Rio+20: What would business do?

By John Parnell

For many, describing what the Rio+20 Summit is trying to achieve is hard enough. Finding actual solutions to achieve them is even harder, as we found out at our Rio+20 Student Workshop.

Policymakers heading to Rio, in the meantime are always keen to develop actions, after all, talk is cheap.

We all know that business can talk a good game when it comes to environmental protection, green growth and sustainability.

So what ideas does big business have to offer the negotiators in Rio that are faced with the unenviable task of forming policies that unite economic growth, social development and environmental sustainability?

While some items on the agenda in Rio+20 are complex, simpler issues such as access to clean water remain prominent. (Source: UN/Kibae Park)

Well as it turns out they have quite a few.

The Aldersgate Group invited nine major businesses across a range of sectors to pitch one such idea (in 100 seconds) to an audience of NGO, business and governmental representatives (each armed with a voting terminal) and a panel of judges including UK Environment Minister Caroline Spellman and WWF-UK CEO David Nussbaum.

Here’s a summary of the ideas:


The hardware retail chain (and stockist of sustainable timber) proposed that governments adopt a commitment based on no net loss of natural capital, the economic value of the earth’s natural resources and processes such as fisheries, freshwater supplies and less obvious services such as pollination.


Unilever has attained a huge portfolio of consumer brands from Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream to Vaseline and Cif by enforcing rigorous business plans and that is precisely what it says the world needs. The conglomerate proposed the adoption of a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) underpinned by a carefully thought out business plan, drawn-up in conjunction with the private sector.


Siemens called for industrial call waste reduction and design with re-use in mind. (Source: Flickr/Peter Kaminski)

The German industrial giant touches the sustainable agenda through a number of its subsidiaries from public transport to energy. They suggested an overhaul of product lifecycles and design to create a “circular economy” or put more simply a low-resource economy. This means reusing and recycling on an industrial and governmental scale by discouraging the use of materials that cannot be reused.


The message from Aviva on behalf of a coalition of other big investors, was simple, “we’d love to invest in sustainability, but we need more companies to open the books on their environmental credentials”. They want governments to help with this, opening the door for investment. Given that this coalition has $2 trillion of assets, filling that data hole could be very worthwhile.


Despite being responsible for its share of carbon emissions, as highlighted so emphatically by Greenpeace in recent weeks, the IT world can also help to make drastic improvements. With the development of smart grids, smart buildings and so on, Microsoft proposed that it would be smart to ensure that the tools on offer were fully understood by policymakers by encouraging closer cooperation between the two.

The company recently announced it would enforce an internal carbon price on itself to cut emissions, a move welcomed by UN climate change chief Christiana Figueres when she spoke to RTCC in Bonn.

Virgin Atlantic

While aviation is certainly not the cleanest way to get around, it remains a necessity for trade and personal travel. As long as that holds true, Virgin Atlantic argued that there is a case to be made for addressing sustainability issues, not just for airlines, but across all forms of transport. The company called for an acceleration of work on the development of both the technologies and the policies underpinning alternative fuels.


Some startling and rather daunting statistics from the Walmart-owned ASDA supermarket chain, this was perhaps the strongest – by 2050 the world will need to boost its food production by 70%. A strong argument for putting food security at the top of the agenda in Rio. To start, supermarkets can look to increase the amount of produce they source locally and improve the rate of return for farmers, something Walmart has already begun work on.


Energy efficiency measures such as new lighting should be viewed as an investment rather than a cost. (Source: Flickr/Jeici1)

Lighting is one area where the available technology already allows for returns on investments via improved efficiency. As with all energy efficiency measures however, less is rarely seen as more. Philips called for governments in Rio to stress that energy efficiency is not a sacrifice, it’s a positive, and to lead by example.


Unsurprisingly, PepsiCo’s major environmental concern is water scarcity. With many businesses already impacted by pressures on water availability, PepsiCo called for an increase in partnership programmes between businesses and the public sector, such as the Water Resource Group 2030 program with the World Bank, to improve access to clean, sustainable sources of water.

The verdict?

The audience was asked to rank the pitches in order of preference. The ultimate winner, by a whisker, was ASDA’s food security pitch, earning the supermarket’s external affairs and corporate responsibility director Paul Kelly, a bottle of English sparkling wine.

The Aldersgate Group intends to issue the event’s findings to the Rio+20 secretariat for consideration. The real winner could be the idea that influences delegates at the summit and the reward for that could be significant.

The full results will be available from the Aldersgate Group website shortly.

Have your say: What do you think of these proposals for Rio+20? What’s missing? What role can business play in accelerating the sustainability agenda?

Get in touch via twitter @rtccnewswire or email the author.

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