Hult Professor Joanne Lawrence

As I disembarked in Rio de Janeiro on a bright June morning, nothing could have prepared me for the magnitude of what I was about to join. From the warm welcome of the happy Brazilians, to the colorful dress of the government delegations, to the chaotic buzz of languages, this was to be a global experience like no other.

The Rio + 20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development was extraordinary on many levels. The issues it sought to address are so profound, the needs so great, and the concerted effort of so many so very necessary. To have thousands (some say it was 50,000+ over the ten days) of well-intentioned people from more than 100 countries representing higher education, corporations, civil society (NGOs), entrepreneurs and governments come together to address the complex issues of social and environmental sustainability was both inspiring and overwhelming; hopeful and discouraging.

Traveling the seemingly endless bus rides to the conference venues through beautiful beach-lined, yet heavily congested streets, I was struck by the sheer diversity of my fellow passengers: from corporate executives to UN delegates to oceanographers and development experts to academics and researchers. The conversations were earnest and sincere: every person there committed to moving the world forward in a more inclusive, sustainable way.

In the week leading up to the twentieth anniversary of the UN’s Conference on Sustainable Development , Rio+20 deliberately engaged multiple players in a series of sessions, including academics at the Principles of Management Education (PRME) Global Forum (Hult is a member of PRME) and multinational corporations at the Rio+20 Corporate Sustainability Forum hosted by the UN Global Compact. Rather than being on the sidelines as they were in 1992, educators and business leaders were taking an active, defining role.

In each, I was impressed by the commitment of the participants and their intention to change – change for the better. The conference focused on six core areas: water, energy/climate change, social development/human rights, urbanization, food/agriculture, and finance/economic issues, and how each of the sectors could address them.  For example:

Higher education

Within PRME’s forum we asked ourselves: how do we educate the next generation of leaders to address global issues in ways that are innovative, inclusive, and enduring? Do we have the right external incentives in place for educational institutions to make the sea change required? For example, accrediting organizations like EQUIS (European Quality Improvement System) announced that sustainability will soon be integrated into their criteria, while those who rank schools, like the Financial Times, said they would consider adding sustainability as part of their assessment. Others asked: is ranking schools by how much their graduates earn sending the wrong message about what leaders should value and what constitutes educational quality?

At PRME we focused specifically on three core areas: poverty, gender/diversity and anti-corruption and how schools could integrate these issues into their research agenda and curricula. With Hult’s focus on Corporate Responsibility, Social Entrepreneurship, and the Hult Prize, I especially was interested in the poverty track. With our truly global outlook, international experience and interest in emerging markets, we have an enormous opportunity to share and contribute to the ongoing discussions and research in this area in particular.

Global business

The UN Global Compact’s Corporate Sustainability Forum was attended by more than 2000 participants, and reinforced my belief that companies, especially those working with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as partners, have an enormous opportunity to be truly transformative. Indeed, in listening to the many efforts happening all over the world,  public-private partnerships may well be the lasting legacy of the forum, and a manifestation of real progress against the eighth Millennium Development Goal (create partnerships for development.)

We heard from leading companies like Microsoft who are committed to going carbon negative, but also from entire industries, such as the Fashion Industry, (‘No Fashion Victims’) who are addressing every piece of the supply chain for both environmental and social impact. This focus stretches from how raw materials like cotton are picked, treated and dyed, to who sews them and under what work conditions, to how the finished products are marketed, shipped and sold. We also heard as senior corporate officers called on governments to require mandatory carbon and sustainability reporting, while still other executives advocated for better, more inclusive  measures than Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to assess a nation’s well being.


The government forum was where you really got a sense of how difficult it is to reach a consensus among nations with different, often conflicting needs and agendas. While many expressed disappointment with the missed opportunity and lack of agreement at the end of conference, I retain my ‘glass half-full’ perspective. At least governments were there: at least delegates were talking; at least the conversations are continuing. The fact that multinational corporations took on a more engaged, aggressive role than they did in 1992 was also encouraging: they can perhaps create the ‘tipping point’ needed to drive governments and the global sustainable development agenda forward.

In the end, Rio+20 confirmed my belief that well-intentioned companies, with their shared principles, massive resources, up-to-the minute technologies and ability to cross cultures and national boundaries, working in partnership, remain our best hope to solving these complex issues, and that higher educational institutions like Hult play a critical role in developing the ethical, global and holistic thinking leaders who can make that happen.

While those attending the UN Conference on Sustainable Development were perhaps just a microcosm of those who need/should be involved, as anthropologist Margaret Mead once wisely said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

At Rio + 20, we were skipping stones, creating ripples.

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