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Sustainable development: Are corporations green or greedy?

Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2014 explores the shifting role of corporations in the UN’s global effort for sustainability

As national governments flounder to resolve pressing global challenges, corporations are positioning themselves within the United Nations framework as efficient players and indispensable partners in international policy debates. But with their immense economic and political sway, can corporations be brought to the development table without the “corporate capture” of governance? In the Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2014: Governing for Sustainability, contributing author Lou Pingeot, policy adviser at Global Policy Forum, explains the need for accountability and transparency.

Lou Pingeot, policy adviser at Global Policy Forum
Lou Pingeot, policy adviser at Global Policy Forum

Already, business groups – especially large multinational corporations –   have become very active in post-2015 UN initiatives. And, not surprisingly, various business reports now present economic growth and a market-based approach, rather than government regulation, as unambiguous solutions for poverty reduction and economic development.

“Making the business case for sustainable development may be seen as a pragmatic approach,” writes Pingeot. “This begs the question, however, of what to do when necessary efforts for the public good do not constitute a good investment for the private sector.”

Future solutions may depend on moving away from the “business-as-usual” trajectory, in which people are seen as consumers and entrepreneurs, to one that considers them as multifaceted citizens. But with powerful economic actors currently benefiting greatly from the business-as-usual model, they may have a strong interest in resisting far-reaching structural transformation toward sustainability.

The mining industry is particularly over-represented in some UN initiatives. One in five of the 30 corporate representatives in the UN’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network – which includes representation from BP, Anglo American, and Total, for example –  have ties to the mining industry.

“It could be argued that these companies are precisely the ones that should be involved because of their important impact on development, human rights, and the environment,” says Pingeot. “However, the mining and oil and gas sectors also have the most incentive to delay or limit the transition to sustainable development, so as to protect their profit sources and ultimately their existence.”

There is merit in –   and necessity for –   cooperation in order to make large-scale changes in business practice. Some pioneering industries have already begun to lead the path to sustainable development solutions. But the corporate entry into international development will require important reforms for transparency and accountability. The UN will need to adopt a systemwide conflict-of-interest policy and to report funding sources with full transparency. It must clearly define criteria for business participation, excluding players that have broken UN sanctions, lobbied against international agreements, or otherwise violated environmental, social, and human rights conventions.

Avoiding the undue influence of business actors on the post-2015 agenda, while still encouraging private sector participation, will require a major shift in UN norms and policies toward more stringent transparency and accountability.

Worldwatch’s State of the World 2014 investigates the broad concept of “governance” for sustainability, including action by national governments, international organisations, and local communities. It also highlights the need for economic and political institutions to serve people and to preserve and protect our common resources.

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