06/19/2012 09:40 am ET Updated Aug 19, 2012

Green Economy Foundations

I have been in Brazil since last Wednesday, participating in the madness that is Rio+20. The insanity is part logistics (the main event sites are scattered far apart and moving from one to the other can take literally hours), and the apparent lack of progress at government level on any meaningful negotiated agreement is certainly maddening, but it is also that the sheer number of people (50,000?) and events (hundreds daily) create a kind of 'opportunity overload.'

Midst everything, one of guidewires I've followed has been the activity associated with the release of UNEP's Business Case for a Green Economy report which was produced in partnership with SustainAbility and GlobeScan.

Officially released at RioCentro June 16, the report is part of UNEP's ongoing effort to influence and support private sector sustainability leadership. With me at the press conference were Unilever's Chief SustainAbility Officer (CSO) Gail Klintworth, Aviva's Chief Responsible Investment Officer Steve Waygood, and representatives from the UN Global Compact Brazil and UNEP itself.

Then June 17, I moderated a session at the UN Global Compact Corporate Sustainability Forum featuring Calvert Investments CEO Barbara Krumsiek, Siemens CSO and Board Member Barbara Kux, UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner and (longest title winner) Jochen Zeitz, who is both the CEO of the Sport & Lifestyle Division and Chief Sustainability Officer of PPR as well as Chairman of the Board of PUMA.

Why Business

The June 17 session was underpinned by the Green Economy report's findings - the start of UNEP translating the report to action with leading businesses. In his remarks, Achim Steiner recounted being confronted at the People's Summit across town the previous day by participants furious at the lack of progress by UN bodies and governments since 1992 and desperate to avert a lackluster outcome here this week. Achim underscored this is precisely why the Green Economy focus on business matters; we are at a stage when it is business leadership on sustainable development, even - or especially - in the absence of strong regulatory frameworks, that might make the difference and help compel more from public officials.

And How?

A key concept in the Business Case for a Green Economy is that of 'decoupling,' that is, delivering (and sharing) greater economic growth while decreasing environmental inputs.

At the press conference, Gail Klintlock expanded on how Unilever's Sustainable Living Plan commits to just that - the company has publically committed to double the size of its business while halving resource use by 2020. On the June 17 panel, Jochen Zeitz noted one of the strengths of multi-national companies is their global reach. When PUMA/PRR sets policy aiming beyond the compliance floor, Jochen does not need permission from nation states to have his businesses implement higher standards universally. Barbara Krumsiek talked about the enormous increase in corporate sustainability activity and performance Calvert picks up as it screens then selects which companies to hold in its investment portfolio. Ms. Krumsiek suggests the next big shift in terms of the degree to which sustainability is integrated into business decisions and operations will come as primary leadership on these issues shifts from the CEO ownership most typical today to the Board - to which Barbara Kux replied that perhaps the single biggest factor increasing her influence inside Siemens is the fact that she is not only their CSO but also a member of the Board.

A Choice

In closing the June 17 panel, Achim Steiner emphasized the opportunity, maybe even obligation, businesses and citizens have to progress sustainable development no matter what governments negotiate here this week. Expressing urgency and optimism, he reminded everyone that with 75% of global GDP made up of business and consumer activity, developing a green economy is not up to the state. While regulation would accelerate the transition required, and business and citizens must demand government do its part, the private sector has no reason or excuse for not doing everything that is in its control to build - and enjoy the benefits of - a green economy.