U.N. Outreach Event: How Can We Promote Sustainable Business?

Americans wondering what transpires at the U.N. got some answers on Monday when the United Nations Association of the U.S. (UNA-USA) hosted a day for members. Sustainability was first and foremost on the agenda for those attending, namely business and community leaders, the media, individual supporters and academics.

As Patrick Madden, executive director of UNA-USA said, “There are various conspiracy theories swirling around about what the U.N. does. In the U.S. it’s a particular challenge since most U.S. citizens don’t see the U.N. directly at work in their country. That makes it harder for most of the American public to see the benefits”. Minh-Thu Phan, UNA-USA director of public policy, added, “Many Americans care about these issues, but not enough to act on them or to call their congressmen.”

Sustainability is an area where the U.N. has been active, and one that has gained traction in the public and private sectors. On Monday the panel discussed the aftermath of Rio+ 20, a U.N. conference on sustainable development that was the U.N.’s biggest conference ever, with 50,000 attendees in Brazil last June.

“The message was simple: we need to re-think development”. Those were the words of Nikhil Seth, a U.N. director of sustainable development. He provided a broad overview of the Rio + 20 conference, and Eban Goodstein, director of Bard College’s Center for Environmental Policy, focused on sustainable business issues.

Click through for takeaways.

It’s a three-way balancing act. Economic, social and environmental issues need to be considered together, not in isolation, Seth said–otherwise we’re headed towards a perfect storm of crises. Sustainability must weigh the concerns of people and planet Earth and must also balance the needs of current and future generations. Seth said Rio+ 20 worked on defining sustainable goals that are more science-based and resonate with individuals and society at large.

Focus on implementation, not just promises. Multiple panelists acknowledged that the U.N. needs to be more action-oriented. Seth said that Rio +20 argued for widespread participation and favored an ongoing political forum that includes a public-private partnership. The conference also addressed the crucial step of financing sustainable development practices.

Sustainable business can help solve environmental problems. Goodstein spoke in real terms about the impact of climate change and business sector involvement. “In thirty years we’ll know more about the Earth’s future. We need major changes in order to forestall major temperature swings”. Otherwise we’ll have more extreme droughts. Goodstein said the political process has broken down on environmental issues, leaving relatively weak national commitments, so the private sector must play a role.

Companies will be supportive if problems can be profitably solved. More businesses, including startups and established corporations, are taking sustainability seriously now, Goodstein said. For example, Ecovative, a New York company, uses chopped-up mushrooms instead of using non-biodegradable styrofoam. Last July, Microsoft established an internal policy introducing a carbon tax. The company deemed it to be in their financial interest to reduce waste.

Citizens’ action also counts. “Solutions can’t be legislated by governments alone, and individuals don’t need to wait for a treaty to be signed before taking action”, Seth said. Websites that rate companies’ commitment to sustainability are an effective tool, Goodstein noted. Citizens pressuring the government and companies to adapt better business practices can also produce results. An upcoming event where the public plans to express its dissatisfaction with the status quo is a global warming rally in Washington, D.C. on February 17, President’s Day.

What do we think? And what can public relations do to promote sustainability?