Interview with Björn Stigson, President of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (W

In an exclusive interview with EURACTIV, Björn Stigson WBCSD President said: “Companies that engage in voluntary actions rarely fail to comply. The laggards are usually not found in this category.”

In your view, are companies using the Corporate Social
Responsibility and sustainable development debates (and/or
voluntary commitments) to avoid more social and environmental
legislation?

I believe companies are realizing that a strong
sustainable development and corporate social responsibility
strategy makes good business sense. Companies are an integral part
of the societies and communities in which they operate, and they
cannot succeed if the society around them fails.

Companies also have come to recognize that CSR
goes beyond philanthropy and is a matter for strategic debate.
There is no universal definition of CSR because the concept is
always being redefined to serve changing needs and times. It is up
to each company individually to define the values and principles it
stands for, its ‘magnetic north’ as we call it in the WBCSD. The
companies that do not manage their social issues in the same way
they manage other strategic business issues will not stay in
business long-term.

What is the value of having voluntary commitments if there
are no enforceable penalties against those who fail to
comply?

Much of the progress made by industry toward
sustainable development since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 can be
attributed to voluntary initiatives, either company or
sector-specific or involving other actors such as governments.
Companies that engage in voluntary actions rarely fail to comply.
The laggards are usually not found in this category.

Companies are naturally inclined to engage in
efforts where they will be rewarded. Voluntary initiatives help
build partnership and trust between government and the private
sector. And unlike command-and-control policies, which can be
inflexible and unduly costly, voluntary agreements encourage
business, both in developing and developed countries, to unleash
its creative talents and move forward.

In 2000, you wrote in an article of the OECD Observer that
the social pillar (of sustainable development) had received less
attention than the environment and economic ones. What has the
WBCSD been doing to ensure progress in the social pillar?

CSR is firmly on the agenda of many leading
companies and it looks destined to climb higher and higher. In
particular, in these turbulent times, when companies are
contemplating the new meaning of ‘business as usual’, they may need
to pay higher attention to corporate governance and social values.
Companies must work with national governments, NGOs and
multilateral institutions to redefine the “rules of the game” and
foster wealth creation in regions where purchase power is
minimal.

First results of our project on Accountability
& Reporting show that a commitment to enhanced accountability
can lead to a major shift in how a company looks upon itself and
its wider role in society. We have also started a project on
Sustainable Livelihoods, which examines the role of business in
poverty alleviation. A field guide on what works and what doesn’t
in pro-poor business, due to be released in 2004, will point to the
type of innovation needed to enable companies to successfully work
with poor communities.

Does the WBCSD back the view that progress in trade
liberalization within the WTO must go hand in hand with more social
rights and environmental protection?

Sustainable development is about ensuring a
better quality of life for everyone, now and for generations to
come. The WBCSD believes that sustainable development is best
achieved through the market, and that we need to make the market
work for all if we want to bridge the unsustainable divides between
the rich and the poor. And it can only be achieved by taking into
account all three pillars of sustainable development: ecological
and social, as well as economic.

Contrary to popular belief, today’s global
marketpla ce is not too open – it is still too closed. The failure
of the WTO meeting in Cancun is a case in point. Trade barriers
like the agricultural subsidies in the European Union and the
United States are creating major obstacles for developing countries
to sell their products.

Does the WBCSD support environmental tax reform (i.e by
lowering taxes on payroll, capital formation and clean energy
technology, and financing those reductions with higher taxes on
activities that hurt the environment)?

The WBCSD supports the notion that the prices of
goods must reflect all the costs – financial, environmental and
social – involved in making them, using them, disposing of them or
recycling them. As I have often put it, “we do not protect what we
do not value”.

Many of nature’s resources and services are
currently not monetized. Establishing such prices could reduce
resource waste and pollution. Proper valuation would help us
maintain the diversity of species, habitats, and ecosystems,
conserve natural resources and prevent the buildup of toxic
resources in the environment. The WBCSD has long addressed this
issue through our work on eco-efficiency, however we maintain that
it is the role of governments to establish the right framework
conditions, whether through environmental taxes or other
incentives.

 

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