The contrast could not have been greater. I had spent the whole day attending the Rio+20 Business Day, held in a luxury hotel on the beach side, listening to one business speaker after the other argue that voluntary initiatives by industry, if scaled up, are the solution to the world’s social and environmental crisis. When I took the bus back to the other side of Rio de Janeiro, I didn’t get off in time and found myself in an unknown street, where my attention was caught by drumming and a loud amplified voice. In the square nextdoor there was a demonstration, a thousand or more people demonstrating against corporate exploitation of people and the environment.
The march stopped in front of the office of the Brazilian mining and dam construction multinational Vale. Demonstrators threw dozens of bags with red paint against the façade of the building, symbolizing the suffering caused by the company. Earlier this year, the company received an award for being the ‘the worst company of the year’ globally.1
Vale was one of the most prominent companies at the Rio+20 Business Day,2 hosted by the lobby group Business Action for Sustainable Development (BASD) and attended by around 700 business representatives. The controversial company was one the sponsors of the event and had speakers in both the opening and the closing plenary and in several workshops. In the closing plenary Vania Somavilia stated that “the business sector is ready to create a better world”. The mood in the session was almost jubilant because the final text agreed by government negotiators at the Rio+20 Summit strongly endorses the role of the private sector.
Peter Bakker from the World Business Council for Sustainable Development summed up the day in his closing remarks by saying that businesses had shown lots of voluntary commitment and that this now needed to be scaled up. He said that the idea of Sustainable Development Goals 3 agreed at the Summit, which are to be defined at a later stage, should be discussed between governments and business, and that business should then be left to get on with implementation. Indeed, the main role of governments, according to the vision outlined during Business Day, is to create an enabling environment for industry.
Throughout the day it was implied that the companies involved in BASD have all fully embraced a socially and environmentally responsible course. The case of Vale shows this is hardly the case and a simple look at the list of some of the other Business Day sponsors confirms that this is an illusion (for example, Siemens is involved in corruption scandals in several countries, oil company eni is responisble for damaging oil spills in Nigeria and planning tar sands exploitation).
Against this background, expecting so much from voluntary industry initiatives seems reckless at best. There is clearly a need for international rules regulating corporate behaviour to hold corporations accountable for their activities, but there is no sign of this in the Rio+20 summit declaration - just some weak language encouraging CSR reporting.