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The Hidden Agenda at Rio + 20

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I've just returned after a full week at the Rio + 20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development

As everyone knows by now, the "main event"--the official negotiations among government leaders--was a disappointment.  The general consensus among participants was that the official agreement, spelled out in agonizing detail in a document entitled "The Future We Want," would not produce the future we want.  It is, at best, an exercise in rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

As the week wore on, it became clear to me that the so-called "side events" (organized by companies, NGOs, and consortia) had really become the main event.  At the Rio + 20 Corporate Sustainability Forum, organized by the Global Compact, for example, there was an air of excitement, commitment, and resolve among the business leaders present.  Statoil, the Norwegian oil giant, advocated the elimination of fossil fuel subsidies (totaling in excess of $600 billion each year), and setting a price on carbon.  Bank of America made a $50 billion commitment over the next decade to renewable energy and a low carbon future.  Siemens announced a corporate goal of $40 billion in sustainable technology by 2014 and stated emphatically that it's a race to save the planet--and their own future.

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At the Business Action for Sustainable Development (BASD) "Business Day" organized by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, session after session focused on the importance of leapfrogging to clean technology solutions and accelerating private sector initiatives aimed at eradicating poverty.  Indeed, the theme for the meeting was "Scale Up." Paul Polman, the CEO of Unilever, delivered an impassioned keynote address stating that "never before in history have we been so forewarned, and forearmed at the same time."

In short, the contrast between the upbeat, well-organized side events, and the resigned, chaotic nature of the official negotiations could not have been more stark. 

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One day, while trapped in a 2- hour long traffic jam amid heavily armed but confused legions of Brazilian soldiers, it hit me: the official negotiations have really become little more than symbolic cover for the side events, where the real commitments are being negotiated.  

Without the burden of "main event" status, the side events were able to focus on getting things done.  No protesters, traffic snarls, media circuses, or distractions. While thousands gathered in Flamengo Park to raise their voices for the legitimate concerns of the 99%, the side events proceeded at hotels in Barra without interruption--and focused on how to address the root cause of their concerns.  And while hundreds of women protesters would not allow Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to leave his hotel in downtown Rio, side event organizers were busily making things happen and getting things done. 

On the way back, I noticed Richard Branson was on the same plane as me. I left Rio feeling hopeful--that I had participated in something important; that there is a growing recognition that incremental greening will not deliver global sustainability; and that the leverage point for achieving this transformational change is the enterprise sector.

The Road to Rio +20

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Twenty years ago, in 1992, the first Rio Earth Summit took place in Brazil.  While it was convened amid great fanfare and high expectation, the only really lasting legacy was the creation of the World Business Council of Sustainable Development (WBCSD) and the christening of "eco-efficiency"--doing more with less--as a key private-sector based strategy for sustainable development.  The governmental negotiations produced a massive volume--"Agenda 21" but little concrete action.

Next week, the Rio + 20 Summit will convene, again in Brazil.  The past twenty years has produced some good news and some bad news.  First the good news: Eco-efficiency has become standard practice in large corporations everywhere and is now spreading to the world's small and medium sized enterprises as well. This is a major accomplishment and has significantly reduced the impact per unit of output in economic activity. 

Now for the bad news: we have not yet begun to actually slow or reverse the level of human impact on the planet.  Indeed, over the past twenty years, we have tripled the size of the global economy, added nearly two billion people to the world's population, and further intensified our ecological footprint on the planet.  Growth swamped eco-efficiency.  Today, the science is clear: we have overshot the carrying capacity of the planet and serious repercussions are now inevitable.

In 1997, I wrote an article that appeared in the Harvard Business Review entitled Beyond Greening: Strategies for a Sustainable World. The piece won the McKinsey Award in 1997 as the best article in HBR.   The article stressed that corporate eco-efficiency (greening) strategies aimed at incrementally reducing negative social and environmental impacts, while important, would not be nearly adequate to the challenge of global sustainability in the decades ahead.  Even then, it was clear that "beyond greening" strategies--leapfrog clean technologies, and business models that included and lifted the four plus billion poor in the developing world--would be essential if we were to fundamentally change the course of the global economy, and set it on a course to sustainability.

In the 1990s, people spoke in terms of the need for fundamental change over the next decade or two.  Indeed, the title of the WBCSD's inaugural book was "Changing Course."  Unfortunately, all we got was continuous improvement through eco-efficiency. 

As I prepare to leave for Rio next week, my hope is that this Summit can plant a new stake in the ground--the Beyond Greening Stake.  I will do everything I can to drive this agenda.

We are running out of time.

newcomen.gifWhen Thomas Newcomen pumped water out of an English Coal Mine with a makeshift steam engine for the first time in 1722, little did he know that he was giving birth to the defining characteristic of industrial capitalism for the next two centuries--the relentless quest for greater labor productivity.  By substituting coal for manpower, the English textile industry drove the industrial revolution and established the template--and "rules of the game"-- for all industrial enterprises to come.  From cars to chemicals to computer chips, the very concept of "productivity" came to mean producing more product with fewer person-hours of work.

This metric made sense in the 19th century, when coal (and other raw materials) were plentiful and people were relatively scarce.  Now, however, exactly the reverse logic applies--fossil fuels and other raw materials are increasingly scarce and people are relatively plentiful.  We now live with the paradox that increasing business productivity means fewer jobs (especially when economic growth slows), precisely at the time that we need productive employment the most.

Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, the corruption crisis in India, the rural revolt in China--all of these growing social protest movements originate from the same source--a growing "opportunity crisis" driven by unemployment, underemployment, alienation, and humiliation.  The time has come, therefore, to overthrow the tyranny of labor productivity and graduate to a new definition for what it means to be "productive" in business.

wepeople.jpgIn the emerging economies of the world, this revolution has already begun.  ITC in India, for example, prides itself on creating livelihoods for the poor in the rural areas as part of its strategy for wasteland reforestation and agricultural productivity improvement.  Indeed, as commodity costs rise, it may make sense to redefine productivity--from capital intensity and labor efficiency to labor intensity and capital efficiency.  In the 21st century, "sustainable" enterprise must define success by the extent to which they create productive and fulfilling employment for the people of the world. 

Is business up the challenge?

How does business move beyond greening? TOP - “Create needs in existing markets” vs BOP - “Create markets from existing needs.”

About Stuart. L. Hart

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I’m Stuart L. Hart, a leading authority on the implications of environment and poverty for business strategy. This blog will be a place for me to update you on some of my newest insights - based on the work I’m doing to help businesses take the Green Leap.

Join the discussion!

A few years ago, I defined the concept of sustainable value; my work includes over 70 academic papers and several books.

Capitalism at the CrossRoads

Capitalism at the Crossroads, published in 2005, was selected by Cambridge University as one of the 50 top books on sustainability of all-time; the third edition of the book was published in 2010. I present new strategies for identifying sustainable products, technologies, and business models that will drive urgently needed growth and help solve social and environmental problems at the same time. I also argue that corporations are the only entities in the world today with the technology, resources, capacity, and global reach required.

Beyond Greening: Strategies for a Sustainable World won the 1997 McKinsey Award for Best Article in Harvard Business Review and helped launch the movement for corporate sustainability. 

fortune at the bottom of the pyramid

With C.K. Prahalad, I wrote the path-breaking article: The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid which provided the first articulation of how business could profitably serve the needs of the four billion poor in the developing world.

Learn more about my work at stuartlhart.com >>

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