Mother Pelican
A Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability

Vol. 8, No. 12, December 2012
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
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Mobilizing the Global Business Community
to Achieve Sustainable Prosperity

Robert Engelman
President, Worldwatch Institute

This article is an excerpt of State of the World 2012: Moving Towards Sustainable Prosperity
The Worldwatch Institute, Island Press: Washington, D.C., 2012
Reprinted with Permission



Around 80,000 transnational corporations (TNCs) operate worldwide, a mere 147 of which control 40 percent of the total value of all these corporations’ value. Any vision of a sustainable future must include full recognition of the role that TNCs play in shaping the planet’s human and ecological destiny, experts argue in State of the World 2012: Moving Toward Sustainable Prosperity.

Transnational corporations are now so numerous and in some cases so well capitalized that their global influence now rivals and in many cases exceeds that of governments.

Because corporations operate with a primary purpose of increasing value for their shareholders, they have often tended to de-prioritize other fundamental concerns. In the worst instances, the pursuit of profit by corporations worldwide has led to neglect for their employees, lack of accountability in their societies, and indifference in their contribution to negative environmental effects. These failures have come under particular scrutiny since the beginning of the financial crisis in 2008 and the realization that financial corporations deemed “too big to fail” pose a serious threat for the economy.

Allen White and Monica Baraldi of the Tellus Institute outline four areas of needed transformation for the modern corporation:

  • Purpose. A company is not required to have a statement of purpose in countries that have common law traditions, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada. The B Corp (or “benefit” corporation) is a U.S. example where participants are required to have a corporate purpose to create material positive impact on society and the environment.
The failings of corporations have come under particular scrutiny since the financial crisis struck and the realization that financial corporations deemed “too big to fail” pose a serious threat for the economy.
  • Ownership. Ownership systems such as trust ownership, hybrid social enterprises, and cooperative ownership have much more potential to align their goals and values for the benefit of society and to realize that their actions form part of the larger economic system. These alternative ownership structures are flourishing around the world and provide testament to the ability of corporations to operate successfully while contributing to the benefit of society.
  • Capital. Historically, capital markets operated without regard to long-term social or environmental impacts or regulations. Recent efforts to embed sustainability within the investment decision-making process show that it is possible to generate significant changes in corporate sustainability behavior.
  • Governance. If boards can shift from a narrow focus on increasing shareholder value to a more comprehensive view of the corporation and its impacts, progress toward sustainable development can be achieved. While far from sufficient, corporate reporting is a first step in improving governance through increased transparency and long-term goal setting.

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In critically thinking about corporations, it is necessary to remember that they are not islands: corporations operate within a vast economic system that includes a multitude of players and variables. Sustainable development can become a viable future when transnational corporations recognize that with their position of global influence comes responsibility to the societies and environments in which they are embedded. 

The current global economic model is socially narrow and environmentally predatory, placing private interests above public ones. As such, it is unable to address the dire needs of a world burdened by a population of 7 billion people, let alone the looming threat of climate change and alarming levels of poverty. What is needed is a new economic model that draws from a new paradigm of development that is not based solely on economic growth, but rather integrates and embraces the natural limits of our planet, the need for reducing inequalities of income and opportunity, ethical principles, and the preservation of the rights of future generations.

Jorge Abrahao, Paulo Itacarambi, and Henrique Lian of the Ethos Institute advocate for internalizing a variety of multilateral commitments to bring the world closer to the ideal global economy. These include:

Sustainable development will be viable when transnational corporations recognize that with their position of global influence comes responsibility to the societies and environments in which they are embedded.
  • Payment for Ecosystem Services. Natural resources and environmental services should come with a quantifiable, concrete price tag in order to change perceptions and the way markets function. The goal is to close the production loop—by using renewable energy inputs and generating no waste outputs—and to fully acknowledge the shared benefits from biodiversity.
  • Establishment of Minimum Operation Standards. Businesses—domestic and international alike—should be required to obey a certain set of standards that governs decent work, inclusion of minorities, socio-environmental practices, sustainable development, and closed-loop production.
  • Promotion of Sustainable Production and Consumption. Governments must take the lead in lifting the pressure off of natural resources, cutting carbon emissions, and facilitating decent work conditions through innovative strategies such as sustainable government procurement policies, research and development programs, and tax regimes. This in turn can encourage sustainable production patterns that are effectively paired with behavioral changes that start with the consumer.


    Robert Engelman is President of the Worldwatch Institute, a globally focused environmental research organization based in Washington, D.C. Bob originally joined Worldwatch as Vice President for Programs and was named President in 2011. Prior to joining Worldwatch, Bob was Vice President for Research at Population Action International, a policy research and advocacy group in Washington, and directed its program on population and the environment. He has written extensively on population's connections to environmental change, economic growth, and civil conflict.

    A former newspaper reporter specializing in science and the environment, Bob has served on the faculty of Yale University as a visiting lecturer and was founding secretary of the Society of Environmental Journalists. He is the author of the 2008 book More: Population, Nature, and What Women Want, and his writing has appeared in scholarly and news media including Nature, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal.

    Bob serves on the boards of the Center for a New American Dream, the Population Resource Center, and the Nova Institute. He holds a master's of science degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Chicago.

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