Leading companies have made some ambitious targets during the Rio business forum. But will governments follow during the summit proper?

A raft of new business pledges and policy recommendations were announced in the waning hours of the four-day business forum conducted on the sidelines of the Rio+20 Earth summit.

Of the more than 200 private sector commitments, those standing out include Microsoft saying it will achieve carbon neutrality through offsetting actions. Unilever is launching a drive to halve the greenhouse gas impact of their products, and Nike has set a target of zero discharge of hazardous chemicals along its entire supply chain, both by 2020.

With the world facing a need to double food production by 2050, DuPont pledged $10bn in R&D for increasing productivity, scaling up nutrition and cutting back on food waste. DuPont will develop 4,000 new products along these lines by 2020.

Also looking to product development, Procter & Gamble promised $50bn in sales of “sustainable innovation products” by the end of 2012, while H&M pledged to upgrade to 100% sustainable cotton – either organic, recycled, or certified – in its garments.

Water management

Levi, Pepsi and Coca-Cola extended their commitments to water management, but also took the unusual step of issuing a communiqué calling on government to adopt specific policy proposals aimed at ensuring meaningful progress on water.

That kind of deliberate insertion into the policy realm speaks to the more engaged role business is taking on for itself, said Andrew Cave, head of sustainability at Royal Bank of Scotland.

“I think this conference marks a turning point in that it’s the first time business has come in significant numbers saying we want to be involved,” Cave said.

To this end, attendees at the business forum passed a proposal to give business a voice in the formulation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the issue of establishing a new set of overarching global goals against which government and private action can be measured.

The vote wasn’t a “no-brainer” insisted Tim Wall of the UN Global Compact, noting that business has now committed itself to carrying out the SDGs, whatever the results may be.

Mandatory reporting?

Though the official conference is only just underway, early reports on the emerging text indicate sustainability reporting will remain in some form. The situation remains fluid, though, because of pushback from G77 countries that see the added regulation as overly burdensome to their business competitiveness.

Another area of interest for business are specific reference in the text to the UN Global Compact encouraging businesses to adopt common standards and principles, Cave said. “This might seem a simplistic reference but ... It would be the first time to date a voluntary initiative has made it into an international text,” said Cave. “It’s a sign of the coming of age of corporate responsibility.”

Eric Marx will be reporting from Rio throughout the summit.



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