Rio de Janeiro, Brazil recently played host to Rio+20, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development.
Almost 200 world leaders met over three days to discuss how to build a green economy that will help lift people out of poverty and how to improve international coordination for sustainable development.
Perhaps predictably, the world’s media and the NGOs have declared Rio+20 a political failure of responsibility, but having attended the conference and spent time visiting local community projects, I’m convinced that we’re looking in the wrong place for leadership on sustainability.
With the exception of China, governments are simply not best placed to lead on this agenda. China is one of the few places in the world where 50 year sustainable development plans are being implemented. However, political short-termism has long been the kryptonite of democratic nations.
The need to balance the views of almost infinitely diverse stakeholders is a level of complexity that hampers decision making, especially when the decisions needed run to the thorny heart of the issue – consumption.
The elephant in the room
Our consumption is without doubt, the elephant in the room. Our appetite for stuff is using up 1.6 times the natural resources that our planet is able to renew in any given year. Left just to governments, that pattern is likely to continue to an inevitably uncomfortable conclusion.
Business however has a far clearer reason for tackling the sustainability crisis – survival. Unlike political parties who move in and out of power under the sway of popular opinion, the fate of the failed commercial enterprise is far more definitive and far more brutal.
The necessity of profit that some critics cite as a reason corporate responsibility is flawed, is in many views, the very essence of why business is best placed to lead the sustainability agenda. Particularly when for those profits to be sustainable they must provide the rationale for completely new models for supply and demand.
Coalitions of the willing
No one business, or even industry can afford the trillions required to retool the world’s supply chains and provide transparent and resilient systems for food, energy, water and access to information for a world with seven billion people.
If we’re to thrive as a society in a world of diminishing resources, we must find new models of production and consumption but also of collaboration and cooperation.
Rio+20 may have been a political failure, but it has added immeasurable amounts of resolve to a rapidly growing “coalition of the willing” in business and civic society who continue to demand action of each other and less so of Government.
Niall Dunne (@bluNiall) is Chief Sustainability Officer at BT and previously led sustainability practices at Saatchi & Saatchi and Accenture. He was named Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2012.