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Green or Mean?

So, is the story of the WBCSD a story about the greening of big business or one about greenwash? The correct an- swer, as in all such questions, is a little of both.

Indeed, WBCSD has played an important role in mak- ing major corporations embrace the concept of sustainable development. While not all are equally enthusiastic about how the concept might change as a result of this bear-hug, the fact remains that there have been lively discussions, if not any deep soul-searching, in at least a few boardrooms. That should be a cause for some satisfaction. At the same time, it is abundantly clear that at least some of what WBCSD does can legitimately be called greenwash. After all, it is part of WBCSD’s mandate to put big business’s ‘greenest’ foot forward. In singing the virtues of ‘best prac- tice’ by member companies it has certainly been guilty of overlooking some of the ‘worst practice’ by the same cor- porations. Even if WBCSD itself is not consciously in the business of greenwash, some of its member companies with less than perfect environmental records have probably used their association with it as a means to greenwash their soiled public image.

In the ultimate analysis, the most important thing in this ‘Green or Mean?’42 debate is not to determine which side is right and which is wrong. What is more important is to realize that each has been doing what its institutional form mandates it to do. WBCSD, as the environmental advo- cate for business that it is, has been highlighting the posi- tive linkages that industry can, and sometimes does, have with sustainable development. Groups such as Greenpeace and Corporate Watch, as the environmental watchdogs that they are, have been focusing public attention on the negative linkages that industry can, and so often does, have withsustainabledevelopment.43 Both are doing what they are supposed, and expected, to do. International efforts for global sustainable development would probably be that much weaker if either were to act significantly differently.

Assessing Impact

In assessing the impact that WBCSD has had on the inter- national environment and development, the most impor- tant question relates not to perception, but to impact. In the case of WBCSD, it is important to evaluate its impact separately at two distinct levels: business practice in the corporations whose interests it claims to represent, and international policy at the forums that it seeks to influence. On the first of these, business practice related to the envi- ronment, it is not clear what the exact impact has been or is likely to be in the future. This is partly because of self- selection in membership. Companies have found WBCSD useful for improving their public image by highlighting the environmental innovations that they might have under-


taken, or simply by associating themselves with other in- novative companies. However, the innovations themselves seem to have happened separately from, and not necessar- ily because of, WBCSD. To be fair, not enough time has passed for the organization to trigger significant changes in business practices. Yet there are some areas where its work has the clear potential of creating positive change. One of the most significant of these relates to metrics for measuring eco-efficiency. This is one area where the Council is beginning to move from simply highlighting best prac- tice to actually inducing good practice. An initial survey of environmental reports of member companies has been completed.44 However, at this point their efforts remain focused on the relatively less threatening question of ‘how’ companies measure eco-efficiency and shy away from evaluating just how eco-efficient they really are. The link between sustainable development and the financial sector is another area where WBCSD has initiated some interest- ing discussions.45 Again, however, the thrust is on docu- menting rationale rather than holding companies account- able to some framework of evaluation. While the poten- tial for meaningful impact in both areas is immense, the real test will be in the earnestness with which corporations (including WBCSD members) apply these principles.

At a secondary level, there has been some diffusion of information about ‘best practice’ among WBCSD mem- ber companies, and beyond that through its publications programme. More important than that, however, may be the discussions that WBCSD has facilitated and initiated within business, and between business and other stakeholders, on various issues related to operationalizing sustainable development. While it is obviously difficult to gauge the direct impact of such activities, it is clear that this has the potential for eventually triggering change in cor- porate practice. In short, although demonstrable evidence of clear change in corporate practice because of WBCSD actions is hard to come by, the organization deserves at least a passing grade for initiating activities and programmes that have the potential for bringing about positive envi- ronmental innovation.

On the second issue, influencing international policy and institutions for sustainable development, the performance has been clearly impressive. What some in 1992 had con- sidered as being no more than Stephan Schmidheiny’s per- sonal enthusiasm for the subject has, in fact, been institu- tionalized. In 1999 WBCSD is a bigger and more influen- tial player than the founders of either BCSD or WICE (or their critics) might have predicted. As an advocacy organi- zation, WBCSD has been an undeniable success. Owing to the critical constituency that it legitimately represents and the human and financial resources at its command, it has been able to attain an impressive presence and pres- tige in international forums in a very short period of time.


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