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International Sustainability Symposium
Sustainability Forum, Zurich, 25 September 2001

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

The World Summit on Sustainable Development which takes place in Johannesburg one year from now is a chance for the global community as a whole to take stock ten years' on from Rio and to gird itself up for the formidable challenges which still lie ahead.

The greatest positive change over the past ten years is that the developing countries have begun to find their full voice. To them, development for their citizens is the first step down the road to sustainability. They look to the industrialised world to help them concretely. Today's problems of poverty, access to trade, technology and basic services, and social and economic development must be balanced and traded-off with urgent inter-generational environmental challenges.

There is an historic accommodation waiting to be made which, crudely summarised, is that the developing world will take the environment more seriously when the developed world takes development seriously.

It will also be a defining moment for business across the world. Can we demonstrate that we too have a contribution to helping build a more stable, equitable, inclusive and therefore sustainable world - possibly the key contribution - and that we can be counted on to make it?

Business Action for Sustainable Development has been created as a global coalition of business and commerce to help in that momentous task.

This is not yet another organisation. It is an ad-hoc initiative drawn together for a single purpose, a comprehensive network of business organisations; global, sectoral and regional, from North and South, from the developed and developing worlds, representing every sort of business from large multi-nationals to small family owned enterprises. ICC and WBCSD are providing the secretariat and there is a small international Steering Committee under the leadership of Sir Mark Moody-Stuart of which I am a member.

We have three straightforward goals:

  • First to ensure that the voice of business is fully taken into account in the preparations for the Conference. Does the agenda, do the procedures, do the substantive issues to be discussed recognise our place at the table as a full partner in finding solutions to the world's problems? We are in constant discussion with the South African government and at the highest level in the UN to try to ensure this.

  • Second to help identify concrete areas for action where business can play a constructive role.

    Such challenges as cheap and sustainable energy for everyone, clean water for all, accessible and affordable health care, or in the financial sector a dramatic step up in the funding of micro credit and micro finance to help create sustainable livelihoods - and perhaps the application of insurance to the poor to help create the resistance to those life shocks which threaten sustainability - market access for products of the Third World or greater transparency and accountability for all the global actors, business yes, but also for governments and NGOs.

    A focus on practical issues like these could help move the agenda on from the familiar but rather circular discussions of 'process' which tend to dominate international discussions to the more fruitful terrain of partnerships for remedial action.

  • Third we must accept that the way forward is in partnership, with governments, NGOs and others and demonstrate that business is already actively engaged in a host of initiatives and partnerships designed to promote sustainable development. These can be single company initiatives or involve a whole sector. In the latter category I could instance the Marine Stewardship Council for fisheries, the Chemical Industry's Responsible Care Programme or the Global Mining Initiative under the aegis of the WBCSD. As far as companies go, the ICC for instance, is organising, with UNEP, a competition for companies, many of which will be SMEs , which can demonstrate effective partnerships on the ground to promote sustainable development. Those examples do no more than scrape the surface of a whole catalogue of very good work which individual companies and sectors will want to 'showcase' at Johannesburg and where the BASD hopes to provide media and promotional help.

Yet if these are our specific aims we should not neglect the underlying base case for responsible business which, if it is not made consistently and positively by all of us, will go by omission. And into the vacuum created by our omission will be sucked the sorts of demonising distortions and caricatures of capitalism with which we have all become distressingly familiar with in recent years.

We have to remind the world that responsible business is part of the very warp and weft of civil society, not something apart. The jobs which business creates, the products and services it supplies, the wealth it engenders and the taxes it pays are fundamental to our society and to individual freedom and fulfilment.

Business people, whether the managing director of a multi-national in Paris or the sole market trader in Durban, are citizens too with the same personal hopes, the same standards of behaviour and the same responsibilities for a satisfactory shared life, not some alien race apart.

And, putting special initiatives on one side for a moment, we have to get over the understanding that companies, by simply getting on with their basic business, investing, innovating, inventing, creating, employing, manufacturing and selling, are making a massive contribution to social and economic well-being, as long as they act with responsible foresight.

We know in business that we can do that best in societies which are free, open and stable, where the rule of law prevails and contracts are enforceable and where governance is transparent and uncorrupt. So that's what we expect from society.

But we have to recognise what society increasingly in turn expects from us. It is first and foremost that we operate responsibly to consistently high standards. Most companies do, but not all - and I believe that increasingly we in business will have to be less tolerant of the black sheep who refuse to live up to those responsibilities.

Responsibility - with all that implies in terms of care and consideration for all the stakeholders - is the key but there is a parallel and related trend towards requiring accountability too.

This should not surprise us. It has been said that we live in a "show me" rather than a "tell me" world where all authority and power should expect to be challenged.

So to the extent that business is powerful - as in some respects it undoubtedly is - it must respect calls for greater accountability and be ready to set out the policies, practices and principles by which it operates - what we call in Rio Tinto the "Way We Work" - and demonstrate by proper reporting how it lives up to them.

Just to reiterate it would be good at the Earth Summit if we could move on

  • From Sharing Problems to Meeting Challenges
  • From Serial Dialogue to Shared Partnership
  • And from being bogged down in Process to Shaping Agreed Programmes for Action

The South African government, hosting the conference, and the UN, which is convening it, should be encouraged to imagine something far beyond a conventional gathering of global political leaders. They should consider creating instead a genuine 'indaba' of the world's leading stakeholders.

Such a bold move would require a new format for the Conference, one constructed for convergence rather than parallelism. Instead of separating government, business, and civil society leaders into geographically separate meetings the UN and its host could bring key stakeholders together in purposeful dialogue aimed at creating shared analysis and agreed action programmes.

In the 1990s the South African people taught an astonished world how formerly bitter adversaries could look beyond their fear and anger, their differences and grievances, to build a new nation. It is our hope that the South African government, drawing from this depth of wisdom and courage, will prompt the United National to move beyond the stale model of a formal summit and instead create a powerful and innovative gathering to secure the future of our common home.

Lord Holme is a Member of the Steering Committee for Business Action for Sustainable Development, the business network for the Earth Summit.

World Business Council for Sustainable Development International Chamber of Commerce