A voluntary approach

8th December 2011

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With the government dedicated to reduce the burden of regulation on businesses, Paul Suff asks if voluntary agreements are enought to encourage organisations to improve their environmental impacts

How do you get companies to improve their environmental performance? Will more be achieved if they step forward voluntarily to reduce their environmental impacts or is compulsion the best way of securing improvement?
The government tends to favour the former, believing that a non-regulatory approach can help secure behaviour change.

Tucked away in the autumn statement was a pledge to increase the number of mid-sized businesses benefiting from resource-efficiency schemes, including voluntary agreements, by up to 200. There are a number of examples of such agreements, including the Courtauld Commitment (CC), which aims to improve resource efficiency and reduce the carbon and wider environmental impact of the grocery retail sector.

With the government keen to reduce so-called red tape we are likely to see more of these types of deals because voluntary agreements are seen as less burdensome on the business community than legislation. But there are serious doubts about their effectiveness.

The latest update from WRAP suggests the 53 companies involved in the CC are on course to meet the waste and recycling targets set out in phase II of the commitment, but they are having real problems engaging their supply chains. And there’s the rub.

You need a critical mass to achieve environmental goals, but the majority of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are not party to such agreements, because they are largely the preserve of big firms. Regulation, by contrast, applies to everyone and is much more likely to provide consistency across industry and secure environmental improvements.

The failure by retailers to halve by 2009 the number of single-use plastic bags given to customers compared with 2006 levels under a voluntary British Retail Consortium commitment is evidence that, even with the best intentions, the voluntary approach may not produce the desired results. The answer to retailers’ lack of progress is to do as the Welsh Assembly government has done, and legislate.


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