More than 150 commitments to conduct more ethical and greener business will be announced by large corporations at the Rio+20 Corporate Sustainability Forum over the next couple of days. Around 1,200 business executives have joined government and NGO representatives at the three-day conference, which started in Rio on Friday. The Forum, organised by the UN Global Compact, is the biggest event the UN has ever hosted for global business.
The UN Global Compact promotes ethical, fair and sustainable business practices, and some participating firms have already implemented changes. Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch soap giant, will soon grow all its palm oil in a sustainable way. Paul Polman, its chief executive, told The Independent on Sunday in New York: "Two billion consumers use our products every day. More and more consumers want green products, and only companies who fulfil this desire will stay in business in the long run."
His decision to stop filing quarterly reports for investors – which are often an obstacle to long-term sustainability goals – created uproar in the business community. "With a company of our size we can move the world. We can make a significant impact," Mr Polman said. "We have to consume differently. We cannot steal from our children."
Bank of America has pledged $50bn towards efficient renewable energy and low-carbon economies. The Swiss food and water giant Nestlé, which has faced international criticism and boycotts in past decades for its business in the developing world, now provides clean drinking water and education in Punjab villages; has created farming co-operatives in El Salvador that produce the Fair Trade certified Nescafé; and has helped Brazilian women start a more independent life by packing wagons with consumer goods they can sell.
Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary-General, said: "More than a billion people lack access to basic needs such as food, electricity and safe drinking water. Business can help us to change the cause. Solutions exist that have profound impact. We need many more companies to awaken to this agenda."
Georg Kell, architect of the UN Global Compact, hopes Rio+20 will start a global movement. He has already managed to get more than 7,000 firms to commit to its principles. Norway's Telenor gives mobile phones to farmers in Bangladesh so they can check the price of corn and not be cheated by traders. Chemicals giant BASF provides vitamins to African countries. Global Compact participant Siemens announced last year that it would stop its billion-dollar nuclear-plants business in order to invest more in renewable energy. And during Rio+20, the Siemens Foundation will launch a global competition to identify and sponsor technical solutions that will contribute towards sustainable development.
The Corporate Sustainability Forum will be followed by the UN Conference on Sustainable Development on 20-22 June, which Ban Ki-Moon has described as "too big to fail". A parallel "People's Summit" on 15-23 June will present a critical approach to the official conference's principles, debates and solutions.
Elsewhere, Sir David Attenborough, Jonathon Porritt and former Chief Scientist Lord May warned Rio+20 that no progress would be made if the problem of population growth was ignored. Population Matters chair Roger Martin said: "Rio's plans for sustainable development will be little more than a wishlist if they ignore the urgent need to stabilise our numbers."
Additional reporting: Azar ZaidiReuse content