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Will Rio+20 add up?
Super Contributor

Twenty years on from the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, the United Nations has again brought together governments, international institutions and major groups, at the Rio+20 Conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. This is another historic opportunity to discuss global sustainable development and define pathways to a safer, more equitable, cleaner, greener and more flourishing world for all.

From the conference, Karin Ireton, Executive Head: Sustainability at Standard Bank Group, gives us her accounts of activities on the ground.

“Business delegates to the Rio+20 met throughout the weekend. The conference held its audience amazingly, considering the temptations outdoors of the long broad pale sands of the Ipanema Beach, the vibey Copacabana area and so on.''

“Perhaps the threat of no progress from the governmental gathering has given business added momentum. While there was regular reference to the desirability of even-handed and thoughtful regulation, there was also regular reference to the need for business to get on with addressing sustainability issues at scale and in ways that show it is part of their DNA. The days of green PR are long gone.''

“The finance sessions have been by far the most dynamic and interesting of the business conference. At one session, Jochen Zeitz, the chairman of global sportswear and luxury goods company Puma, shared a panel with a board member from Siemens, the chairman of Calvert Investments and Achim Steiner, head of the United Nations Environment Programme.''

“This group offered some very interesting perspectives. Zeitz has led the way within industry by having his company develop an environmental profit and loss statement. He explained that he had banned the use of the term 'corporate social responsibility' in his company. Instead he is focusing long-term sustainability because responsibility should not be an option. The environmental accounting, he says, is helping the company visualise the impact it has and the true costs, and true price, of what it does.''

“Calvert Investments reported that their ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) screened portfolio had outperformed the market by 300 basis points even in the difficult recent financial times.''

“And Siemens reported that with current, known, commercial technologies the application of their products would be capable of removing 300 megatons of CO2 emissions.''

“Surprise, surprise: companies that identify and address environmental and social risks provide a better return to investors! Why, 20 years after we started this conversation, are we still having to convince corporate dinosaurs that long-term thinking is a better bet?''

“Of course it is now doubly complicated by the current financial crises. But there are no substitutes for eco-efficiency and bringing down the true costs of proving global citizens with the businesses and services they need. These days you don't need to confine yourself to wearing hemp and sandals to be a greenie. Indeed, one of the sessions on offer here is a discussion about the fashion industry and sustainability.''

“Achim Steiner, who is one of the most articulate men on the planet, said it pretty plainly. He urged business to recognise the anger of ordinary people, those tired of exploitation, tired of pollution and frightened about the economic course we are on, he said. The problem, he said, is that markets and investors are still focused on the 20th century models not the needs of the 21st century.''

“The news from the government negotiations is that the draft text the Brazilians put forward over the weekend offers a compromise view of negotiating this broad and complex agenda.''

“The bad news is it is unlikely to kick off anything new or inspirational. And we have to ask, if companies – the good ones at least – are doing such amazing things, why don't we see the dawn of new economic models that allocate true price and true value to the services we use from nature? Seems it is, after all, up to each of us, to stop being complacent: to use the power of pension fund investments to demand more accountability from companies and to tell our governments that the kind of negative negotiating going on in Rio is frankly unacceptable.''

“Perhaps this event is a practice run for Rio's hosting of the World Cup and the Olympics. On that score they get full marks for friendly, service-oriented people. On the traffic and logistics side the report card still reads "keep practicing.”