The 50,000-person United Nations conference on sustainable development in Rio de Janeiro is bound to be followed by recriminations about what the nations of the world failed to accomplish. Perhaps the real story is what the planet’s giant corporations did accomplish in Rio — to advance their own interests.
Rio +20 is following what is now a familiar pattern in which governments drag their feet while major companies try to give the impression that they are the vanguard of environmental reform. The extent to which the United Nations — whose Centre on Transnational Corporations was once somewhat critical of big business — has embraced this dynamic can be seen on the website Business.UN.org, whose tagline is “Partnering for a Better World.” Corporations can post their sustainability goals on the site under the misleading category of Commitments. Whether the various goals are timid or ambitious, they are all, of course, voluntary in nature and thus unenforceable by the UN or any other body.
More is at work here than simple image-burnishing by many of the planet’s biggest polluters. According to a report issued for Rio +20 by Friends of the Earth International, large corporations and business associations have in effect hijacked the UN’s policymaking process: “There is increased business influence over the positions of national governments in multilateral negotiations; business representatives dominate certain UN discussion spaces and some UN bodies; business groups are given a privileged advisory role.”
“An even greater cause of concern,” the FOEI report goes on to say, “is the emergence of an ideology among some UN agencies and staff that what is good for business is good for society. This is reflected in a shift away from policies and measures designed to address the role of business in creating many of the problems that we face, towards policies that aim to define these problems in terms dictated by the corporate sector, meeting their needs without tackling the underlying causes of the multiple crises.”
All of this constitutes what FOEI calls “corporate capture” of the UN, a phrase that echoes the term “regulatory capture” used to describe what happens when the interests of corporations come to dominate the proceedings of government oversight agencies. FOEI has issued a statement with other NGOs decrying the excessive corporate influence over UN deliberations that has been endorsed by more than 400 groups from around the world.
It’s heartening that so many groups are willing to speak out, but it’s discouraging to realize that the same criticisms have been made for more than a decade, to little avail. At the time of the 2002 UN earth summit in Johannesburg, CorpWatch issued a report called Greenwash +10 that was already warning about the risks of the UN’s increasing commitment to corporate partnerships. It noted that one of those partnerships, Global Compact, claimed to be promoting business support for UN sustainability goals yet included among its members companies such as mining giant Rio Tinto with atrocious environmental records.
Rio Tinto is one of the companies singled out in the new FOEI report for continuing to engage in the same kind of hypocrisy. The mining company is also one of the main targets (along with BP and Dow Chemical) of the Greenwash Gold campaign, which accuses the companies of covering up environmental destruction “while pretending to be a good corporate citizen by sponsoring the Olympic games” being held this summer in London.
Undue corporate influence over climate policy is also the theme of a recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists. While acknowledging that some U.S. companies have taken “consistent and laudable” actions in support of science-based climate reforms, it finds that others have worked aggressively to undermine such progress.
Most interesting is its finding that some large corporations have taken contradictory positions depending on the circumstances. For example, some companies are found to make legitimate statements of concern over climate change on their websites and in their filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission while misrepresenting the state of climate science in their comments submitted to Environmental Protection Agency proceedings. Companies that fall into the contradictory category — such as Alcoa, ConocoPhillips and General Electric — are said to be standing in the way of meaningful change.
Whatever positions corporations take, there will always be tension between their interests and the common good. The fact that those two goals may occasionally coincide does not justify the outsized role that corporations now have in policymaking at both the national and international levels. Progress on climate change and many other fronts will be a lot easier when we are free from corporate capture in all its forms.