Rio + 20: The Glass is Half Full (Already)

Rio + 20: The Glass is Half Full (Already)

Having attended the Third PRME[1] and the Corporate Sustainability Forums organized by the UN Global Compact in Rio, I would like to take a contrarian view to the conventional story told about the Rio+20 Earth Summit.

Conventional wisdom portrays Rio+20 as a mega gathering of impotent, jet lagged and traffic jammed actors whose good words about sustainability remain largely unmet by tangible commitments and actions. My view, on the other hand, is that anyone expecting a global agreement from political and business leaders in Rio, within just a few days, on specific targets and policies, are expecting too much. If the success of Rio+20 is judged against these unrealistic expectations, its failure is self-evident.

As a newcomer to the sustainability conversation, I went to Rio with a fresh eye and more realistic expectations. In all honesty, I must say that I was positively impressed by what I heard and saw there.

First off, the bringing together of some 45000 participants[3], from 188 countries and representing governments as well as a wide cross section of civil society to discuss sustainability is in itself an extraordinary feat. In addition, the 4000 international reporters who made the trip to Rio helped put the spotlight on sustainability. They helped sharpen  humanity’s awareness of a serious situation: We all live together on this planet, there is  only one and therefore protecting it is a collective duty.

As every student of organizational change knows, lasting and genuine transformation can only follow a more or less long period of unfreezing where talk is at the center stage. Contrary to the pessimists, I believe that we should celebrate the existence of a global agora where we construct sustainability as a common challenge, share experiences, exchange ideas, and make mutual moral commitments.

The Third PRME forum brought together more than 300 representatives of management education institutions over two days[4]. While the absence of “leading” American business schools was rightly noted[5], this fact alone does not mean that the whole world of management education is deaf or only paying lip service to sustainability. Again, as every student of innovation knows, dominant players in any industry often have negative incentives to innovate. Novelty almost always emerges at the periphery before it goes mainstream, when it is successful.

Two concrete outcomes of the Third PRME forum need to be highlighted. The “50+20 Agenda”[6], a collaborative effort of several management education institutions, including ESSEC, outlines a new paradigm that puts sustainability at the core of our teaching, research, and outreach activities. Participating schools are committed to the implementation of this agenda and will encourage other schools to do the same. The “Declaration on the Contribution of Higher Education Institutions and Management Schools to The Future We Want”[7] reinforces the Principles of Responsible Management Education (PRME) and puts specific emphasis on sustainability. To strengthen incentives for action, the declaration invites accreditation bodies and the publishers of business school rankings to integrate sustainability in their standards and performance indicators. The UN Global Compact invites chancellors and deans to sign the declaration and to make voluntary, publicly accessible, commitments to promote the sustainability agenda.

The Corporate Sustainability Forum drew more than 3000 delegates. The number of participants, the diversity of geographies and sectors, and the level of representation of business organizations were impressive. Dozens of heads of large corporations from the five continents made the trip to Rio and participated in hundreds of panels and sessions. Given the time commitment and cost, it is difficult to think that all these people travelled to Rio just for the show. To be honest, I was impressed by the efforts and achievements of many businesses in the broad area of sustainability and felt that we, in business schools, have a lot of catching up to do. Some object that business organizations are mainly interested in “green washing” and use sustainability to further their profit seeking agenda. While there is truth to this theory, I must admit that I felt some business leaders have a sharp awareness and genuine commitment to sustainable development. Besides, I have no issue with the fact that some business leaders may see sustainability only through the profits lens. Quite the contrary, we should rejoice that more and more business leaders are realizing the economic value of sustainable development. Why should self interest and moral commitment be incompatible?

Had I been able to attend other events, my positive feeling about the Rio+20 Summit would have no doubt been stronger. Those who prefer to see the glass half empty should remember that each of us is responsible for filling the other half. Governments and business organizations will only go as far as we the people want them and compel them to go. Let us not forget that organizations, whether governments or businesses, are not moral agents. Only individual human beings can make moral judgments and must therefore be held accountable for their actions. This implies that it rests with each of us to figure out the good from wrong and align our behavior accordingly. The lack of globally agreed plans and policies cannot exempt us, personally, from doing our bit. Let’s stop complaining about organizational inaction and roll up our sleeves.


[1] Principles of Responsible Management Education

[3] Source : http://www.uncsd2012.org/content/documents/784rio20%20in%20numbers_final2.pdf

[4]http://www.unprme.org/events/index.php?eventid=183

[5]http://www.studentreporter.org/business-schools-not-ready-for-prime-time

[6]http://50plus20.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/50+20_AGENDA_15June.pdf

[7]http://www.unprme.org/resource-docs/3rdPRMEGFRioDeclaration.pdf

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