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Business sees key consumer role at Jo'burg Summit

Nitin DesaiParis, 9 October 2001 - Business preparations for next year's World Summit on Sustainable Development moved into top gear today with an appeal to governments for clarity about what should be expected of companies - and insistence that consumers have a key role to play.

Opening a two-day conference of Business Action for Sustainable Development (BASD), a network of organizations covering the full range of business and industry throughout the world, BASD Chairman Sir Mark Moody-Stuart said: "We are here to act as a channel, an amplifier, a co-ordination unit and a focal point."

Top United Nations officials taking part included Nitin Desai, Under-Secretary for Economic and Social Affairs, who said next September's Johannesburg summit - 10 years after the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro - would involve not only governments, but all stakeholders.

"It's not just prime ministers and presidents, but chief executive officers, trade union leaders, cooperative and local authorities. They can make just as big a difference," the UN official said.

Sir Mark, former Chairman of Shell, said BASD wanted to identify some of the best examples of progress made by business to date and visions of future direction. BASD is an initiative of the International Chamber of Commerce and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development

"We need to discuss how we can best project those examples and the lessons learned from them, and how business will best participate at Johannesburg, " Sir Mark declared.

As the conference met, a handful of anti-business demonstrators attempted to block access to the ICC International Secretariat on the right bank of the Seine opposite the Eiffel Tower. Drummers pounded out samba rhythms that were plainly audible in the conference room while other demonstrators blew bubbles at arriving participants. They distributed leaflets that pilloried BASD as an attempt at corporate greenwash.

Inside the conference, Sir Mark said: "While the effectiveness of business is often acknowledged, a by-product is a deep suspicion that the economic power of business allows it to exert undue influence."

Business, he said, needed a framework within which it could see clearly where it needed to work with others "and where others can see clearly a constructive role in relations to business. I believe that such a framework or model is developing."

An industry sector itself might identify an issue related to sustainable development, or equally others might do so - governments, NGOs, or affected communities.

"There will undoubtedly not be complete agreement on what needs to be done, but a key ingredient in the process is that the targets and timetable should be clear and that there be open reporting against those targets to build trust.

"Consumers play a key role in this process, rewarding leading companies with their business, with those not complying with improved practice being gradually shunned."

Nitin Desai told his audience of senior corporate executives that business people should not be regarded as "creatures from another planet". There should be standards of good corporate behaviour against which "your peers in the corporate world will look at you - buyers, people with whom you make contracts."

He said the UN wanted to "ratchet up" the process started at the Rio Earth Summit, where business was present only as a small minority, and secure major business participation.

ICC Secretary General Maria Livanos Cattaui noted that the World Summit was set to end on 11 September next year, on the first anniversary of the terrorist attack on New York and Washington. That made it all the more important that this should be "a summit that makes a difference."

She said that at Rio, business had been on the defensive. "This time, we must show that we are out in front. We want to make sure that a strong and cohesive business message is heard."

Bjorn Stigson, President of WBCSD, said that during the last decade, corporations have contributed in many ways to sustainable development. Through their initiatives, they had created value to shareholders while reducing waste and emissions.

Mr Stigson added; "It is becoming clear that major issues - like the poverty gap, climate change or declining ecosystems - will not be adequately addressed until the proper framework conditions are in place." In Johannesburg, BASD should amplify the message that a global and integrated approach to achieving sustainable development is needed."

World Business Council for Sustainable Development International Chamber of Commerce