They were among the most depressing images to come out of Latin America in 2015--the dead fish, the polluted Rio Doce, the millions of tons of toxic waste that engulfed homes when a tailings dam collapsed in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais on November 5. President Dilma Rousseff described it as "the worst environmental disaster Brazil has ever seen" and laid the blame squarely with the dam's owners, Samarco. The company and its joint owners--Anglo-Australian BHP Billiton and Brazilian Vale--have agreed to pay more than $5 billion in damages.
But while the Samarco disaster grabbed the headlines--the latest example of lax corporate practices triggering a major environmental catastrophe in Latin America--it does not tell the full story. Across the region, thousands of companies are taking their commitment to the environment ever-more seriously. Many have embraced new technology to make their production processes greener. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), a long-established concept in European and North American boardrooms, is slowly but surely taking root in Latin America.
"Are attitudes changing? Yes, they are," said Colin McKee, Environmental and Social Officer at the Inter-American Investment Corporation (IIC), a member of the Inter-American Development Bank Group that promotes development of Latin America and the Caribbean through support of the private sector. "There has been an evolution in CSR. It used to be about community donations and philanthropic efforts. These days it's more sophisticated. It's about businesses integrating sustainability into their strategy and operations."
One measure of this progress is the number of companies in Latin America that now produce comprehensive sustainability reports. Back in 2010, just 327 companies in the region published reports that complied with guidelines issued by The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), an independent body that sets the most widely used standard for sustainability reporting. By 2015, that figure had more than doubled to 788.
Of those companies, more than a quarter (222) are Brazilian. "No other country in the region has enjoyed as much public discourse about CSR and sustainability as Brazil," said Fabian Echegaray, managing director of Market Analysis, a Brazil-based market research firm that focuses on green issues. "There are specialist magazines, TV programs, and radio broadcasts about green consumerism. These issues have become popular...