The road to Rio+20 is paved with corporate environmentalism

By Meera Karunananthan

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For decades, the industries that thrive on destroying the planet have played a cat and mouse game with the environmental movement. We expose their bad practices and build public opposition, they co-opt our language and attempt to neutralize public opinion by creating confusion.

While in Amsterdam for a meeting with colleagues preparing a civil society intervention against the World Water Forum to take place in Marseilles in March 2012, I decide to see what the cats are up to by attending a few sessions at the industry-led Aquatech forum organized in the context of International Water Week from October 29 to November 4. This is but one of many corporate environmental forums taking place before Rio+20 for industry to converge and promote their products with high-level policymakers and International Financial Institutes (IFIs).

A few sessions at the Aquatech conference give me a small sample of what to be wary of as a water justice activist.

Corporate environmental stewardship

"Stewardship is the new sustainability," I hear someone say as I walk into a session on the topic. The session is hosted by the European Water Partnership (EWP), which is about to launch its water stewardship initiative on November 24. If we thought sustainability was fuzzy and difficult to enforce, stewardship is even more so. Vague though it may be, sustainability implies a concern for long-term impacts. Stewardship from what I gather at this session is not about the impacts of development, but about feel-good practices that corporations can voluntarily engage in.

Throughout the program, Aquatech features case studies and pilot projects that selectively highlight the good practices of big industry. Rather than discuss the bigger picture, Coca Cola, Dow and other corporations would prefer to package environmental discussions into warm fuzzy stories about their environmental pilot projects. Coca Cola for example, showcases its commitment to reduce water consumption in its operations. By that Coke means it will continue to pump groundwater in water-stressed regions in the Global South for its beverage products, but will gain PR points by publicizing its efforts to reduce water use in its European bottling plants. In exchange, Coke is granted European Water Partnership branding and access to policymakers.

Likewise, a representative from the chemical company BASF boasts about the new technology the company has developed with DOW to reduce discharges into water in the production propylene oxide — a chemical used in pesticides and plastic bags that is listed as a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).