Business tries to do what Rio did not

That corporations emerged from last week’s summit looking more far-sighted than governments signals the depth of frustration with the paralysed UN system, says Isabel Hilton.

A chorus of disappointment greeted the close of the Rio+20 conference last week. The Brazilian hosts, perhaps concerned to avoid a repetition of the dramas that attended the final hours of the COP15 climate meeting in Copenhagen, had lowered their ambitions for the summit to the point that they seemed unprepared to fight for anything that any country objected to. The result was a document heavy on words and almost devoid of any prospect of action.

Delegates who had endured long flights and difficult conditions to be there might well ask what was achieved in the biggest UN conference of all time, beyond a substantial contribution to the planet’s carbon emissions. 

One remarkable sign of the general frustration was that business, not widely regarded as leaders in sustainability, emerged from Rio looking more far-sighted and progressive than governments. Business frustration with the UN process had already surfaced at a meeting at Copenhagen University earlier this month, when John Kornerup Bang, chief climate adviser at the global shipping company AP Moller Maersk, predicted correctly that Rio’s problem would be the failure of governments to agree. It would be up to companies, he said, to take the initiative.

Multinational corporations are beginning to respond. For many years, business leaders have appealed to governments to lay down clear regulations. Without them, they said, business found it difficult to reduce emissions and energy use and become more sustainable. Now, a growing number of companies are taking unilateral action. In one surprising example, Microsoft announced that from July 1 it will start to tax itself on its own carbon emissions. Microsoft’s main global offices and data centres will pay a tax for every tonne of carbon they produce; the tax will be used to buy carbon dioxide credits, which the company claims will make Microsoft carbon neutral.

Other companies are well into their own sustainability plans: the British retailer Marks and Spencer, for example, has just celebrated the fifth anniversary of Plan A, the company’s effort to integrate sustainability into all aspects of its operations.

Marks and Spencer set itself 100 commitments in 2007, grouping them under five broad objectives that included becoming carbon neutral and sending no waste to landfill. A further 80 commitments were added in 2010 as they declared their ambition to be the world’s most sustainable major retailer by 2015. Progress is closely monitored and externally audited, and counts towards employee bonuses.

Over the first five years, according to the company’s report, the plan generated £185 million (US$288 million) for the company. The company also reports that it has achieved 138 of the 180 commitments, with a further 30 on plan, six behind plan and six not achieved. The giant retailer has become carbon neutral and sends no waste to landfill and recent further initiatives include asking customers to donate used clothing to be recycled or re-used when they come to shop: so far, 21 million customers have participated.

In its supply chain, the company has achieved a 50% reduction in the water used to grow its cotton and an 80% drop in pesticide use. It has also raised more than £100 million (US$156 million) for charity.

Initiatives like this are a growing trend for global businesses frustrated with the inability of the UN system to act. While multilateral negotiations have been increasingly afflicted with paralysis, almost 7,000 major companies have signed up for the UN Global Compact, which encourages companies voluntarily to make progress in human rights, anti-corruption and the environment. Those who participate argue that their reputations and their operations are at risk in a future of resource and energy constraints, and that the businesses best equipped to survive changing conditions in the future will be those that have prepared for and adapted to those conditions. 

It is unrealistic to expect that business will achieve all that is required for global sustainability. But if governments cannot even agree to stop the overfishing catastrophe that is overtaking the world’s oceans, or to end the US$600 billion in global fossil-fuel subsidies, condemned in 2009 by the G-20, the contribution that business can make looks increasingly significant. 

Isabel Hilton is editor of chinadialogue.

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