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Rio+20 in the Rear View: Getting Business on Board with the Green Economy

WRI's experts will continue to provide commentary and analysis of the results of the Rio+20 conference through our series, "Rio+20 in the Rear View." For more posts in this series, see here, here, and here.

Many stories came out of the Rio+20 proceedings; Jo Confino’s blog in The Guardian is an excellent place to review what happened. But now that Rio+20 is behind us and the 50,000 government officials, business representatives, and activists have gone home, one expectation is clear: Leadership from the private sector is critical to advancing sustainable solutions in the coming years.

The question is: Are business leaders on board with this strategy? Is transformative action possible or desirable from a business perspective? We can’t speak for all businesses, but on June 17th in Rio, WRI partnered with Forum for the Future, a UK-based NGO that works with companies on sustainable business practices, to present a panel featuring corporate leaders that are currently taking steps toward "next practices." Peter Madden, CEO of Forum for the Future, opened the session. The panel featured Kersten-Karl Barth, Director of Sustainability for Siemens; Robert ter Kuile, Senior Director of Sustainability and Global Public Policy for PepsiCo; and Andrew Hobday, Chief Sustainability Officer for Mars; joining Jennifer Morgan, Director of WRI’s Climate and Energy Program.

Business Leaders Talk Sustainability

Panelists engaged in a lively discussion about their own green initiatives and how they see things shaping up for business and sustainable development in the future. It was encouraging to hear that Siemens, PepsiCo, and Mars are already embracing some sustainability initiatives. As we noted in this blog before, almost half of Siemens’ 2011 revenue came from environmental products; Pepsi’s “Performance with Purpose” approach seeks to tie financial performance with human and environmental sustainability; and Mars’s “Sustainable in a Generation” plan aims to eliminate fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions from its operations by 2040.

Key takeaways from the panel discussion on building toward a green economy include:

  • Leading-edge strategies that are "next practice" today will soon become mainstream. Today’s corporate leaders who are developing these strategies will be the winners of tomorrow and have a net positive impact on business and the environment.

  • Understanding the megatrends shaping tomorrow’s markets can unlock innovation that promotes sustainable development.

  • Collaboration is critical. The public and private sectors can leverage each other, and competitors can cooperate for bigger impacts.

  • Measurement systems for environmental and social impacts must be as credible as financial measurement systems – but now is not the time to wait for perfect metrics. Companies that are leaders will implement forward-looking strategies today and help shape the metrics to measure success along the way.

  • Governments must help price externalities like carbon, but smart, strategic businesses will act now and show that profit and planet can be in sync, benefitting people as well as the environment.

Next Steps

Finally, our panelists shared that more is needed—more experimentation and more commitment. Shifting to a green economy takes dedication, and pitfalls are to be expected along the way. In leading companies, sustainability is everyone’s job because sustainability drives business value.

Together with our partners, WRI’s Next Practice Collaborative is highlighting the link between economic prosperity and sustainable development by researching new approaches, developing tools, and sharing strategies. Sustainable solutions cannot wait. The time is now.

For more information about the Next Practice Collaborative, contact Samantha Putt del Pino at sam@wri.org.

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