious critics were afraid that this is “just a change in discourse inspired by a new PR strategy.”

For example, John Elkington, a sustainable business thought-leader and consultant told Eric Marx of The Ethical Corporation magazine that “the fact that they have delisted 3,000 is encouraging.”  He continued, “It signals an intent to make sure that companies don’t use this as a camouflage or an alibi. Whether that means the 7,000 who are still in there are doing the right thing is very much in doubt.”  In the same article, Elkington further warns, “Insofar as the Global Compact initiative enables CEOs to think that they are already on top of this agenda, I think that is extremely dangerous.”

For Elkington, the question is whether the Compact should continue aiming to expand the “organisation’s membership rolls to the 20,000 target set for 2020.”  Instead, he asks whether the Compact would “be better served by actively and strategically recruiting members that can deliver against the expressed targets.”

Kell’s strategic priority seems to be in favor of expansion rather than guaranteeing a credible base.  At the Compact’s Rio+20 Forum Kell constantly repeated the Compact’s target of growing to a “sustainable” 20,000 membership base.  An informal chat with a corporate participant at one of the atmospheric rooftop receptions was striking.   The participant seemed to be inspired by the feel-good ambiance of the Forum.  But, when asked about the key takeaways that would convince her bosses back in the office of the 1,500 USD conference fee and some days off, she said, “I will advocate changing the water load of our toilet flushes.”  To admit, if you represent a corporation at an economic scale of a small country, there might be some recognizable effects.

However, despite these criticisms, the Compact’s work might regain momentum due to the overall success of the private sector at Rio+20.  A CNN report during the summit stated, “Business played a much bigger role at [Rio+20] than they did 20 years ago, with many observers saying they have actually taken the lead by providing real examples of sustainable development.”  And without any doubt that “business would be worse off without the Global Compact”, the next step should not be “to properly refresh its mission”, as advocated in Marx’s aforementioned article, but to look behind the curtains and acknowledge the Compact’s complex challenge of working the bridge between higher level principles and the reality of implementing sustainable business practices.

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