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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
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentThe Political Dimensions of Corporate Environmentalism
View the documentNGOs and the Politics of Pressure in a Globalizing Economy
View the documentFrom Producer Politics to Consumer Politics
View the documentBeyond Legal Versus Self-Compliance
Open this folder and view contentsThe Case for Civil Regulation
View the documentThe Potential of Civil Regulation for the South
Open this folder and view contentsGovernmental Policy Frameworks for Civil Regulation


What is corporate environmentalism, really? What can it offer the many people in less industrialized countries, today and tomorrow, who seek secure and sustainable livelihoods? Is the idea of growing business responsibility for the environment of developing countries our common future, or our shared fallacy? Some observers stress that it is largely a public relations exercise or “greenwash”, so that companies can continue to plunder the planet. Others have insisted that it is a real and rational business response to ecological constraints and market opportunities. The “rational business response” argument suggests that self-compliance is an adequate strategy for sustainability. The “greenwash” argument demands greater legal compliance from business if we are to reverse environmental degradation. These diametrically opposed analyses have generated much heated debate on the issues of sustainable development, corporate regulation and global governance.

In contrast, the changing business response to NGOs, described in part 1, cannot be adequately explained by either side of this debate. Corporations are increasingly being compelled to take action by civil society, not by government. These phenomena are examples of neither self-compliance nor legal compliance, and the evidence we have presented contributes neither to the “rational business response” argument nor the “greenwash” argument. However, it is important to remember that the instances of NGO-driven business responsibility for sustainable development are limited in both number and geographical scope. As in nearly all cases the force for change has come from well-financed Northern NGOs; the potential role of NGO-driven corporate environmentalism in the South is currently unclear.

Part 2 investigates the potential for the wider replication of NGO-driven corporate environmentalism in developing countries. This is done by placing the initiatives described above within the context of global processes, including the globalization of business, trade and finance, and advances in communications technologies. This leads us to develop a theory of how corporations are regulated for social and environmental goals in a globalizing economy and to chart appropriate corporate, NGO and governmental strategies.

Our argument is this. First, corporate responsibility for environmental protection is a political process. This is not to dismiss the commercial win-win arguments for environmental management, which are now well established. Instead, we point out that many environmental management initiatives go beyond eco-efficiencies and tackle issues where financial outlay does not generate immediate returns. Second, civil society organizations are increasingly important actors in determining the political-economic context within which business must operate. These very diverse organizations, called NGOs, are linking globally through communications technology and are able to generate ethical responses from consumers. Third, the emergence of consumer politics and the growth of these NGOs is allowing a new model of regulation to develop. While the “rational business response” and “greenwash” analyses suggest policies of either self-compliance or legal compliance respectively, our analysis leads us to describe the phenomenon of “civil compliance” - or what we will call civil regulation.