Taking back tomorrow – Rio +20

On 21 May 2012, in Andy Le May, Blogs, News, by Andrew Bennett

As the Rio+20 summit approaches, big business re-assesses its role in a resource-constrained future.

By , ITWeb online features editor
18 May 2012
The Rio+20 summit on sustainable development will see hundreds of leaders meet to discuss the path forward in a resource-constrained world.  With one month to go until the Rio+20 Summit on Sustainable Development, there’s a growing focus on how corporate sustainability has progressed in the 20 years since the first conference.

One of the summit’s major events will be a Corporate Sustainability Forum, where business leaders will discuss the private sector’s role in creating the ‘Future We Want’, as the world heads for unprecedentedresource challenges. Organised by the UN Global Compact (which has seen over 6 000 companies commit to sustainable business practices), the forum’s objective is to provide a showcase for innovation andcollaboration, and improve the quality and scale of initiatives.

At the first summit in 1992, 178 countries adopted the Agenda 21 plan of action, to restructure their approach to economic growth, social equity and environmental protection. Given the dramatic changes in technology, the global economy, society and politics in the past two decades, the world is a very different place to 1992 (a time at which the first phone-to-phone SMS had yet to be sent). But for all our progress, many of the original challenges, if anything, have become even more daunting.

Andy Le May, MD of sustainability consultancy icologie, says there are signs of progress, but even those leading the way aren’t fully embracing the change.

“I think there is a new breed of CEO coming in who are asking the right questions. We have seen organisations starting to engage to find out what sustainability means and what it will cost them, but still they delay on pressing the button. Most are doing what they have to so they don’t get fined.”


Yet, major opportunities exist to use these challenges to drive a new way of living and working, with the so-called green economy becoming a growing priority for both governments and business leaders.

Le May says the shift is both necessary and compelling. “Sustainability is the next evolution in our society and will change everything. This should not be seen as daunting but rather a great opportunity to reach out to new and existing customers by strengthening one’s brand and offering new products.”

A recent study, conducted by MIT Sloan Management Review and Boston Consulting Group, shows that 30% of surveyed companies have developed a business case or value proposition for addressing sustainability.

The survey of more than 2 800 corporate leaders in major industries and regions found that two-thirds of companies see sustainability as necessary to being competitive in today’s marketplace.

In addition, nearly a third of companies say sustainability is contributing to their profits, while more than two-thirds have placed sustainability on their management agenda.

“Although many companies are still struggling to define sustainability in a way that is relevant to their business, the attention and investment we see indicate the here-to-stay nature of sustainability for organisations everywhere,” said David Kiron, executive editor at MIT Sloan Management Review and a co-author of the report.

Hugh Tyrrell, director of consultancy GreenEdge, says companies are beginning to shift their approach from compliance to innovation. “Sustainability used to be a ‘good’ thing to do. Now it’s becoming the pathway to a green economic revolution.”

He adds that there’s been a deepening in sustainability thinking, with more organisations incorporating it into the corporate culture. “Sustainability is becoming ‘the way we do things around here’. This cuts costs, increases innovation, and builds trust among staff, suppliers and customers. And trust has huge added value.”

This graph shows the biocapacity of the earth compared to the resources humans are using. In 2008, the discrepancy between the two meant it would take 1.5 years for the planet to fully regenerate the renewable resources people used in one year. Source: WWF Living Planet Report 2012.

The MIT/BCG study confirms this point, noting that ‘harvesters’ – the 31% of companies that say sustainability is contributing to their profits – are not merely implementing individual initiatives such as lowering carbon emissions or investing in clean technologies; they are changing their operating frameworks and strategies.


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