From my perch on the stage in the middle of a crowd of several hundred people at Instituto Ethos’ 2010 International Conference in São Paulo on Friday, I was struck by the language used to discuss sustainable business in Brazil.
Over the course of the two-hour final plenary session, no one asked about the business case for corporate responsibility, return on investment, or other similar concepts. Instead, the questions coming from the audience were all about values, solidarity, and social business, with challenges to existing business models, marketing techniques, and the very purpose of business.
This in no way suggests that Brazil is devoid of hard-headed business people. To the contrary, it was in that very same room just 48 hours before that the CEO of Petrobras vigorously defended the decision by his company—and the Brazilian government—to develop the massive “pre-salt” oil discovery off the country’s coastline, regardless of the climate change implications of injecting yet another pool of carbon into the world’s economy and atmosphere.
Brazil is remaking itself and its place in the world every bit as much as China or India. Its political class is challenging U.S. primacy as well, as witnessed by President Lula’s visit to his Iranian counterpart, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, this past weekend.
But in a month when I have spoken at conferences in Seoul, Boston, and now São Paulo, this gathering had an entirely different feel than similar confabs in other parts of the world.
The community assembled by Ethos, going strong as it starts its second decade, is much faster to speak about excluded populations. Indeed, Ethos has set out its vision of an inclusive, green, and responsible economy, elevating the issue of social equity in debates that are too often dominated by climate change concerns. In a workshop I ran on sustainability futures, I was challenged immediately to explain how the poor would envision such scenarios. In the two-day meeting of Ethos’ international advisory board, on which I serve, we were asked to consider how to prevent the ongoing “banalization” of corporate social responsibility—in other words, how to keep a movement from getting stale and bureaucratic.
And Brazilians are not afraid put human considerations front and center. There was much discussion of love, and the need both to change existing social models and to synch private investment with public development objectives. Sergio Mindlin, the chair of Ethos’ board of directors, called for an overhaul of the Brazilian education system as a means to achieve a more just and sustainable country.
As I participated in the final debate, I thought back to U.S. President Kennedy’s famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in Berlin in 1963, when he said that for those who don’t understand the human instinct for freedom then denied in Eastern Europe, “let them come to Berlin!” After a week in São Paulo, thinking not about the Cold War of the past but about the sustainable world of the future, those words deserve an updating: For anyone who wants to understand both the promise and the soul of corporate responsibility, I say, let them come to Brazil!