This post originally appeared on The Guardian's Sustainable Business Blog.
The most notable outcome of Rio+20 seems to have been a rash of disappointed and dispirited headlines: "Rio+20 will be remembered as the unhappy environmental summit", wrote Bradley Brooks for the Associated Press. "Rio+20 = Almost Zero," complained Claude Smadja for the Business Standard. Broader commentary was no less scalding. CARE characterised the meeting as "nothing more than a political charade".
In response to those praising the commitments made in Brazil, Martin Khor, a member of the UN Committee on Development Policy, said, "We've sunk so low in our expectations that reaffirming what we did 20 years ago is now considered a success."
Chris Laszlo, author of Embedded Sustainability, told me recently that he believes the environmental movement is confronting "sustainability fatigue". According to Laszlo, an important barrier to more significant progress being made on sustainability is that companies and individuals tire of the effort and resources that must be invested in pursuing it.
That fatigue is palpable in people returning from Rio, and it is not surprising. Fatigue is inevitable when so many people participate in so much discussion with so few results. Fatigue is inevitable when domestic political challenges prevent governments from taking a more active role in confronting the significant challenges. Fatigue is inevitable when we feel that we need to rely on unmotivated and insincere actors to drive change.
A few months ago, I had a conversation with the COO of a multibillion-dollar Latin American extractives company. As we explored the levels of investment required to generate community development around his company's operations, he asked: "When will we have given enough?" This question, too, reflects fatigue. Mired in a dynamic where his company is donating millions of dollars each year, yet facing continued calls from the community and from the media to invest more, this executive was exhausted by his company's approach.
People are tired because despite two decades of effort, real change is proving elusive. Michael Oko of the Washington-based World Resources Institute said of the dynamic at Rio+20: "There continues to be a yawning disconnect between the urgency of the challenge we face and the urgency for action."
So, what is missing? Is there something that, if added to the current dialogue, will create an urgency to act?
The missing piece is competition, or more precisely, the recognition among companies that helping to solve environmental and social problems can be a source of competitive advantage.
How does competition create urgency among companies to drive social change? When medical equipment companies race to see whose R&D system will allow them to be the first to launch a new product that is financially accessible to millions in the Indian subcontinent, that creates urgency. When consumer products companies rigorously assess each part of their value chain to eliminate waste and increase ecological efficiency, that creates urgency. When mining companies are aggressively innovating around community development and cluster development so they can show themselves to be the operator of choice, that creates urgency.
Competition can propel companies to embed sustainability into their core strategies. Competition encourages companies to focus research and development efforts that will result in innovation. Competition can motivate companies to pressure governments to stop grandstanding and reaffirming decades-old agreements, and start identifying practical policies that encourage innovation to create environmental good.
Companies cannot solve all the environmental problems that the planet is facing. If, however, every company recognises that shared value strategies can strengthen competitiveness and increase profitability, the sustainability fatigue that so many are facing right now would be replaced by an innovative dynamism that would propel the world in new ways.
The extractives COO no longer asks himself and the rest of his executive leadership: "When have we given enough?" Instead, he urgently compares his company's shared value strategy with that of his competitors. The urgency of these companies, driven by competition, not by compliance, holds the potential to wake up the world. It can close the gap between the size of the challenge and the magnitude of the efforts undertaken to address that challenge.