Green Business: ISE Breakfast Seminar Brings Rio+20 to NJ

Not attending this week’s Rio+20 UN Sustainable Development conference?

Me either.

So I was especially glad to attend the June 15 Institute for Sustainable Enterprise breakfast seminar at Fairleigh Dickinson University for an informative, engaging conversation with three speakers about what’s happening in Rio and the likely outcomes from it.

The Rio+20 conference brings together participants from government, business and civil society worldwide. The goal is to create “The Future we Want” through building green economies and eliminating world poverty.

Host and ISE Senior Advisor Jeana Wirtenberg welcomed the full  room of attendees by saying that “we have an historic opportunity to get it right” and asking the room to commit to Sustainable action in our personal and work lives.

First up was Ira Feldman, president of Greentrack Strategies. He gave an overview of  what Rio+20 is all about and what key stakeholders bring to the table.

He cited three key reasons UN-watchers and the Sustainable Business community have generally low expectations for this year’s event, compared to the inaugural Sustainable Development conference 20 years ago in Rio and the follow-up meeting he attended 10 years ago in Johannesburg, South Africa. These reasons are: the world’s gloomy economic state, the slow and noncommittal progress pre-conference on the policy-oriented Negotiated Outcome Document, and a sense from business and industry participants of weak governmental leadership.

Ira aptly described the challenge of concurrent policy negotiations, 560 side events (which he likened to a World’s Fair), and protests, all packed into three days, as a three-ring circus. The challenge, he said, “Is how do you think about all the Sustainability issues, what is the mental map, with everything in play?”

As a partial answer to this question, Ira explained how Sustainability has evolved in the past 20 years from philanthropic action to a core business strategy, and is now poised to transform into “Sustainability to Scale.” (Ira referenced the World Business Council for Sustainable Development‘s work on this idea.)

Realistically, Ira said, conference outcomes will include negotiated and specific language on GDP alternatives that will be used to guide future discussions.

Next up to speak was Amanda Nesheiwat, who will attend the Rio+20 conference as a UN Youth Delegate representing young people. (Her other hats include being a student representative for the Foundation for Post Conflict Development and a founder of the NJ Sustainable Collegiate Partners.) During pre-conference negotiations at the UN, she said one of her frustrations was repeatedly hearing the words”We cannot commit to…” from delegates.

In Rio, she said she will bring the youth’s perspective that world leaders must move beyond short-term thinking and lack of creativity, commit to “more action, less talking,” and move on Climate Change. I have no doubt she will be a powerful, insistent voice for change in Rio and continue this work when she returns home.

(As a side note, I found it refreshing that Amanda mentioned the need for creating and living with “sustainable consumption.” I personally believe that Sustainability means using less as well as using the world’s resources more efficiently.)

ISE Research Fellow Bill Russell capped the presentations with his thoughts on engaging citizens to meaningful action. He talked about attending the March 2012 Citizens’ Summit to Address Sustainability held at Yale University and his dismay at seeing Old Guard Thinking on stage instead of new participants with new ideas. Bill echoed the low expectations for Rio+20, offering his viewpoint that dominant government players are not working interdependently with business, NGO and citizen stakeholders. His call-to-action for himself and breakfast seminar attendees was to commit to staying engaged.

In the question-and-answer session that followed the presentations, ISE Fellow Matt Polsky touched on Sustainable Business in New Jersey with a reminder about the 2010 policy brief prepared by ISE for the Christie Administration called Developing and Implementing a Sustainable Growth Strategy for New Jersey.

The event ended on a positive note with audience contributions about restoring  equity to the Sustainability conversation; the emergence of Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance (ESG) and sustainable accounting; the work of ecological economist Herman Daly; and innovation as a new mindset.

I was extremely sorry to miss the post-seminar roundtable discussion. Thanks to the Institute for Sustainable Enterprise for hosting this year’s breakfast seminars and I look forward to the series’ return in the fall.

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