Serie “Rio 92 what did it lead to? Rio +20 what will it lead to?”

Posted on 31 May 2012
Oded Grajew
© Renato Araujo
Interview engineer Oded Grajew

The period between the Earth Summit and the Rio +20 Conference saw the rise of the culture of corporate social responsibility, which comprises corporate initiatives that may benefit employees and the community as they promote values and causes such as the sustainability of productive activities and environmental preservation. In Brazil, one of the central characters in the development of this concept was electrical engineer Oded Grajew, who started his business career in the 1970s with an innovative factory which pioneered intelligent toys and games for children and adults. In the following decade, when Brazil was to return to democracy, he became active in business associations and brought the corporate world closer to social movements when he founded and coordinated the National Thought of Entrepreneurial Bases (PNBE).

Among other activities, he is currently dedicating to the World Social Forum and serves on the Advisory Board of Global Compact, a program developed by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan which seeks to mobilize the international business community in promoting fundamental values in the areas of human rights, labor relations and the environment.

With this background and militancy, Oded Grajew knows the central role of the business class in favor of environmental conservation and hopes the Rio +20 will help put on the Brazilian and international agendas "all issues involving sustainability." Below are the main excerpts from an interview given to the WWF.

What were you engaged in at the time of the Rio 92 event? Can you remember any episode of the conference that left its mark?

At that time I was in the Abrinq [Brazilian Association of Toy Manufacturers] Foundation and the PNBE [National Thought of Entrepreneurial Bases] and was not involved with the Earth Summit. There are two things I remember: the first is that I was PNBE’s general coordinator at the time and it was the only business association involved in the mobilization for the impeachment of [President Fernado] Collor. Environmental issues were a very new thing for Brazil at the time, because all debates in Brazil focused on social issues, or on the economic and political crisis.

Have companies embraced – even if at the discourse level only – a concern with sustainability now, twenty years after? Has sustainability become a value for them?

It has. There was no such thing as "corporate social responsibility", much less the concept and culture attached to it. At best, there was a culture of philanthropy in companies whereby the company set aside a certain amount to invest in a social project. Today this culture is well established, there is no medium-size or large business executive that does not talk about social responsibility and sustainability as these two go hand in hand. A socially responsible company is a company seeking to develop in a sustainable manner; both are synonyms of the same concept. Now, there are varying degrees of involvement and commitment on the part of companies: there are those that only pay lip service to these causes; those with somewhat philanthropic and social projects; and those who are at the forefront, incorporating social responsibility and sustainability in their management tools. So there are varying degrees of actual commitment.

What expectations do you have regarding Rio+20?

First, on the side of governments, government agreements, my expectations are very low, because several major governments, especially from Europe and the US, are much more focused on the financial and economic crisis and even struggle to show any commitment to sustainability. Second, some important countries such as Germany, France and the US will be emerging from or in the middle of elections, and so governments are afraid to add anything, make a decisive change to their development models. Also, the whole process of making agreements is one that involves unanimity, everyone must be in agreement, which generally lowers things a to minimum common denominator. So, as far as governments go, the bar is set very low.

Now, the conference will be important to the extent that it will help put on the Brazilian and international agendas all issues involving sustainability, so there will be advances as society as a whole will be poring over, being informed and worrying about these issues in Brazil and abroad, with a lot of media coverage, which will certainly help further the agenda in terms of civil society and corporate involvement. The Rio +20 will also provide greater visibility to those that are already doing something or are in the forefront, putting in practice the latest concepts in sustainability.

Will there be many examples at the Rio+20 of corporate engagement across the world?

Yes, there will. Some companies will use this as a marketing opportunity, but will have little content to show while others will showcase a greater engagement; there will be a little of everything. This has become an asset for companies, it has brand value. Companies have realized that it is important for their actions to reflect some form of social responsibility. They will try to show this and seek to stand out but they will come under a lot of pressure too. Various social movements will push for faster progress so that governments, society and companies engage more effectively in sustainability.

Can these successful corporate experiences be considered a legacy of the Earth Summit?

They certainly can. Twenty years is a long time and a lot of things have happened. In today’s communications world, information flows much more quickly, society is informed and knows much more about everything, not least about corporations. The business sector is a very powerful one in society, a high-profile sector, with many financial and economic resources, it is a sector that has the media on the palm of its hand because it is a major advertiser, a sector that provides funding to election campaigns and politicians. So the gaze of society has turned dramatically onto the business world and its demands and expectations have grown. Since this sector has so much power and resources, society demands a lot of responsibility from it and so takes action regarding companies, be it to pressure, to reject or to support.

What is your opinion regarding the basic text for the Rio+20?

What is striking is that there is a lack of synchronism with urgent matters, in order to rethink the development model and the real commitment needed, the outlook of governments on what has to be done, what is needed. It is a very poor text compared to what we expect governments to do and the vision they are expected to have about what is needed. This is not a text that fundamentally questions the development model that has brought the world to the current state of affairs. Also missing from the text are actual commitments to the sustainable development model, real commitments.

To what extent is it feasible to structure a ‘green economy’?

When you set out to translate discourse into concrete actions you actually have to commit to change, to setting goals and values. An example of commitment to change here in Brazil would be to get Congress to vote on constitutional amendment proposal 52/2011 which requires the president, governors and mayors to set sustainable development goals for their administrations. As proposed, 90 days after taking office, they would have to report their figures and targets related to all areas of the public administration and for all regions under their jurisdiction.
Oded Grajew
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