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World Business Council for Sustainable Development: The Greening of Business or a Greenwash?

Adil Najam


Writing as the then Chairman on the World Business Coun- cil for Sustainable development (WBCSD), Livio DeSimone—Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the 3M Company—argued that a paradigm shift has taken place since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. ‘Busi- ness . . . used to be depicted as a primary source of the world’s environmental problems. Today, it is increasingly viewed as a vital contributor to solving those problems.’1 Although it is very doubtful that the change took place only—or even primarily—because of the WBCSD, all evi- dence suggests that this change has indeed happened, and that at some level WBCSD has both contributed to and capitalized upon it.

that are not doing so, such as Greenpeace International, are spending even more effort and time warning the world about the growing influence of big business and its attend- anthazards.5 Ultimately, this may be the biggest testimony to the seriousness of the new clout that big business seems to be acquiring over international environmental discourse.

It is not the purpose of this paper to analyse why this changehashappened.6 Our purpose, instead, is to see how one particular group, the WBCSD, has been able to shape and use the changing landscape to advance its own agen- das and influence the international policy discourse on environment and development, and whether the rise of the organization represents a greening of business or simply a ‘greenwash’.

Evidence of the change is plentiful. Intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), particularly in the United Nations system, have launched major initiatives to woo the private sector. Speaking at the 1999 World Economic Forum at Davos, the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan called for a new ‘global compact of shared values and principles’ between business leaders and the world body, particularly on environment.2 A manifestation of this new shift is the so-called Global Sustainable Development Facility— 2B2M: 2 Billion People to Market by 2020 programme, for which the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is allegedly gathering corporate sponsorships.3 At the Rio+5 celebrations in 1997 one of the hottest tickets in town was the high-level round table, co-hosted by WBCSD with the President of the UN General Assembly and at- tended by a select group of business, government, and non- governmental organization (NGO) leaders.4 Major re- search universities are no less enamoured. The most pres- tigious of institutions, including the Massachusetts Insti- tute of Technology (MIT) in the United States and Cam- bridge University in the United Kingdom seem to be ac- tively wooing the WBCSD. Even NGOs are no longer immune to the charm of the pin stripes. Over the last few years major environmental groups such as the IUCN – The World Conservation Union, the World Resources Institute (WRI), and the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) have all stepped up efforts to seek corporate partnerships—including with WBCSD. Those

Organizational Profile

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) was formed in January 1995 with the merger of the Business Council for Sustainable Development (BCSD) and the World Industry Council for the Environment (WICE).

The BCSD was a direct outgrowth of the 1992 Earth Summit process. It was formed when Maurice Strong— then Secretary General of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED)—asked the Swiss industrialist Stephan Schmidheiny to act as his spe- cial advisor on business and environment. Schmidheiny brought together an impressive international group of top business leaders interested in the environment, and pro- duced the book Changing Course.7 Showcasing an array of case studies of best practice, the book coined the term ‘eco-efficiency’ and argued that sustainable development was not only good for business, it was ‘good business’. The ideas discussed in the book became the basis of a formal- ized BCSD, and soon afterwards UNCED regional and national chapters began to spring up. To its credit, the BCSD was a major breakthrough because it brought to- gether business leaders at the highest level to express a con- cern for environmental protection, portray it as a common concern, and break the prevailing mould of expressing the issue only in simplistic and antagonistic business versus



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