Of all the business leaders linked to environmental disasters, the most unlikely name is Stefan Schmidheiny. Yet this week, he was found guilty by a court in Turin, Italy over 3000 asbestos-related deaths and sentenced in absentia to 16 years’ prison and payment of substantial damages to victims and their families.
The charges relate to his time at the helm of Eternit, at one stage the world’s largest manufacturer of asbestos cement products. He’s accused of failing to comply with safety regulations, “willful failure” to protect employees and residents and concealing knowledge of the hazards of asbestos.
It’s a shocking outcome for the philanthropist, posterchild of the sustainable business movement and founder of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). Schmidheiny was responsible for taking Eternit asbestos-free – a process that took nearly 20 years.
Based now in Costa Rica, he is expected to appeal the decision. But as business leaders around the world prepare for Rio+20, it’s a timely reminder that what passes for business-as-usual today quickly becomes tomorrow’s environmental crime.
The precautionary approach, always, is by far the wisest strategy.