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New Thinking, Progressive Action

By Antonio Galvao, CSCP | September/October 2012 | 22 | 5

Rio + 20 demonstrates the power of the market

As someone who was born and reared in Rio de Janeiro, I’m excited to see the array of captivating events that are shining a positive light on my hometown. In two years, the final match of soccer’s World Cup will be played in Rio for the first time since 1950. And in the summer of 2016, Rio will host the Olympics for the first time.

This past June, Rio was the site of another event of Olympic proportions—although it was our planet, not sport, that took center stage. Called the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio + 20, the gathering attracted 100 heads of state and more than 45,000 people from 188 countries, which made it the largest socio-environmental event in history. 

The objectives of the conference were ambitious: to muster increased political commitment to sustainable development and to meet squarely some of the common challenges facing all of humanity. While the event produced a 49-page, non-binding declaration called “The Future We Want,” the commitments of world leaders reflected therein were modest and fell short of effectively addressing any of the major challenges facing the world today. 

What did emerge was a clear understanding that we cannot rely on governments alone to solve the world’s problems. United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton drove home that point by stressing the need to “forge partnerships that would harness the power of the market.” Referring to “The Future We Want,” Clinton went on to say, “While the outcome document adopted here contains many important principles and proposals, the most compelling products of this conference are the examples of new thinking that can lead to models for future action.” 

The assertion that the development and implementation of new, more sustainable economic models are everyone’s responsibility is a major milestone in the world’s ongoing search for solutions to the problems that confront the one planet we share. 

Committing to advancement
The Rio + 20 secretariat, together with the UN Global Compact’s “Sustainable Energy for All” initiative, received 700 commitments from stakeholders including governments, the United Nations, intergovernmental organizations, nongovernmental organizations, the private sector, and individuals. Collectively, these pledges will fund sustainable-development actions valued at more than $500 billion. (A complete list of these commitments can be found at uncsd2012.org/rio20/allcommitments.html.)

Hundreds of corporations have reported actions through the UN Global Compact that are measurable, have clear timelines, and will be reported publically in annual reports and other documents. Microsoft, for example, has developed a plan to become carbon neutral by 2013, while a group of eight development banks have announced initiatives to invest $175 billion in the promotion of public transportation. More than 40 companies, including Pepsi, Coke, and Procter & Gamble, have reaffirmed their commitments to freshwater management. Many others are investing in research and development to replace fossil fuels with cleaner sources of energy.

Though the world faces enormous challenges—from rising unemployment and climate change to the deterioration of our natural resources and widespread political unrest—we are on the threshold of a new phase in our development, one in which companies and communities are taking action to promote sustainable development with or without the blessing of their governments or the UN. Those actions bear testimony to the fact that we can no longer wait to address the critical issues that threaten our planet. It is not hysterical rhetoric to say that we must act now. 

Rio + 20 did not set ambitious and binding targets for sustainable development, but it did promote a sense of common purpose and inspired many to focus on ensuring that the right attitudes exist and the right actions are being taken to build a viable future. It also clearly established the fact that, in a green economy, increasing revenues and reducing costs are two sides of the same coin. 

One of the most powerful images from Rio + 20 showed students lining up to participate in conference events throughout the city. It is from their ranks that the world’s future leaders will come. In that context, it was heartening to sense a pervasive awareness of the importance of balancing economic growth, social development, and the preservation of our finite natural resources. In that way, too, the conference was a success.

Antonio Galvao, CSCP, is vice president supply chain—global I&L at Diversey, now part of Sealed Air. He may be contacted at antonio.galvao@diversey.com.

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