But just how much is this a case of the corporate posturing of a group of overpaid business chiefs keen to show they are doing their bit for the world as part of a clever PR campaign to convince governments, the media and consumers that they are not the problem but, in fact, part of the solution?
Showing the outside world that you have a sustainable development strategy in place is now de rigueur. A recent survey by KPMG found that 45% of the world's largest 250 companies now produce a responsibility report. Any corporate web site worth its salt has a blurb on sustainability and social responsibility. Ever more food and drink companies are trying to get into the FTSE4Good and Dow Jones Sustainability indices. There has been a hive of activity in advance of the summit as multinationals try to convince us their corporate plans are compatible with sustainable development. And in the past 12 months two of the world's largest food retailers, Tesco and Carrefour, have produced their first social responsibility reports.
Carrefour's ethical commitment
"This year there are an enormous number of newcomers to reporting," says Judy Kuszewski, senior advisor at consultancy Sustainability. "These reports set out the way companies are relating to the issue, with a set of promises and expectations. Some of the language is fascinating, very challenging."
Carrefour's 50-page report outlines its commitment to issues such as developing durable and equitable relationships with SME suppliers, ensuring suppliers do not use child or forced labour and adding an environmental aspect to site audits.
Tesco uses a definition of sustainable development based on the 1987 Brundtland Report, which describes it as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".
Chief executive Sir Terry Leahy says: "Corporate social responsibility makes sound business sense. The key to our approach is our integrated business system, where environmental and social performance is managed alongside financial performance."
That argument regularly trips off the tongues of the world's biggest retailers and suppliers. At the CIES World Food Summit, Carrefour chairman and chief executive Daniel Bernard said sustainable development was "a lever to create value" while Groupe Danone vice-chairman and CEO Jacques Vincent said: "It is no longer just how much money you make, but how you make money."
But is all this just talk and no action as these companies continue to bulldoze their way into ever more markets in the name of profit without any regard to the local, often impoverished, population and environment? According to Kuszewski there has not been a massive change: "There are some good examples on the manufacturing side but nothing really revolutionary generally. A fair amount of it is about deflecting potential criticism before it happens."
She points to Sainsbury (see box) and Tesco, Finnish retailer Kesko and Swiss retailer Migros as having taken the first steps, while South African Breweries is "an outstanding sustainability reporter".
P&G argues the business case for sustainability
"We are only starting to see this industry's first thoughts and it is not possible to say at this point how serious they may be," she says. "But when companies like Wal-Mart make efforts on sustainable sourcing, with their enormous supply chains, they have to be very serious as it has a massive impact on the way they operate."
In a recent FT article, Procter & Gamble's European head of sustainable development Peter White says sustainable development is not about morality or even saving money by reducing resource use. It will only work in business if it is an opportunity and is profitable. "We should not have to rely on the moral case or arguments about risk, employee morale and reputation. I am keen to prove the hard business case Â that we can build revenue," he says.
Carrefour's Bernard agrees when he says: "Changing the world is not our primary task. Our first task is to serve customers well."
But he believes stakeholder pressure is a force to be reckoned with. "Voters, shareholders and our customers have awoken to safeguarding the future. Sustainable development is the intelligent and demanding choice. We need to act now so that in 10 years' time we are not in deep crisis because we did not take the right approach in 2002."
The problem is, that even if companies believe they need to be seen to be doing this, they often have no idea how to go about it. For this reason the Food and Drink Federation launched an industry blueprint two weeks ago, setting out key performance indicators to enable companies to measure and report on their sustainability performance. Every member of the UK government delegation has taken a copy to Johannesburg.
Deputy director general Martin Paterson says raising consumer awareness of the issues involved must be a key part of any strategy, but getting funding for such education will be difficult. "We will push at an open door if we ask Michael Meacher but whether this would translate to Treasury funding is another kettle of fish," he says.
Sustainable development is a complex issue and the industry should be commended for taking its first steps. One multinational supplier is pursuing plans that will allow consumers to log on to its web site and tap in a number to find out from which farm ingredients in a particular product came.
But a manager at this same company says: "CEO will not stand for chief ethical officer just yet, not in the UK at least. I feel that the Continentals are in front of us, both from an ethical and environmental point of view."
And it is all rather hollow in light of issues such as online auctions and factory gate pricing Â hardly examples of encouraging long lasting relationships with stakeholders. CEOs may like to think they are positioning themselves as sustainability leaders, but it will be a long time before they can even start to claim to be ethical officers.