Hii Goes to Brazil: Sustainability and Business

Join the Community Conversation! Read about the experience of the Human Impacts Institute’s 2011 Sustainable Business Intern, Ron Comstock, when he goes to Brazil to learn about how business and sustainability work together in one of the world’s greatest emerging economies. How can business lead the way in environmental sustainability?


In the past decade, Brazil has grown in the political, economic, and social spheres as one of the BRIC countries to watch out for. As samba hits the streets of New York, ethanol emerges on the world markets, and their President, Dilma Vana Rousseff, joins the growing numbers of women heads of state, Brazil is in the global spotlight. With this, and as the 5th largest country in the world, Brazil has also acquired much responsibility–and expectations.

In regard to global impacts, Brazil is recognized as a leader in sustainable business. But how does a country that is still dealing with issues of poverty and infrastructure development focus on reducing environmental impacts? The answers lie within the culture and collaboration.

Corporate Culture

On Thursday, March 10th, I arrived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil with a group of students fromPace University’s Sustainable Business course. We first visited Petrobras, an energy company–mostly oil–and Latin America’s largest company by market capitalization and revenue. Corporate Communications Executive, Izeusse Braga, presented information about their company, including their corporate social responsibility and environmental sustainability initiatives. In 2003, Petrobras subscribed to the United Nations Global Compact, a voluntary agreement which encompasses a set of principles regarding human rights, working conditions and the environment. Also, Since 2006 Petrobras has been listed in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, a reference index for environmentally and socially responsible investors. Petrobras is also a part of the IPIECA (International Petroleum Industry Environmental Conservation Association).

As a major funder of the arts in Brazil and a corporation who has made commitments to environment and corporate social responsibility, Petrobras is taking steps towards reducing environmental impacts of their industry. However, as consumers, how do we determine the legitimacy and impacts of these commitments?

Impact vs. Mitigation: One way consumers can evaluate the efficacy of corporate environmental and social responsibility programs is by taking a look at corporate “track records” of community partnership, impact, and news. Consumers should think about the potential impacts of an industry, and how the programs advertised by the company would lessen, or mitigate, these impacts.

Accreditation: There are many “certifications”, “awards”, “indices” and “agreements” that companies can participate in or create independently. However, these labels do not necessarily mean that actions follow-up the words or acknowledgements. It’s very complex for consumers to evaluate these programs, however, one way is to see who established the program and what their focus is. Also, consumers can place more credit to organizations, programs, and awards that are established by names they know and trust–this could be NGOs, community groups, government agencies, or other groups.

Comparison: Another way for consumers to check for greenwashing in companies is to see what competitors in the same industry are doing. Does the business you are looking at compare to the initiatives the company you are reviewing does? Also, is sustainability at the core mission of the company or just a program? If it’s a part of the mission statement, then it’s safer for consumers to assume that these issues are at the core of their actions.

Staffing and Finance: It’s easy to develop and do outreach about a program, but when it comes to getting things done on-the-ground, it requires staff and money. When looking at corporate initiatives, consumers can test their efficacy by seeing how much money is being allocated to these interests, compared to their overall earnings as a first step. Additionally, what is this compared to the money they give to outside initiatives? When looking at a companies financial reports, if environmental sustainability is included as a key component in reporting, than that is a sign of increased commitment. Also, a key clue to the role of initiatives is whether companies have staff dedicated specifically to the environment or social responsibility. Is there one person to cover a multi-national? Are there regional directors? Are these staff trained in issues of sustainability?

Small Businesses and Eco-Responsibility

In Brazil, our group travelled next to the communities of Ilha Grande and Paraty, working on our community engagement, Green Mapping Project. This project of documenting environmental projects allowed us to speak with local businesses about links between Brazilian culture and environment. On the island of Ilha Grande, I had the pleasure of speaking to Presilla Pre, a hostel owner and 14-year resident of the island. Presilla’s hostel operations put into practise many components of environmental sustainability for small businesses. She explained to me that being eco-friendly is of great importance to not only her, but to everyone on the island. Presilla’s implemented in her business many initiatives, including: recycling cans, paper, most plastics, composting, planting trees, energy efficient light bulbs, and washing towels less frequently. Presilla expressed an obligation to and responsibility for fostering creativity in sustainability not only for herself, but for the welfare and future of all Brazilians.

Community and Environment

During our time in Brazil, I found many Brazilians expressed their views on community as a key component to their lives and to decision-making, whether they were a large corporation, small business, or an individual. Through discourse and practise, it was also evident that this sense of community extended, for many, to the natural environment. This inclusive, collaborative approach contrasted with my own experiences of American perspectives on community and environment. As Brazil continues to develop rapidly, I hope to see the continued support of these cultural values, and their influence spread to other regions of the world.

By Ron Comstock, 2011 Human Impacts Institute Sustainable Business Intern and Tara DePorte, Founder and Executive Director, Human Impacts Institute

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