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close this bookBusiness Responsibility for Sustainable Development (UNRISD, 2000, 62 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentAcknowledgements
View the documentAcronyms
close this folderSummary/Résumé/Resumen
View the documentSummary
View the documentRésumé
View the documentResumen
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentI. Boarding the Bandwagon
close this folderII. Meaningful Change?
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentIncipient and piecemeal progress
View the documentRhetoric versus reality
View the documentNot seeing the forest for the trees
close this folderIII. The Forces of Change
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View the documentEconomics
View the documentPolitics
View the documentStructural factors
View the documentIV. Limits to Change
close this folderV. Moving Forward
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentVoluntary initiatives
View the documentPartnerships
View the documentRethinking regulation and partnerships
View the documentBuilding alliances
View the documentBibliography

Building alliances

Whether or not such institutions are democratic and participatory will depend not only on the whims of those who formally create the institutional structures in question, but also on the strength of those who are demanding a greater voice. Very often this voice is fractured - environmentalists are often at odds with one another, or with trade unions or consumer groups. The growing interest in partnerships should, therefore, also embrace the question of how to build a stronger civil society movement for change by strengthening links between NGOs and trade unions. Historically, trade unions and institutions such as collective bargaining have been crucial in promoting certain features of corporate social responsibility. Yet there are dangers that trade unions are being marginalized in the current drive to transform business policies and practices associated with voluntary agreements and partnerships. Various tensions currently strain relations between these two sectors.

Environmental and consumer NGOs, for example, sometimes adopt a narrow agenda, ignoring issues associated with the protection of livelihoods, labour standards and human rights, which are likely to be of more immediate concern to workers, women and farmers in developing countries. If the promotion of “sustainable forestry”, for example, involved greater attention to social issues, trade unions might be more active supporters of forest certification schemes (Development and Cooperation, 1999). Similarly, if the NGOs attempting to promote a “sustainable banana economy”48 were as concerned about basic human rights issues - such as freedom of association of banana workers in countries like Costa Rica - as they are with issues of pesticide use and fair trade, then a potentially far stronger alliance with trade unions might exist.

48 In May 1998, the European Banana Network (EUROBAN) and the International Union of Food and Agricultural Workers (IUF) organized the first-ever world conference to explore routes “towards a sustainable banana economy” (IUF, 1998).

But there must also be a certain mutual respect for the distinctive roles of these sectors. NGOs often claim a high degree of moral authority, which may lead some to assume that they know best how trade unions should relate to TNCs or attempt to substitute them in negotiations with the corporate sector on certain issues. Many trade unions, for their part, need to deepen their concern for environmental issues. Attention to problems linked to pay, working conditions and job security, as well as the potential conflict of “environment versus employment”, has meant that the energies of trade unions have often been channelled in other directions. While some international and regional trade union secretariats and labour leaders are now engaging with the environmental agenda, large sectors of the labour movement are not. As the director of health, safety and environment programmes at the ICFTU points out, there is, therefore, a great need for training and education within trade union structures on these issues.49

49 Lucien Royer, quoted in Trade Union World, 1999.

Globalization has given rise to major new challenges and opportunities for the labour movement. In the words of one former leader, not only are new trade union structures needed to deal with the growing power of TNCs and international forces, but so, too, are alliances with other sectors of civil society, in order to build a broad-based social movement that can shape the path of development more effectively (Gallin, 1999a). In countries such as Brazil, Korea and South Africa, there are signs that some union organizations are working more closely with community and other groups to build such a movement (Gallin, 1999a).

In the absence of governmental and international regulation and more concerted, co-ordinated civil society pressure, the process of promoting corporate environmental and social responsibility in developing countries will remain lukewarm at best. The above analysis of the forces underpinning change indicates that TNCs and other major companies will continue to adopt various measures associated with social and environmental responsibility. In this respect, changes in corporate policy and practice are not simply a public relations or “greenwashing” exercise, as is claimed by some commentators. However, the initiatives involved, are likely to constitute a fairly minimalist, fragmented and uneven agenda that is fraught with contradictions. By facilitating the smooth functioning of production and marketing processes, and often diluting alternative agendas for change, such initiatives may be more conducive to economic growth and stable capitalism than sustainable development.