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World Business Council for Sustainable Development

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n June, world leaders gathered in New York to evaluate progress on environmental commitments and sustainable development in the five years that have passed since the Rio Earth Summit. Earth Summit II was an unequivocal disaster, with a frightening

lack of political will displayed by the majority of governments on most issues. Strikingly, the past five years have also been a period of unprecedented privatization and market liberalization, and while action is stalled on environmental and social problems, the corporate agenda has progressed by leaps and bounds. To what extent is this lack of environmental and social commitment linked to the increased power and prominence of the industry lobby?

WBCSD plus five

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), which includes such companies as British Petroleum, Cargill, Dow Chemical, DuPont, Fiat, General Motors, ICI, Mitsubishi, Monsanto, Nestle, Philips, Procter & Gamble, RTZ, Shell, Statoil, Texaco and Unilever, was formed in order to give industry input into the 1992 Earth Summit. With the support of UNCED Secretary General Maurice Strong, WBCSD managed to slither out of proposals for regulations on industry, and ultimately succeeded in having industry heralded as the new partner of the United Nations in the search for sustainable development (see Europe, Inc.). Of course the WBCSD was eager to showcase its accomplishments in the realm of sustainable development during the June Earth Summit II, and produced an impressive looking brochure entitled Signals for Change: Business Progress for Sustainable Development.

The bulk of the report is a collection of carefully-chosen minor environmental success stories from selected WBCSD member companies in areas including eco-efficiency, life-cycle analysis and environmental accounting. Shell, for example, has "introduced a Shell management system for health, safety and environment which is used all around the globe." Dow Chemical "has learned from experience that voluntary projects are often more cost-effective long term than projects required by regulations and legislation." Although the Business Council claims to have acknowledged the necessity of shifting from end-of-pipe to entire production system solutions, from "confidentiality to openness and transparency", and from "narrow lobbying to more open discussion with stakeholders", it is humbly acknowledged that "these shifts are occurring in different speeds in different countries, but they are all happening."

Swashbuckling around the globe

"Negatively viewed, business is swashbuckling around the globe largely uncontrolled by weakening governments. A more positive view holds that business, through freer trade, is spreading the technology, skills, and processes required for development and, given the right global frameworks, for more sustainable development".

The WBCSD is well aware that its public image, and the images of several of its more reprehensible member companies, is far from pristine. Perhaps to compensate, it attempts to create an image of concern about the disadvantaged situation of people in developing countries. Indeed, in addition to being the bearer of sustainable development, the WBCSD sees its member companies as the spreaders of wealth and "equity of opportunity" with their investments around the world.

It requires no rocket scientist to see that these professed kindnesses for people in developing countries are nothing less than opportunities for companies to move in and take over local companies and markets. A section of Signals of Change focuses on foreign direct investment, which "is fast replacing traditional development aid, and as a proportion of capital flowing into developing countries it has risen from 33 percent in 1991 to 75 percent in 1996." The report notes that the World Bank has predicted that developing economies will grow by 6 percent over the next decade. "Huge amounts of capital will be needed to make such growth possible. A large portion will come from national savings, but US$2,000 billion will have to be imported, according to consultants McKinsey." Enormous opportunities for sustainable development, in the eyes of the WBCSD.

Under the earthy hype, the message of the WBCSD's Signals for Change is virtually indistinguishable from that of any other business lobby group. Although such radical notions as internalizing externalities by reflecting environmental costs in prices are mentioned in the report, the WBCSD gives itself an easy way out of any specific commitments by stipulating that changes be "gradual to prevent sudden market distortions". The report proudly announces that business has the global environmental crisis under control, and the onus of change now rests with governments and consumers: "Business is playing its role, and will continue to do so. Society can move rapidly towards sustainable development, as soon as it decides it really wants to."

Signalling change

The WBCSD was also busy behind the scenes at Earth Summit II in New York. On June 24, Ambassador Razali Ismail, President of the UN General Assembly and Bjorn Stigson, Executive Director of the WBSCD, hosted a luncheon for corporate representatives, three heads of state, the UN Secretary General and several senior government officials "to chart a formalization of corporate involvement in the affairs of the United Nations." David Korten attended the meeting as one of the three NGO/academic representatives and "found it a shattering experience for it revealed a seamless alliance between the public and private sectors aligned behind the consolidation of corporate rule over the global economy."

In addition to displaying shocking ignorance about corporate responsibilities for environmental degradation by asking the private sector to provide alternative energy sources for the poor so that they "don't have to cut down every tree in sight", UN Secretary General Kofi Annan called on governments to stimulate corporate foreign investment in developing countries. According to Korten, Annan is "firmly committed to using UN and other public funds to subsidize the corporate buy-out of Third World economies."

WBCSD newsletter

Korten's report is distressing in that it lumps the United Nations, which many have viewed as bastion of hope among more undemocratic and neo-liberal global institutions, in the same league as the multilateral development banks and the World Trade Organization. The WBCSD as well does not limit its lobbying to the UN, but is also a regular in the halls of the highly undemocratic and aggressive World Trade Organization.

In its July 1997 newsletter, the WBCSD claims that "the environmental benefits of trade liberalization are realizable. The WTO must play a leading role by working with other agencies, member countries and interested stakeholders." The WBCSD was present at a WTO symposium on Trade, Environment and Sustainable Development in May, as were member companies Dupont, Aracruz and Procter & Gamble. NGOs were also invited to the symposium, which according to the WBCSD showed "that NGOs from the developed countries were not a monolithic bloc that opposed all uses of tropical rain forests and other resources of developing countries. Instead, the NGOs could be seen to hold a wide range of views on trade and sustainable development issues." Lucky thing, as the newsletter observed, "Globalization, with accompanying trade liberalization, is here to stay."

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