Rio+20 Campaigners to Big Business: Take Your Brazilian Rainforest Steak and Shove It …

Confused by all the position-taking at RIO+20 and the reports that NGOs are angry and disappointed with the involvement of big business in the final document signed by leaders at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development?

I know this sounds contrarian and maybe ingenuous too, but the fact is that business tends to be better at doing what it does than governments, policymakers and UN professional hand-wringers. So if business seriously set about saving the environment, mightn’t that be a good thing? After all, pollution is just wastage or misuse of resources – and business hates wastage. Dangle a juicy enough carrot before business and it might just clean up.

Your confusion – like mine – might stem from the fact that campaigning NGOs have spent the last 20 years trying to get business more interested in the environment. In the process they have made more and more concessions to the corporate world.

Greenpeace, notably, had for years been tacking away from its campaigning origins to become, well, pretty much like another UN agency. Greenpeace itself has cozied up to Coca-Cola and Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. Pragmatic WWF, reflecting its Swiss cuckoo-clock origins, has never been scared of flaunting its penchant for corporate sponsorship.

Now, just when business has finally got the message and has sniffed the financial opportunities in sustainability, NGOs are angrily throwing their toys out of the baby-buggy. NGOs appear to be losing their patience with the slow pace set by policymakers and the UN hierarchy. “Epic failure” boomed Greenpeace. “Less than satisfactory,” sniffed  WWF in separate statements.

In a remarkable outburst, the Executive Director of Greenpeace International Kumi Naidoo, announced that it was time for society to put relations with business and international bureaucracy on a “war footing.” Such is the frustration that Greenpeace is preaching “civil disobedience” and it wants people to get radical in defence of the planet.

This is ironic:  for two decades, Greenpeace has bitterly criticized the antics of a too-radical offshoot, the Sea Shepherds, formed by the one of the original founders of Greenpeace who broke away in order to be free to adopt precisely the same “war footing” with society that the young Greenpeace director is now preaching.

Sea Shepherd founder and “skipper” Paul Watson must be laughing bitterly: he originally split from Greenpeace because he felt it was getting too cozy with corporates and because his followers believed it was legitimate to endanger human life in order to save the lives of cetaceans. Canadian Watson, who has been charged with attempted murder in Costa Rica for his role in a daring attempt to stop commercial shark-finning, was arrested in Germany in May and awaits extradition to face trial. That surely qualifies as a “war footing.”

So, is it time for NGOs to tear up any charter of cooperation with the business-suited hand that’s been feeding them and to reverse their decade-long rapprochement with corporates and finance? Just when an estimated 25,000 business people are gathering in Rio for a conference that’s supposed to be saving the planet, seems an odd time.

I was once declared persona non grata in perpetuity by Greenpeace because they didn’t like some newspaper articles I had written 25 years ago as a correspondent while on board the MV Greenpeace for a two month long voyage to Antarctica. So I’ll just go right ahead and say what I think anyway.

This is a bizarre time for Greenpeace and Co to get all righteous because, at long last, they have convinced business that the greatest capitalist opportunities in the history of the world all lie in cleaning up the mess that business made in the first place.  Forget the triple bottom line… think bottom line. The fact is that sustainability and global climate change are now mega money-spinners.

The fact that corporates have invaded the beach where Greenpeace &Co once sunbathed alone should be grounds for celebration, not tantrums. Here I’ll quote from the blog of my friend Mac Margolis, Rio-based correspondent for Newsweek and the Daily Beast, lest we forget what progress has been made by sectors such as the energy industry (the original bad guys):

“Green initiatives in individual countries and communities and among corporations are prospering. Energy is one example. While clean-technology sources such as wind and solar account for about 4 percent of global power supply, renewable-electricity generation increased by 17.7 percent in 2011, with wind power jumping 25.8 percent, according to the U.K. energy giant BP. Natural gas, which spews out a third less carbon dioxide than oil and only half carbon of coal, is soaring. Not least in the U.S., where the surge in extracting gas from ultra-hard shale, or fracking, has ignited a new energy rush and helped slash greenhouse emissions at a record pace. With Americans cutting back on expensive gasoline and dirty coal, U.S. carbon emissions have dropped by 7.7 percent since 2006, “the largest reduction of all countries or regions,” concludes the IEA.”

And Greenpeace itself has been hugely successful in changing corporate behaviour and pointing out laggards. So today, when it comes to the Green Economy, it’s actually not that hard for business to understand what it means to put your money where your mouth is. Greenpeace has managed to put a stake in the ground – or should thatbe a steak?

For those Summit visitors in Rio tucking into a tasty churrasco, I’ll cite a very topical case study of how Brazilian steaks have become the bête noire of Britain’s largest supermarket chain – and how corporate behaviour (at least in the UK) turned on a dime when Greenpeace got angry.

Shortly before the Rio+20 conference, Greenpeace poked a stick at leading Brazilian meat suppliers JBS with a damning report on its alleged connivance at Amazon deforestation. The media was quick to take up the subject in the UK, where  Britain’s largest supermarket Tesco was a JBS  customer. Both the Financial Times  and the Guardian picked up on JBS’s alleged eco-misdeeds.  The charge is that JBS is sourcing and selling meat from farms that have not followed Brazilian government guidelines about deforestation in Amazonia.

JBS (the word’s largest meat company with some US$30 billion in global sales) has gone on the offensive, with a direct repudiation of the claims in paid-for articles in the specialist press. And the result was that Tesco promptly dropped JBS as a supplier.  The Tesco statement said: “We have discussed our approach with Greenpeace. They have confirmed they are satisfied that we are not sourcing beef from JBS. We will continue our dialogue with Greenpeace about sourcing from Brazil and other areas that suffer from deforestation in order that we make progress on this important issue.”

The angry Brazilian company fired back at Greenpeace, threatening to drag the international NGO through the commercial courts.  Score at half-time: Greenpeace 2: JBS:0.  And the JBS CEO Wesley Batista is looking increasingly out of touch with what’s going on in Rio. June 17th, his company secured an injunction against Greenpeace in the Brazilian courts.

But the damage has been done. Nobody in Rio wants to touch a JBS steak with a 10 foot pole. The truth goes a little deeper, because highly-leveraged JBS is equity financed by Brazil’s state-owned BNDES national bank, making it not just a national champion but a virtual state corporation, because it is more than 30% owned by the government.

JBS, which over-reached itself with the acquisition of the bankrupted Pilgrim’s Pride, the largest battery chicken operations in the United States, has experienced huge financial volatility and needs the Brazilian government’s chequebook. Not least because it’s trying to buy the huge US meat business of multinational Sara Lee.

In other words, while Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff does the honours at the Rio+20 conference and seeks to build “The Future We Want” by reconciling warring delegations over the role of business in the Green Economy, one of the very companies in which her government has a commanding stake (excuse the pun), is in the spotlight for just the things that Rio+20 is trying to put an end to.

While, (in the cause of a journalistic payoff line) I’m ready to applaud Greenpeace for angrily saying: “Big Business: Take Your Steak and Shove It,” I think on balance I’d rather have business engaged with sustainability and making money out of it, than sulking on the sidelines. Turning big business around and turning it on —  not turning it away, should be the legacy for Rio+20.

Perhaps even the bankers could do something that’s of unambiguous social utility for a change. Carbon trading was a very modest start, but perhaps they can take the same idea of crystallising the financial cost of unsustainable behaviour, and spread it across the whole economic waterfront.

This is important because the next summits — Rio+30 or even Rio+40 — won’t be about cleaning up the relatively modest mess left behind by yesterday’s business or even today’s  seven billion people. It will be all about the far, far greater chaos and environmental havoc to be caused by the future population of nine billion people — three billion of them slum dwellers. Our children are going to need every single  bright idea that business, bankers, NGOs and  UN policy mavens have put together, in order got to fix this bleak future.

So as Mao Zedong might have said: “Let a hundred sustainable flowers blossom and a hundred business plans contend.”

Richard House


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