When the UN Conference on Sustainable Development published its final declaration at the Rio+20 summit it was received with frustration by most and the overall feeling was that governments have missed an opportunity to encourage dramatic gains in resource efficiency to underpin economic growth and development.

This frustration was also shared by some progressive private sector organisations, so it is important that, already a couple of weeks post-Rio, we work quickly to solidify some of these timelines and determine concrete actions.

In that respect, Rio+20 was useful to demonstrate the number of private sector companies that are taking sustainable development seriously. There are still some initiatives that are philanthropic or would be better characterised as CSR but most do now relate to core business. Increasingly this is because companies see that sustainability presents opportunities to improve competitiveness, and as integral to the way they do business.

The UN Global Compact Summit brought together leaders from all sectors to highlight the role of responsible business and investment in driving more sustainable and inclusive markets; whilst the Business Action for Sustainable Development day showed the range of initiatives that are underway in all business sectors. The UN CEO Water Mandate held dialogues looking at ways to reduce business risk, whilst 45 CEOs signed a special communiqué highlighting the urgency of the global water crisis and calling on governments to step up their efforts and to work more actively with the private sector, civil society and other stakeholders to address it.

But this work needs to be scaled up quickly – civil society is right to ask whether there are enough ‘progressive businesses’ out there, and what the rest of business is doing. This was articulated in a challenge from some NGOs that the ‘green growth’ phrase might be used by governments and business to greenwash ‘business as usual’. Progressive companies need to show that is not the case and many are doing just that – setting and delivering against stretching sustainability goals for their own operations, and finding ways extend sustainability measures through the value chain.

The issue of resource depletion and scarcity is nothing new – oil, rainforests, water and minerals have all been the focus of scarcity concerns at various times. But what has changed is the realisation that these issues can no longer be treated individually. They are all connected, and this is where the paradigm shift comes in. Understanding the resource ‘nexus’ – how water, food and energy supplies can be managed in a connected way – is critical to green growth.  The nexus was extensively discussed and recognised throughout the summit, but it needs to be made simple in order to really influence debates. This will be a key test of the process for the new global sustainable development goals.

And the need for clear global Sustainable Development Goals for the post MDG period is one of the three elements in the text which were welcomed; along with the importance of valuing natural capital to reduce resource depletion and the importance of transparent corporate reporting on sustainability impact.

In particular Rio has performed a valuable role in sharpening private sector focus to accelerate the valuation of natural capital, to internalise what are currently externalised environmental costs. The Natural Capital Declaration, launched by a range of banks and financial institutions, and the Natural Capital Leadership Compact, launched by 15 consumer goods companies, seems to have caught the moment here in Rio, with a high profile session led by Nick Clegg, UK Deputy Prime Minister, a range of heads of state and CEOs. The commitments recognise that we do not have 20 more years to debate what needs to be done and the compact is one of the few areas which is showing rapid progress and energy across sectors; it can only be hoped that it proves to be a catalyst for other similarly progressive initiatives.

Andy Wales (@AndyCWales) is Senior VP of Sustainable Development for SABMiller plc. He leads the group’s approach across the Ten Sustainable Development Priorities; identifying social, economic and environmental issues within the group’s strategies and business plans. Andy was named Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2009.

Picture: TAI (The Access Initiative) Event, Rio de Janeiro, Rio+20. Photo credit: Michael Oko/WRI