Guest Post: Professor Matthew Rimmer Asks Is Rio+20 the Future We Want or Greenwash?

The Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development featured a fractious debate over intellectual property and the environment. Not only was there heated debate about patent law, technology transfer, and sustainable development,[1] there was also a debate about sustainable public procurement, eco-labelling, accountable advertising, and greenwashing.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Sustainable Public Procurement

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has long been a champion of sustainable public procurement.

It defines the practice thus: ‘Sustainable public procurement is a tool which allows governments to leverage public spending (between 15 to 25 % of GDP) in order to promote the country’s social, environmental and economic policies.’[2]

The UNEP sought to facilitate consensus on the integration of sustainable development considerations in procurement at the Rio+20 summit.

UNEP also called for greater corporate reporting in respect of sustainability: ‘An estimated 25 per cent of the 20,000 companies tracked by Bloomberg are reporting their environmental, social and governance footprints – but 75 per cent are not.’[3]

Regional Eco-Labelling: The Nordic Council of Ministers and the Nordic Swan

The Nordic Council of Ministers promoted a 10-year framework programme for sustainable consumption and production (SCP) at the Rio+20 discussions[4] and held a side event on eco-labelling and sustainable public procurement on June 20.

The Nordic Council of Ministers championed the use of information and labelling: ‘Boosting green demand by promoting environmental information is a crucial tool towards more sustainable consumption and production.’[5]

The Council noted the example of the Nordic Swan, described by Magnus Boström and Mikael Klintman in their book, Eco-Standards, Product Labelling, and Green Consumerism, as the ‘world’s first multinational eco-label’.[6]

They elaborate: ‘The Swan is a government-run eco-label, although both producers’ organizations and SMOs (e.g. FoE and consumer organizations participate in the organizational arrangement and in the standards development’.[7]

The Nordic Eco-Label has been promoted in concert with the EU Eco-Label.[8]

The Nordic Council of Ministers has also sought to export know-how on ecolabelling to South American countries under the aegis of the UNEP.[9] The Council has held a workshop in the Southern Cone region comprising: Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay.

The Nordic Council of Ministers maintained: ‘A regional ecolabelling approach is a cost-effective way of addressing the well documented needs of making production and consumption patterns more sustainable.’[10]

In its view, a regional approach ‘enhances regional integration and cooperation within environmental, industrial and consumer policies’.[11] The Nordic Council of Ministers contended: ‘Linking ecolabelling closely with sustainable public procurement furthermore creates a stronger demand for ecolabelled products.’[12]

Accountable Advertising

There was also a significant discussion about corporate social responsibility, accountable advertising, and greenwashing at Rio+20.

One of the most striking contributions to the Rio+20 debate was by Pavan Sukhdev, the chief executive of the environmental consulting firm GIST Advisory, and the former head of the UNEP’s Green Economy initiative from 2008 to 2011.

He has recently established a new venture – called Corporation 2020.[13] Sukhdev argued: ‘For too long, companies have been able to hide their damaging activities through accounting tricks, tax loopholes, and unethical advertising.’[14]

Sukhdev called for four key reforms in the private sector – focused upon disclosing externalities; resource taxation; limiting leverage; and accountable advertising.

He complained that the Rio+20 The Future We Want lacked corporate responsibility reforms – ‘brown corporations cannot add up to a green economy’.[15]

In a piece for Nature, Sukhdev called for accountable advertising in the private sector – and an end to greenwashing. He further intimates that there should be legal reforms to protect consumers against misleading and deceptive advertising:

In the world of Corporation 2020, ‘selling good, not just good selling’ would become the norm rather than the exception . . . . Advertising would become accountable, and ethics in advertising would no longer be optional.[16]

He comments that ‘in the new age of online purchasing and social networking, a more transparent advertising system is a necessary part of the process.’ [17]

However, the manifesto does not indicate what legal regimes or reforms should be adopted to address the problem of greenwashing.

Greenwashing is a multi-dimensional problem. Policy solutions have ranged across a number of fields of regulation – including advertising law and regulation; consumer protection law; trade mark law; and Internet Domain Names.[18]

One wonders whether Sukhdev is calling for corporate law reform.

There has also been some discussion as to whether companies should be held liable for misleading and deceptive communications in social responsibility statements dealing with matters of sustainability.

Greenpeace

Greenpeace used the occasion of the Rio+20 summit to publish a sequel to its report at the 1992 Earth Summit on greenwashing. The new report was called Greenwash+20: How some Powerful Corporations are Standing in the Way of Sustainable Development.[19]

The civil society group argued: ‘What we show is that some large corporations, singly and as a group, while loudly touting their commitment to sustainability, continue to exert excessive negative influence on governments in debates and negotiations around sustainable development.'[20]

At the conclusion of the event, Greenpeace also complained that the summit itself was an exercise in greenwashing: ‘All we have witnessed is three days of empty rhetoric and greenwash from world leaders.'[21] The civil society group complained: ‘This Summit will go down in history as Greenwash+20.'[22]

Conclusion

The Rio+20 text – called the Future We Want – promotes sustainable consumption and production as a means of promoting sustainable development and the Green Economy.

Although it did not necessarily result in much in the way hard of commitments, the Rio+20 summit did feature debate over sustainable public procurement, regional eco-labelling, and accountable advertising.

A number of networks, alliances, ventures and partnerships have been established to support initiatives in this field.

It remains to be seen whether international environmental summits result in any hard obligations on corporate sustainability reporting, accountable advertising, and greenwashing.

It also remains to be seen whether the Rio+20 summit will be celebrated lauded as the Future We Want or decried as Greenwash+20. Perhaps, the legacy of the Rio+20 summit will be a more subtle one.

The initiatives in relation to sustainable public procurement, regional eco-labelling, and accountable advertising are indicative that Rio+20 will be a catalyst for incremental and networked changes in the Green Economy.

* is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow, working on Intellectual Property and Climate Change.  He is an associate professor at the ANU College of Law, an associate director of the Australian Centre for Intellectual Property in Agriculture (ACIPA), and a director of the Australian Digital Alliance.


[1]               Matthew Rimmer, ‘Rio+20: Who owns the Green Economy?’, The Conversation, 25 June 2012, https://theconversation.edu.au/rio-20-who-owns-the-green-economy-7742 

[2]               United Nations Environment Programme, Sustainable Public Procurement, http://www.unep.fr/scp/procurement/

[3]               Ibid.

[4]               Nordic Council of Ministers, ‘Rio+20: Big step forward on sustainable consumption and production’, 23 June 2012. https://rio20.un.org/sites/rio20.un.org/files/a-conf.216-5_english.pdf

[5]               The Nordic Way at Rio+20, ‘Sustainable Consumption and Production: Information and Labelling’, http://www.norden.org/en/nordic-council-of-ministers/ministers-for-co-operation-mr-sam/sustainable-development/rio-20-1/sustainable-consumption-and-production/information-and-labelling

[6]               Ibid., 65

[7]               Ibid.

[8]               The Nordic Eco-Label, http://www.svanen.se/en/

[9]               Nordic Council of Ministers, ‘Exporting Nordic Know-How on Eco-Labelling’, http://www.norden.org/en/news-and-events/news/exporting-nordic-know-how-on-ecolabelling

[10]             Ibid.

[11]             Ibid.

[12]             Ibid.

[13]             Corporation 2020: http://www.corp2020.com/

[14]             Jo Confino, ‘Rio+20: Campaign Pressures Corporate Sector to Change its Destructive Ways’, The Guardian, 15 June 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/sustainable-business/rio-2012-corporation-2020-pavan-sukhdev

[15]             Pavan Sukhdev, Twitter, https://twitter.com/IslandPress/statuses/217365840658563072

[16]             Ibid.

[17]             Ibid.

[18]             Matthew Rimmer, ‘Sorting out the Green from the Greenwash’, WME – Water, Materials, Energy – Environment Business Magazine, March 2012, http://works.bepress.com/matthew_rimmer/110/

[19]             Greenpeace, Greenwash+20: How Some Corporations Stand in the Way of Sustainable Development, 12 June 2012, http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/publications/Campaign-reports/Climate-Reports/GreenwashPlus20/

[20]             Ibid.

[21]             Greenpeace, ‘Rio+20 Earth Summit: a  Failure of Epic Proportions’, Press Release 22 June 2012, http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/press/releases/Greenpeace-Press-Statement-Rio20-Earth-Summit-a-failure-of-epic-proportions/

[22]             Ibid.

Matthew Rimmer* Avatar

Eric Lane

Eric Lane, the founder and principal of Green Patent Law, is an intellectual property lawyer and registered U.S. patent attorney in New York and is a member of the bar in New York and California. Eric has more than two decades of experience working with wind, solar PV, CSP, biofuels, and geothermal, energy storage technologies, carbon capture and sequestration, medical devices, data communications, mechanical, chemical, internet and software.