In honor of the United Nations General Assembly Special Session to mark the fifth anniversary of the Rio Earth Summit, this month's Greenwash Award goes to the World Business Council on Sustainable Development (WBCSD). The WBCSD is a merger of the World Industry Council for the Environment (a branch of the
International Chamber of Commerce) and the Business Council on Sustainable Development (BCSD). The BCSD was formed as the business advisor to Maurice Strong and the 1992 Earth Summit, (also known as the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development -- UNCED).
Five years ago, Greenpeace International published the "Greenpeace Book on Greenwash," which examined the rhetoric of the BCSD and nine of its member companies, while criticizing transnational corporations for attempting to hijack UNCED.
Late last year, Third World Network and Apex Press published an expanded version, called "Greenwash: The Reality Behind Corporate Environmentalism" which documented the environmental rhetoric and records of twenty large transnationals.
For the fifth anniversary of Rio, we are giving a Greenwash Award to the WBCSD for its continuing, albeit somewhat muted efforts to portray itself as the savior of the world's environment and the force that will eliminate poverty.
The WBCSD has always positioned itself as a group of business leaders who accept and embrace the need for sustainable development and environmental protection. But to judge from their recent publications, such as their "Annual Review 1996," and "Signals of Change," a report on corporate progress toward
sustainable development since UNCED, they have toned down their claims. It may well be that this softer approach is compromise with the least progressive of the 125 corporate executives which make up the WBCSD.
The overall tone of recent WBCSD pronouncements is one of reassurance; to governments and NGOs, reassurance that business understands and is voluntarily taking action; and to their members, reassurance that things are changing but not too fast; that some action is needed but not too much.
This carefully crafted tone of heartening ambiguity masks the reality that WBCSD members, along with many other large corporations, have pushed hard over the last five years for increased corporate power on the global stage. They have been the primary force behind negotiations under GATT, WTO, NAFTA and now the OECD's Multilateral Agreement on Investment. All of these agreements give corporations ever greater rights and ever fewer trade and investment restrictions. There is simply no evidence that increased corporate rights has led or will lead toward sustainable development or environmental protection, yet this assumption underlies the WBCSD philosophy.
The WBCSD believes that "in the five years since UNCED, business has made great progress towards finding ways of implementing the goal of sustainable development." [Signals of Change p.6] Yet as the Global Environmental Outlook published by the UN makes clear, "overall trends have continued to worsen."
The WBCSD says that "...it is not clear how much of this [energy] can safely be derived from carbon-based fuels. Given the right market signals, business will provide new energy technologies." [Signals of Change p.7] Yet their members -- which include Shell, Texaco, British Petroleum -- along with other oil companies continue to fight against signals which would encourage other energy sources over carbon-based fuels.
The WBCSD remarks that the Earth Summit texts have "far more to say to government than business." They neglect to add that the BCSD and ICC themselves insisted on this as the relentlessly lobbied UNCED delegates against any criticism of transnational corporations in the Earth Summit negotiations.
WBCSD Chairman Livio DeSimone says that "Business...used to be depicted as a primary source of the world's environmental problems. Today it is increasingly viewed as a vital contributor to solving those problems and securing a sustainable future for the planet." [Chairman Livio DeSimone annual review p.3] and that "...the WBCSD is now playing a vital role in shaping the sustainable development agenda." (WBCSD Executive Director Bjorn Stigson p.4] We at the Greenwash Awards add that the depiction of business as the source of environmental problems is based on the facts; to the extent that it is viewed as vital contributor of solutions, this is due partly to genuine advances made by business, partly to business' own PR efforts, and partly to the public's desperate desire to believe that businesss will do the right thing of its own accord, since neither the United Nations, nor nation-states, nor any other entity seems to have the power to force them to do so in this the age of corporate globalization.
More important than the tepid rhetoric of the WBCSD is the behavior of its members. In "Signals of Change," the WBCSD chooses case studies of some its members in the areas of eco-efficiency, waste minimization, environmental accounting and other domains it considers "building blocks to a more sustainable
way of doing things." WBCSD believes these tell "a good story." The stories they have to tell about progress are no more exciting than the ones told in the International Chamber of Commerce's "From Ideas to Action," also published in 1992. Some of these "stories" are so banal, so insignificant in light of the needs described in Agenda 21, that it is frightening to think they are the best the WBCSD could find for the 5 year review.
Our view of this "good story" gets darker when we consider the stories the WBCSD doesn't tell about a number of its member companies, some of which are profiled in "Signals of Change." Like Shell, which continues to deny its connection to the events around the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Nigerian environmental activists; like Dow Chemical, which continues to
defend production of toxic chemicals and products; like British Petroleum, which is exploring for new oil off the coast of Alaska; like Texaco, which has so far evaded responsibility for the devastation of the Ecuadorean Amazon it caused; like Monsanto, which claims to be aiming at sustainable development with its
genetically engineered crops. Closer examination finds their transgenic crops do not help feed the hungry. Moreover, Monsanto has steadfastly opposed the consumer's right to know about genetically engineered foods it is buying, and opposes our right to choose food free from transgenic ingredients.
If the WBCSD's rhetoric has cooled down in the last five years, the corporate agenda has heated up. The free market ideology of globalization all but preempts international environmental advances. This has been the true agenda for the
companies of the WBCSD in the five years since Rio.