Mark Moody-Stuart, the former chairman of Anglo-Dutch oil giant Royal Dutch/Shell, said this week that business was essential if the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development next month is to succeed.
"You can't have sustainable development without business; it's just not practical," said Moody-Stuart, chairman of Business Action for Sustainable Development, a group set up to promote business interests at the Johannesburg summit.
Some business lobby groups argue that by investing in society and improving the environment, firms can save money and boost productivity while improving their image. "Over the last 10 years or so, business has come to realize that it's not just a question of the economic impact, but the environmental and the social benefits ... are very important," Moody-Stuart said.
But critics counter that little has been done since the last Earth summit in Rio 10 years ago and that big companies are just engaging in "greenwashing" --using an environmentally friendly veneer to disguise continued poor practice.
Shades of Green
One instance is the U.N. Global Compact, a development accord between business and the United Nations, seen as giving big companies the U.N. stamp of approval without a monitoring mechanism to ensure compliance with the compact's principles.
"Accusations of greenwash you have to look at ... case by case. If there are companies doing that, then there are lots of people watching and there will be people accusing them ... then the accusation can be examined in the court of public opinion," Moody-Stuart said.
Pressure groups like U.S.-based CorpWatch are urging more should be done. They argue that active monitoring, rather than self regulation by companies, is needed to stop greenwash.
"Is there a role for a body outside companies looking at what companies and individuals do? Absolutely, and it's called government," said Moody-Stuart. "You clearly need global governance structures for certain global things, for climate, for example ... (and) to regulate trade ... but day-to-day business happens in countries, and what you need is local governance. This is painstaking stuff."
Governments need monitoring, too, and Moody-Stuart said if the summit is to achieve practical, real results, it will require partnerships between business, civil society, and government. "What we've discovered and learned is that in addressing these issues, no single party can do it by themselves," he said.
He points to projects post-Rio -- such as a global reporting initiative -- that are fulfilling those requirements already, hoping to scotch frequent criticisms that the last summit said much, achieved little, and gave business too much leeway. "I think it's genuine progress.... You can always say it's not been fast enough, and yes, I would agree with that, but to say nothing's happened is a denial of facts."
The skeptics are already circling the Johannesburg summit. After a meeting in Bali failed to generate a conclusive agenda for the talks, they warn the summit will end without results.
Moody-Stuart is sanguine. "It seems to me it wouldn't be so difficult to bridge that gap of disagreements. In the meantime, the rest of us have to get on with the partnership agreements."
And while governments wrestle for agreement, Moody-Stuart hopes to show off his summit baby: the Virtual Exhibition. Run with the U.N., it will allow heads of state to hook up via the Internet with sustainable development projects across the globe. But with less Internet connections in host continent Africa than in some U.S. states, some critics may ask if the Virtual Exhibition is just another form of greenwash.
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