World Business Council for Sustainable Development: reflections on its evolution

Following the Brundtland report in 1987 the UN started to prepare for an 'Earth Summit' in 1992 in Rio bringing together the governments of the world to adress the global sustainable development (SD) challenges.

The preparation process included a set of regional and thematic meetings, one of which took place in Bergen in 1990. Here the business community organised by the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) came together for the first time to explore its role in the Rio process. Maurice Strong, Canadian entrepreneur and first director of the UN Environment Programme, who had been appointed secretary general for the Rio event participated and met here for the first time Swiss businessman Stephan Schmidheiny.

Maurice did not believe that ICC was the right platform to develop and advocate a progressive businesss message. So, following Bergen Maurice asked Stephan to  gather a new and focussed  group of CEOs and bring a new business perspective to Rio, which Maurice felt was missing up to that point in time.

Stephan accepted and started to invite CEOs with the ambition to create a council of 50 members. It turned out to be a tough task to convince CEOs that sustainable development was of significance to them.

However, in the end he succeeded.

Launch of the Business Council for Sustainable Development (BCSD)

In 1991 a conference was organised by the ICC called WICEM – World Industry Conference on Environmental Management. This became the first testing ground for the new BCSD, which was also formally launched in connection with this event. Here, ICC handed over the baton to BCSD to be the platform for the business input to Rio.

At WICEM the proceedings were divided up into 5 main topics each led by a CEO, of which I was one. I got half a day for a breakout session to explore the topic `How should business get acceptance by society´. This included a number of NGO leaders and Richard, as a lead person for the NGOs, served as my vice chair for the breakout, which became very succesful.

Up to Rio in 1992 and beyond

The book Changing Course was the first time that global business formulated its views on sustainable development. The book was published by BCSD and produced by a taskforce, of which Richard was an active member.

A key message in the book was the concept of Eco-Efficiency which was invented through a competition launched by Stephan Schmidheiny. The aim was to find a term that captured the connection between economic and environmental performance. Eco-Efficiency was further elaborated on in a book  published by WBCSD a few yers later.

Merger between BCSD and a part of the ICC – World Industry Council on Environment (WICE)

This merger, in 1995, created a unified global business platform on sustainable development – the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) – with a clear leadership role and strong business backing.

Financing Change

The role of the financial markets were a central theme in Changing Course. It became a topic for a separate WBCSD book that was launched in 1996 at a big event hosted by the World Bank in Washington.

WBCSD sector projects

One of the members of the WBCSD was Erling Lorentzen – owner of Aracruze Cellulose in Brazil. He was very concerned about the critic against the forest industry from many parts of society and wanted to start a project to actively adress this. This led to the creation of the ’Towards a sustainable Paper Cycle’ project. Erling had met Richard in the earlier Rio process and come to appreciate his knowledge and open-minded attitude.

As a consequence, the Paper Cycle project commissioned IIED under Richard’s leadership to manage this project and produce an objective report about the paper cycle and its impacts. This became a groundbreaking undertaking which changed the relation between global business and its stakeholders. The project became a role model for other sectors that needed to adress their license to operate.

A second big sector project, for the mining sector – Mining, Minerals and Sustainable Development –  was established some years later, and was always also manged by IIED with a special team. By then Richard had retired from IIED and became the project lead for the mining project, employed by the WBCSD to oversee the project. This meant that I became formally the boss of Richard. I must admit that he was a very independent leader of the project and not very inclined to take directions from me! However, we had a great cooperation for a number of years and the mining project became a great success.

A number of other sector projects have followed within the WBCSD all modelled after the work that Richard pioneered.

Rio + 5, 1997

In 1997, at Rio +5, the UN for the first time took stock of progress following the original Rio conference. By then global business had come to be seen as a key force for sustainable development.

WBCSD presented a report – Signals of Change – to highlight its work and that many changes were happening that together signalled a changing course, even if each individual action might seen insufficient.  

1997: Sustainable development scenarios.

In 1997 WBCSD launched its sustainable development scenarios which created a storyline/ a thoughtpiece about the future world in which sustainability would play a major role. This established WBCSD as a thoughtleader willing to engage in a broad debate with all parts of society about the sustainability challenges and potential outcomes for the planet.

Corporate Social Resposibility  (CSR)

Rio and the first years following that were focussed on the environmental and economic dimensions of sustainability. In the later part of the 90s the social dimension came more into focus and WBCSD started a project to explore what CSR actually meant.

We published 2 reports on the topic, the last one called  CSR – making business sense. The message was that business was an integrated part of society and needed to integrate social sustainability into its decisions. This met with a lot of critique from economists, who felt that business should just focus on profit making. But we continued to claim that ´business cannot succeed in a society that fails´ and therefore had to consider the social dimensions to be long-term successful.

Sustainability reporting

With the growing recognition of the important role that business has for sustainability followed increased demands for measurement and reporting of the impact of business actions. This was further pushed by the collapse of Enron in 2001.

In 2002 the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) was launched by a consortium of founders, of which WBCSD was a core member. The mission of GRI was to develop a framework for reporting led by non-government actors, as government intervention in the specifics of reporting was seen as risking to create too bureacratic a solution.

2002: Rio +10 (WSSD) Johannesburg

This was the Rio +10 conference which for the first time adressed sustainable development from a holistic perspective within the UN. WBCSD took up the theme of the role of markets in a report  called Sustainability through the Market, in which we discussed how the markets could play a major role in promoting sustainable behaviour by different parts of society.

WBCSD presented also its book Walking the Talk, that further established business as positive force for implementation of actions toward a sustainable world.

In Johannesburg WBCSD engaged with GreenPeace which became another groundbreaking event in the relation between NGOs and business – the journey that Richard and I had been on since WICEM in Rotterdam in 1991. 

The role of business

Following Johannesburg WBCSD became very engaged in seeking to explore and define the role of business in a resource and pollution constrained world. In 2006 we launched a report called Tomorrow´s Company, adressing this topic.

In 2010 we followed up this with a major new thinkpiece – Vision 2050 – outlining a pathway for the global society to a sustainable future and the business opportunities we saw in this.

To realize this sustainable world we need the right framework conditions from governments and in 2012 WBCSD for the first time formulated a legislative agenda for governments that the global business community would like to see, to help business to speed up implementatin and actions toward a sustainable world. It is presented in a report called Changing Pace that was launched at Rio +20.

A resource- and carbon-constrained world

The WBCSD work program has come to embrace a number of topics that are central to create a resource efficient world like: Ecosystems, Water, Energy and Climate, Development etc. The key to success is implementation capacity which is needed locally. WBCSD has over the years built up a Regional Network in more that 60 countries with national BCSDs – Business Councils For Sustainable Development – to facilitate local actions. This Network is taking on an even bigger role going forward.

New partnerships

Sustainable development is too big a task for any one part of society to resolve on its own. WBCSD has therefore in later years increasingly been stressing the need for new forms of inclusive partnerships between business, governments, civil society and academia.

January 2013


World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD)

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Bjorn Stigson, former president of the WBCSD and visiting professor at the Gothenburg School of Business, has extensive experience in... (Read more)

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