Watching the Rio+20 proceedings on Sustainable Development this past June, I couldn’t help but feel a little disillusioned with the stagnation and harmful rhetoric thatcame from the halls of Brazil. It’s the same disillusionment I felt when I decided to pursue a Masters in International Environmental Policy after my undergraduate degree in Business seemingly produced zero solutions to society’s largest challenges. I wrongfully assumed at the time that whatever my business degree didn’t offer, my environmental policy degree would. Themes of handcuffed bureaucracy, profit-first mentality, and short-term thinking proved to be evident in all my schooling. I began to realize (or concede) that there are clear parallels between the business world and the policy world, and that in fact solutions require everyone at the table, and more importantly that everyone at the table must be willing to make changes to their respective status quo. Perhaps this is why I’m now working for a not-for-profit organization whose mission spans the disciples of my two degrees: business and environmental sustainability.
While Rio+20was as beneficial for global sustainability as Copenhagen’s Climate Summit in 2009, there are a few nuggets of hope that we can hold on to. Most notably is the potential for productive business engagement in building a sustainable economy. Not out of the kindness of their hearts, but because of the undeniable economic and social opportunities that exist. The World Business Council on Sustainable Development (WBCSD) got it rightwhen they said: “Business has the technology, innovation, management skills and financial resources to help lead us toward a more sustainable future, and mind you, business has the will to do this. However, governments around the world have so far both underestimated and undervalued business skills.”
This is of course not to suggest that the work can be done in a business-only vacuum, but instead that policy and business (and the communities we all operate in) need to work harmoniously. The power of business on innovation and financing is no clearer than it is in Waterloo Region where we see incredible amounts of money and talent flowing to innovate new products and systems to improve many aspects of our lives. In our very building in the Tannery District, business-driven innovation has led to a redefinition of the way universities interact with their students, and people interact with information, along with hundreds of other businesses prototyping their own innovative solutions to modern challenges. Down the road in Toronto they’re taking the fantastic step towards merging innovation, entrepreneurship, and sustainability with MaRS’srecent announcement of the Clean Tech Venture Fund. We can only hope that this is the first of many similar funds that reward start-ups that focus on today’s major challenges in clean energy, energy poverty, water scarcity, and inequitable food systems. Similarly, as Hank Venema said in an article in the Globe and Mail last month, “better results can be found in agreements like the Natural Capital Declaration, signed by chief executives of financial institutions from around the world pledging to incorporate environmental factors in their operations. The hope is basically that the bottom up, the regional initiatives, the local stories, can be scaled up and replicated. From my perspective, that’s where the momentum lies and that’s where the hope lies.”
The WBCSD also stated that, “we need to develop a clear set of ambitious global goals for sustainable development while also creating the policies and frameworks needed to accelerate their delivery. This is an invitation for multi-country and multi-stakeholder coalitions of willing and able actors to undertake explicit sets of action now to help achieve these urgent goals for a more sustainable future for all.”
As much as this is a call for negotiators in Rio to find policy driven solutions, this is also a call for anyone who falls into the “multi-country and multi-stakeholder” category. In short…everyone that is willing. Building coalitions and ecosystems of leaders, both in business and civil society, is crucial to our ability to influence global policy, and to rewarding the innovative and the daring in a new sustainable economy. As one piece of what we hope will eventually be a nation-wide puzzle, Sustainable Waterloo Region is excited and poised to help build this ecosystem. Just as my public policy degree would be diminished without my business degree (and vice-versa), effective public policy would not be same without effective business.