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IMBIZO Business Conference
South Africa, 5 May 2001

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

The World Summit on Sustainable Development which takes place in Johannesburg next year 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.

It will also be a defining moment for business across the world. Can we demonstrate that we too have a contribution to make to 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 have already opened discussions 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, market access for products of the Third World or greater transparency and accountability for all the global actors, business yes, but also governments and NGOs 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 aim to 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 - and the help of you, the combined business representatives of the host country South Africa will be crucial in achieving them - 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.

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 an alien race apart.

And, putting special initiatives on one side for a moment, we have to get over the understanding that companies, 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.

We know 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 in proper reporting how it lives up to them.

I know what pioneering work has been done by business in the new South Africa - and so I believe the basic messages of BASD find a ready echo here at this comprehensive gathering.

Just to reiterate, we want to move on

  • From Sharing Problems to Meeting Challenges
  • From Serial Dialogue to Shared Partnership
  • And from emphasis on Process to Agreed Programmes for Action

The social economic and environmental challenges the world faces are so grave that it will need a pooling of the resources and ingenuity not only of governments but of all the other players too if they are to be met successfully.

Let us try and ensure that the word goes out from Johannesburg next year that business stands ready to play its part and that we are ready for action.

World Business Council for Sustainable Development International Chamber of Commerce