BSR at Rio: Doing Our Part, or What to Look for in Rio

June 13, 2012
  • Eric Olson

    Former Senior Vice President, BSR

This is the first post in a series covering BSR at the Rio+20 Summit. The second blog discusses corporate strategies for human rights, the third blog reflects on the future of fuels, and the fourth post extends the "future of fuels" discussion to include the Brazilian perspectiveThe fifth post compares Rio+20 and the G20 Leaders' Summit.

As the BSR team prepares for what promises to be an inspiring—as well as bewildering and possibly frustrating—week in Rio, I find myself reflecting on questions that have weighed on BSR as we (like the Rio process itself) mark our 20th anniversary: What have we in the field of corporate responsibility accomplished, where have we fallen short, and what can we learn from both?

First, the accomplishments: Business is not only “at the table” in a way that was not true 20 years ago, but it is now commonly regarded as the key player to advance sustainability across national boundaries. Corporate leadership and successful collaboration between the public and private sectors to drive progress were no more than fond hopes as recently as ten years ago, but now there are numerous examples. The importance of non-governmental actors is reflected in the large number of pre-meetings and side events in Rio involving companies and NGOs, including the Corporate Sustainability Forum, in which BSR will participate.

Now the bad news: Despite the growing accomplishments of global companies and their partners, we continue to lose ground in addressing many of the world’s most pressing challenges. From global climate change to the struggle for decent work and basic human rights, progress is too slow.

Some of this has to do with the scope and scale of corporate action itself: leadership practices in sustainability represent only a thin wedge in the vast landscape of global business, including the millions of middle-market and small businesses that represent the predominant share of global commercial activity.

In my view, however, this is merely a by-product of our single most significant failure to date: our inability to work with actors outside of business to create the governance practices and public policies needed to turn isolated best practices into the business mainstream.

What can we learn from this, and what should we do at Rio+20 and beyond?

First, we need to understand the goals of the summit. Political leaders in Rio will focus on two main sustainability themes:

  1. The "What:" establishing clearer, more comprehensive objectives to reduce poverty without destroying the environment on which all prosperity depends. Specifically, there will be much discussion of potential Sustainable Development Goals designed to augment and improve the current Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by more explicitly incorporating, balancing, and linking priorities for poverty alleviation and environmental protection.
  2. The "How:" supporting these objectives with better global governance and policies, including mechanisms for financing, accountability, and enforcement. The MDGs will serve as an important reference point, with proposals to improve implementation by establishing measurable, time-bound indicators, addressing root causes, and increasing the legitimacy and shared ownership of objectives through widespread consultation and the active participation of all stakeholders.

Second, we need to listen carefully and engage openly in order to identify specific opportunities for business to play a productive role in advancing both the what and the how of sustainable development. This is easier said than done, so I have prepared some high-level guidelines for the BSR team and myself:

Actively share your valuable experience. Many sustainability leaders in business have struggled to take an integrated approach to social and environmental issues, and are also aware of the potential pitfalls involved in doing so—including the “analysis paralysis” that can result from making the challenge too big or complex. Similarly, the calls for greater measurability, addressing root causes vs. symptoms, deeper engagement with stakeholders, and so on, contained in many of the pre-Rio proposals could have been lifted from almost any good corporate sustainability strategy. We have been there and can share lessons from our defeats as well as our victories.

Be prepared to lead. It is unlikely that any bold new plan for concerted global action will come out of the government discussions at Rio—and for good reason. The longstanding divisions between developed and developing countries have become even more acute, as the international financial crisis has hit almost all developed economies, diminishing their ability to provide development assistance, and even the strongest emerging economies continue to face daunting challenges. Global business has a vested interest in the success of both developed and developing economies and, in the current circumstances, a greater ability to invest and allocate resources.

When the going gets hard … stick with it! As difficult and time-consuming as the political process may be, it is critically important to achieve truly “systemic” solutions to our common sustainability challenges. For myself, I will be particularly keen to learn new ways that business can contribute to good governance and policy. A key lesson of the last decade or more of corporate sustainability work is that business can’t do it alone.

I look forward to sharing more with you in coming days, including perspectives on the Future of Energy and the Future of Water from a side event in Rio we will be hosting with GE Brazil and the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

Let’s talk about how BSR can help you to transform your business and achieve your sustainability goals.

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