Voluntary schemes not an alternative to regulation

24th November 2015


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  • UK government ,
  • Management ,
  • Corporate governance ,
  • Natural resources

Author

Neil Howe

Voluntary approaches to protect the environment have failed, according to the RSPB after a review of more than 150 schemes across several business sectors.

The conservation group undertook the study to fill what it says is a lack of evidence on the value of regulation for protecting the environment.

More than 80% of schemes it assessed performed poorly on at least one measure. Most schemes set unambitious targets, with many also failing to meet these. Many voluntary schemes are undermined by low rates of participation, leaving those who do take part and want to improve their performance at a disadvantage, it found.

An example highlighted by the organisation is the failure of a voluntary scheme for retailers to reduce the number of single-use plastic bags given to customers. Mandatory charges have now been introduced in England after the success of schemes in Wales and Scotland, the RSPB said. Two decades of voluntary approaches to cut the use of peat-based compost had also failed, despite good efforts by some producers and retailers, it said.

The study found no guarantee that costs would be lower under a voluntary approach, since the design, negotiation and implementation can involve considerable expense. "There are limits to what is possible based on voluntarism alone given the commercial pressures that all businesses face," said Donal McCarthy, an economist at the RSPB.

When voluntary schemes do work, it is usually due to a close alignment between commercial drivers and environmental benefits. McCarthy said voluntary schemes need to include clear and credible targets, transparent reporting, independent monitoring and incentives.


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