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Rio+20 is an opportunity to kick-start the green economy

This is a guest post by Paul Polman, chief executive of Unilever. It is an extract from his contribution to a collection of writings about the Earth Summit, Rio+20: where it should lead, published by Green Alliance and the RSPB.

These are turbulent times for the world and for the business community, addressing this requires governments and business to work together to create the right framework for sustainable development at Rio+20.

We need to find a new model of growth, one that is equally conscious of the need of people and of the planet, and puts sustainability and equality at the heart of consumption. Sustainable growth must benefit the world’s hungriest billion people as well as the rising middle classes.

The time for talk is over. Business, governments and civil society must now act to ensure sustainability is embedded in business strategies and is at the centre of public policy making. The Rio+20 Summit presents an important opportunity to galvanize public and private sector support, elicit commitment to a future of sustainable consumption and ensure the transition to a green economy begins in earnest.

Unilever’s sustainable living plan
At Unilever, we believe that sustainable, equitable growth is the only acceptable model of growth. We have set ourselves a challenging vision: to develop a new business model which decouples our business growth from our environmental impact. We will aim to double the size of our business while cutting our environmental impact in half and increasing the social benefits delivered by our products.

Spanning our entire portfolio of products and all the countries in which we operate, our Sustainable Living Plan sets out detailed ways to do this. It is orientated around three central goals, to be achieved by 2020:

  • halve the environmental footprint (across water, waste and energy) of our products.
  • help more than a billion people to improve their hygiene habits and we will bring safe drinking water to 500 million people
  • source 100 per cent of our agricultural raw materials sustainably and enhance the livelihoods of 500,000 smallholder farmers in our supply chain.

These broad goals are supported by more than fifty quantitative, time-bound public targets against which we will report regularly and expect to be judged.

In our first year we have made good progress in many areas of the plan. At the end of 2011, 64 per cent of the palm oil we purchased came from certified sustainable sources, all the electricity purchased for Unilever sites in Europe came from renewable sources and we helped change the hygiene behaviour of over 48 million people through our public health promotion.

The Unilever Sustainable Living Plan is not just a programme to manage the company more sustainably: it is also a catalyst for new ways of doing business – it is demonstrating the transition businesses must make to fuel the green economy.

Business and government acting together at Rio+20
At Rio+20, Unilever and other companies introducing similar sustainability models, from Accenture to Walmart, must make the business case for sustainability absolutely clear. More, we must demonstrate action by committing to ambitious plans across industries and sectors to introduce and deliver sustainable models of growth.

Action from business is best initiated and, more importantly, scaled up if supported by a framework of public policies that encourages and rewards action. At Rio+20 governments should consider a range of policy measures such as:

New development goals
A concrete step forward at Rio+20 would be the beginning of a negotiation to agree Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Specific goals for human development and environmental performance will turn capacity building, innovations, investments, production and consumption in the right direction.

SDGs should build directly from the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a series of eight development goals with specific targets to reduce global poverty. The focus they have given the world has played a major role in halving the number of people living in poverty from 1990 levels.

Unilever believes that in a similar way, Sustainable Development Goals could provide the overarching global framework the world needs to ensure governments and businesses continues to reduce poverty and improve livelihoods, while also protecting the earth’s resources for generations to come.

Rio+20 should kick start this process by agreeing:

  • the range of issues to be covered by SDGs: these should include targets for reducing poverty and food insecurity, reducing our carbon and water use, conserving biodiversity, protecting the forests while increasing our use of renewable energy and recycling;
  • ensure SDGs are adopted by all UN member states, contain measurable targets, and have a 2015 – 2030 timeline;
  • a framework for collaborating with business. The process around SDGs must involve business in developing and helping to deliver the goals.

Sustainable development is complex. But Unilever is already demonstrating the business case for addressing sustainability. Rio+20 should build on business efforts and raise the ambition of governments to deliver a roadmap to a green economy. We will all be winners.

Written by

Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.

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