Over the weekend, prior to the official start of the Rio+20 Earth Summit, corporations hosted their own sustainability party, hosted by the UN Global Compact. It’s not difficult to picture it looked like: countless speeches and glossy brochures on corporations feeling good about themselves.
This complacency was well documented by “the largest CEO survey on sustainability of its kind”, which the Global Compact published two years ago: 81 percent of CEOs believed that they were already doing enough. Sustainability issues were already “fully embedded” in the strategy and operations of their companies.
That’s not sustainability, it’s greenwash. The reality is closer to one of my favourite REM song lyrics: “Offer me solutions, offer me alternatives – and I decline.”
Way too often the very same companies who claim to be green and socially responsible are making big profits from exploiting and polluting the planet – and blocking others from moving forward. Twenty years ago, we released the Greenpeace Book on Greenwash at the 1992 Earth Summit to expose this. Our sequel to that book, the Greenwash+20 report shows that corporations such as Duke Energy or Asia Pulp and Paper still stand in the way of progress – and that governments still continue to let corporate polluters run the show by shying away from proper regulation, pollution pricing, accountability and liability.
Giving corporations a free (or cheap) ride isn’t cheap for societies. KPMG has estimated that the external environmental costs of 11 key industry sectors were as much as US$ 846 billion in 2010 – an increase of 50 % (!) over the last decade. If companies had to pay for the full environmental costs of their business, on average they would lose 41 cents for every US$1 in earnings. Yet, making polluters pay is hardly an issue here at Rio+20.
A textbook example of greenwash is Shell, who for more than 20 years has been touting its leadership on sustainability, yet it is turning its back on renewable energy and strip mining forests in Canada to access tar sands. And worse, Shell is the first “supermajor” oil company to actively pursue a policy of significant oil exploration in the offshore Arctic.
But the green economy, which is one of the two main topics here at the Rio+20, isn’t about “sustainable drilling” in the Arctic. It’s about protecting the Arctic from exploitation altogether and instead catalyzing a green energy revolution. This is the kind of rule-setting we need from governments.
Corporations can’t be volunteers. If solutions are to be delivered in time for our children to have a green and peaceful future, we need regulations to enforce and deliver them. Global corporations need global rules – and governments admitted as much at the Johannesburg Earth Summit in 2002. Yet, it is a sign of the power of those corporations holding us back that here at Rio+20 governments are nowhere near delivering what we need.
However, lack of regulation gives no excuse for corporations to continue their destructive practices. Corporations must take full responsibility for their supply chains and reject environmentally and socially harmful practices. Fortunately, there are companies who are showing signs of walking the talk. For example, Google is investing big time in renewable energy, Nike and H&M are eliminating toxic chemicals from their supply chains, supermarket giant Sainsbury‘s is sourcing sustainable seafood and backing marine reserves, and a growing number of corporations including Unilever and Nestle are refusing to buy from APP as long as it continues to clear rainforests and destroy peatlands in Indonesia. This is the kind of action we want to see from corporations, not empty statements.