BSR Conference 2012: Fast Forward / October 23-26 / New York

The Global Media Debates Sustainability: Has Everything—or Nothing—Changed?

Leadership in Action Session / October 24, 2012


  • Matthew Bishop, U.S. Business Editor and New York Bureau Chief, The Economist
  • Haili Cao, Managing Editor, New York Times, Chinese Website
  • Hervé Kempf, Environmental Editor, Le Monde
  • Bryan Walsh, Senior Editor, TIME International
  • Julia Kirby, Harvard Business Review, Editor at Large (Moderator)


  • Changes to sustainability in the past 20 years include new types of relationships, such as unusual alliances; new solutions, such as entrepreneurialism; and also a deeper reach and scale of problems as ecological degradation continues globally.
  • A global economic crisis and consolidation in media limit the ability of journalists to perform the investigation and gather the data necessary to report meaningfully on sustainability.
  • Reporting on sustainability must be done across silos—business, politics, science—and across nations so that it covers the broad range of complex challenges that underpin sustainability.

Memorable Quotes

“There’s a huge incentive for companies to develop data and reporting that are common across industries so we as reporters can make meaningful comparisons across companies.” —Matthew Bishop, The Economist

“If we want to solve the problem we have to work together, not just one country on its own. As a Chinese journalist we see that China has become a very important stakeholder.” —Haili Cao, New York Times’ Chinese website

“If CSR is walled off from the business itself, it’s hard to take it seriously. If it’s integrated, you’ll likely know you’re dealing with a real story.” —Bryan Walsh, TIME International


Kirby kicked off one of the first panels of the 2012 Conference with a question to panelists: Over the last 20 years, has everything or nothing changed in the world of sustainability?

Bishop was first to respond. “The old silos between business, philanthropy, civil society need to break down, and if they do there can be big-scale solutions,” he said, referencing one of the conclusions of his book Philanthrocapitalism. He added that media is somewhat hostile toward business following the financial crisis—the subject of another of his books, The Road to Ruin—and therefore reluctant to claim business is doing anything good.

Cao contrasted the blue skies of Beijing during her time as a student there with the pollution, contamination, and cars that clog the city today. “It’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, China is the beneficiary of globalization. On the other, China is the victim,” she said. She emphasized the importance of a global view on sustainability so that solving a problem in one country did not create problems in places like China.

Walsh introduced himself as a reporter who views sustainability from the nexus of business and politics. He said that business has demonstrated the initiative to address at least some of the problems of sustainability, including companies like DuPont that took on a role as an advocate for a cap-and-trade system in 2006. “In the corporate world there’s an interest to tackle at least some of these problems, and yet it hasn’t translated into the political world,” he said. According to Walsh, science, business, and politics are all necessary for sustainability.

Kempf gave the final response to Kirby’s first question by emphasizing the increasing ecological impacts of the past 20 years. He shared his concerns over the contributions of capitalism to this decline and the consolidation of global media. Kempf gave examples of popular opposition in his home country of France to fracking and Arctic oil exploration as a way of highlighting potential solutions.

Kirby moved the conversation to the changes in media by asking panelists what story they would have written 20 years ago that would be uninteresting today. Bishop responded that stories about companies donating money are rarely covered, but expressed his surprise over limited coverage on lobbying. “That tends to be reported in very sensationalist terms and yet there isn’t a serious debate on what’s right and wrong,” he said. For Walsh, a story on company and product efficiencies and small innovations garnered coverage in the past, but less so today. Fracking, in which adversarial relationships have returned, such as those between the Sierra Club and oil companies, tend to be more interesting, according to Walsh.

Cao answered by saying that state-owned media in China complicate the reporting process. Since protest is not allowed in China, reporting often focuses on government responsibility for environmental degradation. According to her, business and government have few incentives to reduce environmental impact because business is focused on low costs, while government is focused on GDP growth. “In a way, China is at the center of manufacturing, and the same problem remains,” she said to explain that even though labor abuses may be declining in apparel, abuses remain in other sectors that affect Chinese manufacturers.

Kirby then asked panelists what surprised them about what had not been accomplished. Walsh stated that the slower-than-expected transition to cleaner energy systems surprised him. “In the terms of what it seems to mean for what’s politically possible, you now have a politics of fear on both sides,” he said of short-term thinking by political leaders. Bishop and Kempf concurred and emphasized the role of media. “We should not underestimate the crisis in media on the funding to report on the types of stories that need to be told,” said Bishop. Kempf stated that underfunding media leads to stories that are weak and less provocative so that many readers turn to the internet, where they get much of their information from inexperienced reporters.

Kirby concluded by noting the skepticism of the panelists, and suggesting that there has also been progress made in the past 20 years, particularly in terms of advancements in media technologies.

Thank You, Sponsors

Executive Sponsors

Cisco Hitachi PwC Target UL Responsible Sourcing

Associate Sponsors

Anheuser-Busch InBev

Supporting Sponsors

Adobe AT&T ExxonMobil Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Inc.

Participating Sponsors

American Express Baker & McKenzie LLP Best Buy BNY Mellon Ford Hyatt Hotels Corporation The Walt Disney Company UPS Vale

Contributing Sponsors

Chevron icix Levi Strauss & Co.

Convening Media

Bloomberg Business Week Weber Shandwick

Marketing and Media

3BL Media BEF Caixin Media Corporate Knights Globescan GreenBiz Group Inc. Hemlock Responsible-Investor Sina Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) Tomorrow Partners