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  • Writer's pictureJohn Pabon

The UNEP's House of Brands

When it comes to sustainability at the UN, the big daddy is the United Nations Environment Programme, or UNEP. Established in the early 1970s, the UNEP’s mission has been to coordinate all the then-disparate efforts across the UN system. It did so for a while. During this period, UNEP focused primarily on science and policy related to climate change, assisting in disaster scenarios and providing technical manuals related to climate resilience. Its work put it well ahead of other scientific bodies in predicting the impacts of climate change. In a sad bit of irony, it was a vocal chorus of countries from the developing world speaking out against UNEP’s work. Why worry about the environment when there were more pressing economic matters?

Following a decade-plus of leading work, UNEP began creating what marketers call a house of brands. They served as a parent organisation, but what was once a coordinating body began to break up into disparate parts. The first significant shift was the creation of the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in 1988. Unlike UNEP, scientists and not career diplomats run the IPCC. They spend much of their time collecting, collating, and reviewing all the world’s existing scientific knowledge about climate change. They take all this and provide advice to governments as well as annual reports on the state of the climate. These annual reports have begun to make headlines as the findings grow increasingly dire, perfect material for the doom-tastic ten o’clock local news. The IPCC is widely considered the most trusted source of climate change scientific information, even garnering a Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.

The IPCC eventually dwarfed the work of its parent organisation and called into question the usefulness of the UNEP. Following the IPCC’s damning Fourth Assessment Report, published in 2007, 46 countries called for UNEP's complete dissolution. Allegations of corruption and a far too limited scope of powers were the nails in the proverbial coffin. In its stead, supporters cited the need for a more powerful body akin to the World Health Organization. Led by then-French President Jacques Chirac, the Paris Appeal (not to be confused with the Paris Agreement) urges “massive international action to face the environmental crisis.”

Chirac’s vision never materialised. He left office only a few months after this declaration, and without a vocal champion, the idea of a UN Environment Organization fizzled out. Calls for UNEP reform, though, have not.

The danger in creating a house of brands, even inadvertently like UNEP did, is that you risk your sub-brands becoming more recognisable, popular, and successful. You might not think, “I want to buy something from LVMH today.” Many would, however, think about buying from Tiffany, Sephora, or Kenzo. AB inBev might not whet your appetite, but having an ice-cold Corona or Stella Artois certainly will. The same has happened with UNEP. While people know about it, one hears far more about the IPCC and some of the other sustainability work done by the UN.

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