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close this bookPartners in Time? Business, NGOs and Sustainable Development (UNRISD, 1999, 85 p.)
close this folderPart 2: Toward civil regulation
close this folderThe Case for Civil Regulation
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentThe Corporate Rationale for Civil Regulation
View the documentThe NGO Rationale for Civil Regulation

The NGO Rationale for Civil Regulation

In outlining civil regulation as a new system of regulation, we do not mean to imply that there is a universal awareness of this system by campaigners working for NGOs with business-oriented campaigns. Unfortunately there is little appreciation of how the confrontational and collaborative campaigns of NGOs on a diverse set of single issues, North and South, are together providing a new context for international trade. With the increasing power and diversifying roles of NGOs, there is a need for campaigners to acknowledge the links between confrontation and collaboration, between environment and development and between North and South.

Despite the rise of global NGO networks since the Earth Summit, there remains a surprising lack of understanding between the Northern environmental movement and local communities in the South. Many initiatives by Northern NGOs have been unable to overcome the environment-development or North-South divide. Northern conservation groups are still accused of ignoring indigenous peoples’ needs; one example of this is the establishment of national parks which have expelled people from their former homelands (Anderson and Grove, 1987). The FSC, for example, was founded with the aim of promoting socially beneficial forest management. Four years after its formation, however, membership by development NGOs and trade unions is almost non-existent, with Northern environmental groups continuing to dominate. In addition, Southern representation has yet to exceed 25 per cent of the total membership. Conversely, many Northern-based development NGOs, working on a variety of different issues and in different countries, have not yet fully integrated environmental issues into their work.

The absence of a strong holistic vision for sustainable development by Northern NGOs may restrict their ability to pursue a comprehensive strategy for promoting greater corporate responsibility. This should be of particular concern for environmental groups in the North:

Making the environmental movement something more than a dim reflection of developed country environmental concerns will only happen once the immediate impact of environmental degradation on peoples’ daily lives is addressed (Kaimowitz, 1996:31).

For civil regulation to become a powerful progressive force for environmental sustainability and social justice, different NGOs pursuing different campaigning tactics must maintain their links. Those involved in business partnerships should seek transparency with the wider NGO movement. As noted in part 1, civil regulation requires confrontation as well as co-operation. Grassroots action will remain important in pushing business toward greater responsibility for environmental protection and social development. Protest is crucial for the empowerment of civil society, for stopping malpractice by alerting governments and citizens, and for reforming business toward sustainability by promoting the adoption of more effective environmental and social policies.

Partnerships are also crucial for effective civil regulation, particularly where they lead to systems of multi-stakeholder agreed and independently verified codes of responsible business practice. This is how NGOs can help harness consumer support for environmental goals. Despite its many limitations, a more sustainable form of consumerism represents one way in which individuals can express their concern for the environment and promote positive change. By becoming involved in the development of consumer information systems and eco-labelling, we believe NGOs have the potential to restore consumer confidence in environmentally preferable products and hence the consumer’s sense of agency. This may help to politicize the market in favour of sustainability goals and ensure that consumer concern is translated into substantial social and environmental improvements. As noted earlier, NGOs can also play a validating role for voluntary initiatives, thereby lending them added credibility and the necessary “bite” to deliver more substantial change in business behaviour.

Dialogue and partnership with business is also a catalyst for the greater environmental education of society. Business managers, who may have never previously engaged constructively with sustainability issues, are now doing so. Given their global reach and commercial power, many corporations can reach far more people than an individual NGO. By promoting their environmental policies to customers and staff, many people are learning more about the role of business in solving environmental and social problems. In addition, the demonstration of workable partnership solutions can be an effective means of encouraging governments to pursue innovative policy alternatives. This need for new models is essential given the apparent reluctance and/or inability of governments to introduce new and stronger environmental laws or to ensure compliance with existing legislation.

Business-NGO partnerships concerned with core business practices are a new phenomenon, one with which most NGOs are unfamiliar. Partnerships with business thus present a number of strategic problems for NGOs. In the various forest-related partnerships outlined earlier, almost no attempt has been made to develop systems to evaluate the partnership’s direct contribution to the achievement of specific environmental goals. Today the main quantitative analyses of an NGO’s success are based upon membership levels and the extent of media coverage. Third-wave environmentalists need new ways to judge performance. Indicators such as “the percentage reduction in waste per dollar spent”, or “the acres of forest saved per dollar invested” are required if we are to truly know the full costs and benefits of business partnerships for participating NGOs.

Some of these concerns appear to be addressed within other initiatives. Although it is too early to evaluate the Pakistan soccer ball partnership, the project’s plans include both monitoring and verification of industry compliance and a wide range of social protection activities for children, their families and local communities. SCF-UK appears to have been instrumental in ensuring that the project will not just phase out child labour, but that it will meet important social development needs as well.

This leads to another concern with business-NGO partnerships: the opportunity costs. With an increasing amount of time and finance spent on working with business, other means of achieving environmental and social goals, such as litigation or strengthening government capacity, may be compromised. In addition, media work may focus increasingly on the general public’s role as green or ethical consumers rather than on citizens committed to conservation, social justice and sustainable communities.

Then there is the question of independence. NGOs run the risk of being co-opted by business, which seeks to improve its image by selling certified and labelled products endorsed, directly or indirectly, by an NGO. There is a concern that single-issue partnerships may prevent an NGO from publicly criticizing its business partner on other social or environmental matters. In the case study on the sporting goods industry described above, SCF-UK rejected invitations by the industry to become involved in a labelling scheme, because it did not want to endorse a company’s child-free soccer balls while the same company continued to sell other unethical products. This example reflects a widely held belief on the part of many NGOs and activists that tools such as certification and labelling are too incremental and fail to address the underlying causes of social injustice and environmental degradation.