“Rio+20 has shown that business will have to drive the solution because we have seen that the process where governments have to come to an agreement is becoming more and more difficult. In the future, we will look back and see that this was the first time business really integrated in the dialogue and has started driving the solutions that are now beginning to work.” – Peter Bakker, President of World Business Council for Sustainable Development

The 20 year anniversary of the Rio Earth Summit ended in June, and now that the dust has settled, the resulting outcome of the political process has been described anything from disappointing to a failure of epic proportions. After attending the conference as an oikos International student reporter and interviewing Neil Hawkins, chair of the University of Michigan’s Erb Institute Strategic Advisory Council and VP of sustainability at Dow Chemical, I hope this brief account of events will help you grasp what happened during the two weeks of Rio+20.

Principles for Responsible Management Education Global Forum
Preceding the Corporate Sustainability Forum, and the UN Summit was the 3rd Global Forum for Responsible Management Education. At this two-day event, more than 300 leading business school and university representatives gathered to discuss issues in incorporating sustainability into management education. Despite a frustrating first day due to the lack of action, the event did end with several new initiatives and an outcome document submitted to the UN (which you can read about here).

Global Compact Corporate Sustainability Forum

The Corporate Sustainability Forum consisted of four busy, but highly organized days of informative panels, valuable networking and creation of new partnerships and initiatives among over 2,500 attendees. Among them were Marcos Mancini (Erb ’12) representing Banorte Bank, Neil Hawkins (Erb SAC Chair, VP of Sustainability at Dow Chemical) (see later feature), and Professor Stu Hart (Erb faculty affiliate and Distinguished William Davidson Institute Scholar). Pushed by a sense of the urgency in global sustainability challenges, there were several important outcomes. One of note was the Natural Capital Declaration, a commitment by major CEOs, investors and insurers to value natural capital in financial institutions.

United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development

During these seven days of Prep and Dialogue leading up to the summit, there was a growing frustration among civil society members in the lack of progress. At the end of these days, and night before the summit, it was clear that the almost 50 pages long document left almost no room for hope in a collective and government-led action for “a future we want”, the tagline for the conference. The final summit at the enormous Riocentro complex consisted of three days of various heads of states and delegates ceremoniously reading aloud pre-written speeches. The civil society’s outcries of failure and overwhelming feeling of neglect in the outcome of the UN document were a stark contrast to the sense of optimism and urgency in the business community.

Neil Hawkins on Leadership and Collaboration
Photo credit: UN Global Compact

I caught Neil Hawkins (VP of Sustainability, Dow Chemical Co) after his panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, and asked him on how he effectively leads Dow to be a leader in sustainability. Within a corporation, where it may seem hard to affect change, it is important to have individuals that can see the future and the see the possibilities in creating new, real business value through innovations in products and practices. Customers are “the voice for sustainability.” By interfacing with them and letting them drive your R&D machine, you can, through examples and narratives, help others see the same vision.

He also spoke on the importance of collaboration between Dow and universities – “Academics have to want to collaborate with the private sector and vise versa.” Both sides often have the same objectives, but while companies do not often have the ideas, they have experience in operationalizing. Dow’s MBA summer internship program is a great example. They’re given real challenges that involve business strategy and sustainable business, and after learning and solving the challenges, they know their output will be used. In this way, collaboration is key, and he has been “very pleased with all the collaborations [he’s] had via Erb and Ross.”

Message from Professor Andy Hoffman

As I watched and read about the meeting at Rio, it became clear that there would not be much progress from the government representatives in attendance. But as I talked to more and more business executives, it became clear that the real action would take place in the side meetings among the corporate and NGO sector. I am very excited and proud that the Erb Institute was able to help sponsor Sunmin to go as an observer to those meetings, interviewing corporate representatives and reporting back through multiple blogs and essays. This is the kind of real engagement that the Institute and the University of Michigan is striving to effect through its students, and Sunmin represented us extremely well.