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August 20, 2012
A Strategy for the Commons that Includes Business and Government
    by Robert Kropp

As national governments persist in pursuing narrow agendas rather than global action on climate change and sustainable development, other key stakeholders are recognizing that they must pressure corporations and governments into dialogue on the issues.

Many critics of the Rio+20 conference on sustainable development consider it to have been a failure, marked by inaction by governments on addressing increasingly severe issues.

No enforceable emissions reduction targets were established at the conference, and no mention was made of ending subsidies for fossil fuel industries. Calls for mandating sustainability reporting by corporations went unheeded, although the UK did announce that companies listed on the London Stock Exchange will be required to report on GHG emissions. And efforts to monetize a $30 billion green fund for developing nations were ignored by the industrialized north.

But Helen Clark, Administrator of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), views the outcomes of the conference through a different lens. In a recent speech, Clark noted that there were 700 voluntary commitments made by businesses, development banks, cities and regions, UN agencies, nongovernmental organizations and civil society.

"They are not waiting for governments to act," Clark said. "Nor should they."

A framework for action by businesses was launched at the conference by the United Nations Global Compact and Bertelsmann Stiftung, a German nonprofit organization. A report entitled A Strategy for the Commons "highlights collective action and policy dialogues as the right governance mechanisms for the safeguarding of common goods," according to Bertelsmann Stiftung.

In his foreword, Georg Kell of the Global Compact wrote, "Corporate sustainability as practiced today is insufficient. True scale and depth of corporate sustainability requires business to convene and act at country and regional levels."

Noting that climate change, labor conditions in corporate supply chains, and corruption "pose serious problems not only to mankind in general, but also to the sustainability of companies," the report states that effective investment in sustainable development must be enabled through collective action and policy dialogue among a number of key stakeholders, including companies and governments.

A key prerequisite for corporate involvement in such interactions, of course, is that companies remain open to dialogue with other stakeholders. Transparency and top-level commitment are necessary, as is a willingness to contribute financially and take action on a global scale.

Governments "are the most important counterpart or partner for companies when it comes to implementing and scaling up enabling conditions for responsible business conduct," according to the report. They too must demonstrate their commitment through meaningful dialogue, official endorsements, and financial contributions.

Other key stakeholders, according to the report, include international organizations, civil society organizations, and intermediaries.

Little mention is made of investors in the report. But considering the growing sophistication of corporate dialogues as practiced by such networks of investors in the US as Ceres and the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR), one hopes that they are present at the table should dialogues such as those called for in the report take place.

In the absence of meaningful government action on increasingly severe conditions relating to sustainability, investors such as those in the Ceres and ICCR networks have been remarkably successful in persuading corporations to voluntarily address environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) issues. The Rio+20 conference concluded with the recognition that the likelihood of meaningful government action is increasingly remote. The key stakeholders described in the report would be well advised to include sustainable investors when they bring corporations and governments to the table for dialogue.


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