The United Nations conference on sustainable development in Rio de Janeiro (Rio+20) was destined to be a corporate clusterfrack that environmental groups walked away from bitter about the over 200 governments’ failure to deliver any significant agreements.
At the same time, there will be a number of announcements – mostly coming from the corporate community and their allies in the UN bureaucracy – that package their own commitments as bold new initiatives along the path to economic and environmental sustainability.
To some degree these two story lines are irreconcilable, and reflect a polarization of debate that has surrounded global gatherings for decades.
Two reports coming out of Rio explain how deeply the UN has become colonized by corporations, and name some of the specific multinational corporations that pose the greatest obstacle to ecological sustainability.
Greenpeace’s own report – “Greenwash Plus 20” – begins with an essay by Kenny Bruno, “How did we get here,” which spells out the slow-motion corporate takeover of the UN, which began shortly before the first UN gathering, when it dissolved the UN Centre on Transnational Corporations (UNCTC) – an unique mechanism through which governments could jointly monitor transnationals and ways they exploit weaker countries (e.g. by exporting toxic technologies no longer allowed in the global North). With the UNCTC went nearly 15 years of work on developing a Code of Conduct on transnational corporations (TNCs), which attempted to spell out the rights and duties of TNCs and the rights of States to regulate them.
Bruno and Greenpeace released the “Greenpeace Book of Greenwash” at the 1992 UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio, effectively forecasting the ensuing corporate colonization of the UN. After the first Rio conference attempts were made to forge a UN “partnership” with corporations, a model that, although thankfully abandoned by UNDP head Gus Speth in the mid-1990s, finally took hold as the Global Compact, which Kofi Annan announced at the 1999 World Economic Forum in Davos.
Ever since, the UN’s approach to TNCs has been one of finding common ground through voluntary self-regulation and joint initiatives. The notion of any attempt to establish “democratic control of TNCs” through the UN (whose Charter was established by “We the Peoples”) had, like high school civics, become marginalized to outside protesters and treated on the inside as a virtually obsolete, if not quaint notion.
Meanwhile, international governance has increasingly been dominated by agreements that elevate business rights. This has been particularly true of legally-binding trade agreements, which come loaded with all sorts of investor rights clauses inserted by clever corporate lawyers. These trade agreements have increasingly been used to shred environmental and public health standards both nationally and locally, a process that usually takes place at remote and secretive arbitration panels that provide no opportunity for public review or appeal.
It hasn’t been all bad news since the first Rio conference in 1992. We have seen movements succeed in getting governments to agree to specific Multilateral Environmental Agreements, such as the Montreal Protocol and the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. But with the dominance of vigilant corporate interests represented by the International Chamber of Commerce and the Business Action for Sustainable Development, one is hard-pressed to find UN agreements that haven’t stripped out binding legal terms such as “liability” – that might apply to corporations.
Another review of how dire the situation has become in just two decades is a new report released at Rio+20 by our allies at Friends of the Earth International, endorsed by over 400 groups including Greenpeace. It’s called “Reclaim the UN from corporate capture.”
Twenty years after Greenpeace warned the world about corporate greenwash, the Friends of the Earth International report describes how much deeper their capture of the UN has become, describing “the emergence of an ideology among some UN agencies and staff that what is good for business is good for society. This is reflected in a shift away from policies and measures designed to address the role of business in creating many of the problems that we face, towards policies that aim to define these problems in terms dictated by the corporate sector, meeting their needs without tackling the underlying causes of the multiple crises.”
Thus, it might seem to be a positive development that members of the UN Environment Program Finance Initiative are supporting “a global commitment to corporate sustainability reporting.” I attended a UNEP Finance Initiative conference in Washington, DC last fall that left me impressed by how many in the business community seem to grasp how serious and profound the various environmental crises have become. And there are many more inside the corporations who are sincerely working hard to come up with ways to steer the economy in a better direction, making business a leader in implementing sustainable technologies and systems of commerce and production.
The Corporate Sustainability Reporting Coalition, for example – an alliance of pension funds and investors with $2 trillion-worth of assets under management – has concluded that voluntary arrangements are not enough and that the time has come for countries to commit to a global policy framework on corporate sustainability reporting. In just 15 years, over 2,500 companies have committed to the Global Reporting Initiative, a stepping stone toward such an agreement.
This cannot simply be dismissed as sophisticated greenwashing. There are many businesses that – justifiably reviled for past behavior – are in their own self-interest realizing the need to protect the ecosystems upon which they depend. To do otherwise makes it difficult to justify investing in a production facility designed to last for forty years or more, for example. I suspect that’s one reason some kind of green accounting mechanism will ultimately be advanced at Rio and evolve thereafter.
Coming from within the business community, this could be a positive step in the right direction and one that will divide the rabid resource extractors from companies that recognize where their business models are truly destructive to society, if not to their own bottom line. It has to change.
While significant parts of the negotiating text are whittled down or edited out exclude any meaningful commitment – such as the creation of large marine reserves, a Greenpeace priority going into Rio — it bears recognizing that if there is something good that comes out of the Rio gathering, it probably happened outside the convention centers. Peripheral meetings are where civil society groups and movement leaders are discussing and planning fundamentally new approaches to ecological policy. Many such ideas were brought to the UN’s attention in pre-summit submissions by these groups, but have yet to be taken seriously. One that I believe is worth mentioning has been spearheaded by the Rights of Nature alliance, which is pushing to revise our legal frameworks to recognize the inalienable rights of nature. This proposal already adopted by Ecuador as well as some local communities in the U.S., such as the City of Pittsburgh.