Don't Complain, Do Something! It's Time for Business to Take Lead on Environment

Inter-governmental attempts at environmental protection have failed. It is time for environmentalists to recognize that fact and turn to industry. The "Green Economy" has become the new watchword at the Rio summit. But can Starbucks, Shell and Nestlé really save the planet?

It is time for business to take over from political leaders when it comes to the environment.

It is time for business to take over from political leaders when it comes to the environment.

A Commentary by

It was predictable. The Rio+20 environmental summit looked like a failure even before it really began. On Tuesday evening, the delegations of United Nations member-states agreed during the preliminary negotiations of Rio+20 to adopt a final declaration that isn't worth the paper it will be printed on.

More than 100 heads of state and government have gathered at Sugarloaf Mountain to bore us with their dry declarations of intent and flat discussions. They talk and talk, and in the end they will disappoint us to no end.

And that's not necessarily such a bad thing.

Governmental attempts at environment and climate protection have failed spectacularly. It would be irresponsible to continue depending on political leaders. The recognition of that fact must be viewed as an opportunity to pursue a different course. Twenty years after the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, hardly any of the problems addressed then have been solved. Now, only a Faustian bargain can help. The "Green economy" will be at the center of the discussions in Rio, the new slogan of the environmentally minded everywhere. The economy, so goes the new theory, should take over where politics has failed.

"The private sector has the ability to change things on the ground. They have got the means, but also the interest in doing it," says Carlos Manuel Rodríguez of the environmental organization Conservation International. Those concerned about the future of the world, in other words, would do well to turn to Nestlé, Shell or Starbucks.

Placing a Value on Coral Reefs

A pact with business requires sacrifices, and environmentalists must cast off some of their ideological ballast. Company heads, on the other hand, must understand that rising stock prices can't be pursued at the expense of nature and society. In order for that to happen, environmentalists and businesspeople must agree on a common language.

This attempt will be made. It is about quantifying "ecosystem services," explains Pavan Sukhdev, a visionary of the Eco-economy. How much does it really damage the environment and the quality of life, when a cell phone or T-shirt is sold? Pioneers like Sukhdev believe it is quantifiable. Their calculation models are already being used.

Just last month, 10 African countries signed the Gaborone Declaration, in which they pledged that in the future the economic value of their forests, coral reefs or savannahs will be integrated "into national accounting and corporate planning and reporting processes, policies and programs."

Puma Pounces

How that works in practice was demonstrated last year by German sportswear manufacturer Puma, one of the first companies to undertake such an accounting model. Puma presented an "Environmental Profit and Loss Account," which placed the value of the company and its suppliers' impact on the environment -- such as land use, air pollution, and water consumption -- at €145 million for the year 2010.

Having a number makes it easier for the company to make changes as necessary. "Only now do we really know where we are having an impact," says Executive Chairman Jochen Zeitz. Now, he can reduce his company's environmental footprint by using alternate materials or by changing suppliers. Environmentalists must support such pioneering work. Partnerships with business are unavoidable.

At its core, after all, the conference in Rio is about the definition of prosperity. For decades, prosperity has been measured on the basis of macro-economic data, such as a country's gross domestic product, for example. Part of such calculations is the assumption that resources are unlimited. The inclusion of a country's social, intellectual and, more than anything, environmental capital is long overdue.

The Occupy Movement shows that consumers are dissatisfied with the way the world does business. In order to turn this displeasure into positive energy, the psychology of hopelessness should be replaced with the psychology of feasibility. As such, the fact that Chancellor Angela Merkel did not travel to Rio is all the more disappointing. Despite the sputtering energy turnaround, Germany is setting a good example internationally. Merkel could send a signal.

A Balancing Act

Company managers with some foresight have long known that without an intact environment, they can close their doors in 20 years. "They will be the ones who will try to push the civil society and the regulators to really come up with sensible solutions and smart regulations," says Gerard Bos of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Industry needs to be able to plan ahead, and it is an opportune time to secure lasting access to resources for the long-term. Unlike the politicians, who are often focused on their next re-election campaign, it is often private companies that look far into the future, a necessity for saving the environment and the climate.

Cetainly, it remains a balancing act. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has recently been criticized for its proximity industry. And it could be that the WWF has overdone their cooperation with the business world. But there are many examples of fruitful collaboration.

The IUCN, for example, is in talks with the company Holcim, one of the largest cement manufacturers in the world. Holcim is trying to increase the environmental compatibility of its mines. The company is doing so for its own benefit. If it can prove that it is operating in a sustainable way, it will make it easier to get the necessary permits. But it also means that environmentalists, at least, have a foot in the door.

'Don't Complain! Do Something!'

IUCN is also working with the company Nestlé Nespresso to find ways to make its packaging more recyclable. Nestlé sells coffee in mini portions, which are packed in aluminum, a material which needs a huge amount of energy to produce. Such a collaboration is enough to make traditional environmentalists furious; "greenwashing" they immediately cry. But do we really have time to question a company's motives?

As soon as there are successes, the ends will justify the means. "Don't complain! Do something!" one would like to shout at environmentalists in industrialized nations in particular. Their nagging in the run-up to the Rio summit was unbearable and will not save any forest from being levelled or any threatened species from extinction.

The environmentalists must understand that 7 billion people can't survive on whale tourism and organic tomatoes alone. Sustainability should not remain a luxury concept, nor should it be seen as the domain of tree huggers and big city environmentalists. The Rio+20 summit must "un-environmentalize" the world's approach to sustainability so that it can reach out beyond the converted, says André Corrêa do Lago, leader of the Brazilian delegation to the Rio+20 conference.

The concept of a "green economy" is no panacea. But it is an approach that seems realistic, and that alone is valuable.

The US-based outdoor clothing company Patagonia purchased a full-page ad in the New York Times last November. "Don't buy this jacket" read the ad, above a photo of a Patagonia jacket. In small print the company explained the environmental impact of manufacturing the jacket and encouraged people to buy second-hand or at least not to throw old jackets away, but to turn them back in to the company for recycling.

One could, of course, see the ad as a perfidious marketing trick specifically designed for the environmentally-conscious consumers the company targets. Or one could also say: Thanks for the explanation, and for the attempt to make the world more sustainable.


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