Business parades green credentials at Earth summit

Syngenta chairman, Heinz Imhof, was one of the speakers at the business day. Syngenta

Multinational corporations have been speaking out about sustainable development at a business day on the sidelines of the Earth summit.

This content was published on September 2, 2002 - 11:50

But non-governmental organisations and civil society groups have criticised big business for attempting to turn the conference into a global trade fair.

At a one-day event held close to the main summit site, corporate chairmen and CEOs from some of the biggest names in business explained why their companies were convinced of the need to implement policies of sustainable development.

Heinz Imhof - chairman of Swiss agribusiness Syngenta and one of the speakers at Sunday's event - responded to accusations that multinationals were only in Johannesburg to lobby politicians and to ensure that free trade will not be jeopardised by whatever plan of action emerges from the summit talks.

"There are a lot of misconceptions, misunderstandings and criticism [of business] which is not justified," Imhof told swissinfo.

Rectifying mistakes

But the Syngenta chairman also admitted big business had made mistakes in the past.

"Industry has made a number of mistakes believing things could move ahead without too much discussion with stakeholders," he said, "but we have learnt from these mistakes."

Industry leaders have pledged to work with the developing world to find solutions to poverty and better manage the Earth's limited resources.

René Buholzer, a director of the Swiss Business Federation and member of his country's delegation in Johannesburg, says it has taken time for companies to recognise the need to work with stakeholders in developing countries.

"I think it has been a long learning process for business leaders to understand that sustainable development is a critical issue for their companies," Buholzer said.

Imhof believes the future direction of sustainable development lies in exploring partnerships between big business and small stakeholders and non-governmental organisations.

"In a way, there is nothing which can be done without us, but there's also nothing we can do without the other stakeholders, so we need to create partnerships and work together," Imhof said.

Street protests

But the corporate message of cooperation emerging from the summit's business day was partly overshadowed by demonstrations less than 24 hours earlier outside the main summit convention centre.

Up to 20,000 protesters - fewer than had been expected - took to the streets of Johannesburg on Saturday afternoon on a march from the nearby South African township of Alexandra to Sandton, a wealthy city suburb which is playing host to the summit.

"I think the big companies have basically taken control of the summit," one street protester told swissinfo, "and are determining its outcome."

"The United Nations at this summit has been hijacked by big corporations," commented another demonstrator, "which proves it is not public governance anymore but corporate governance."

René Longet, who is representing Swiss non-governmental organisations in Johannesburg, says he regrets the blurring of the divide between the public and private sectors.

"I am shocked to see have big enterprises here," he said, "because I think you have to separate the state and the commercial sides. "

"I'm happy to see the involvement of business, but it's important that business takes real commitments to do something," he added.

Rejecting accusations

The charge that multinationals are only interested in satisfying shareholder demands to turn a quick and efficient profit is flatly denied by Imhof.

"There is no way we can survive unless we contribute to sustainable development. We will have no reason to exist in 10 or 20 years if we do not really believe this," he said.

"There is a misconception by a lot of people who think that industry is evil and that you just think about the next quarter results," he added.

"Of course, you have to satisfy shareholders in the short and medium term, but most of them understand that we are in this for the long term."

Sunday's meeting came as around 100 heads of state began to arrive in South Africa to attend the final days of the summit, which is scheduled to wrap up on Wednesday with a plan of action to combat poverty and safeguard the environment.

But correspondents said political wrangling had slowed down the process of wording the final document and there was a possibility that the intergovernmental discussions might have to continue beyond the formal end of the summit.

swissinfo, Ramsey Zarifeh, Johannesburg

In brief

The summit's Business Day was attended by dozens of corporate CEOs as well as government and United Nations officials.

Non-governmental organisations have accused big business of attempting to hijack the summit's environmental agenda.

CEOs present in Johannesburg have rejected the accusations, saying the long-term future of companies depends on their implementation of sustainable development policies.

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