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UNEP Workshop on Voluntary Initiatives Pays Off

Thirty-five representatives of industry, government, labor, environmental groups and academic institutions met earlier this month with senior officers of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) to review the lessons learned from voluntary initiatives and the steps that need to be taken if they are to become environmentally effective and publicly credible tools for sustainability.

Experiences were shared on different types of voluntary initiatives, including:
  • Responsible Care program of the chemical industry;
  • Experience of the Netherlands government with negotiated voluntary agreements;
  • Partnership of the international financial industry with UNEP;
  • Sustainable Fisheries Initiative of the Marine Stewardship Council;
  • Automotive Voluntary Initiative of the European Commission; and
  • Sustainable workplace initiatives of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU).
Participants agreed that voluntary initiatives do not undermine the need for an effective regulatory and legislative framework, and that key challenges in the future include finding the right policy mix, ensuring that workers are involved, and clarifying the role of non-governmental organizations and other stakeholders.

"Workers are both producers and consumers and voluntary initiatives will not contribute to sustainable development if workers are not involved in their design, implementation and monitoring," said Lucien Royer, ICFTU's coordinator of health, safety and environment.

Gulio Volpi of the World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF) agreed. "Our experience is that voluntary initiatives do not go beyond business as usual if they do not involve societal actors other than industry in setting the targets that we need to achieve", Volpi said.

The 1992 Earth Summit formally encouraged the development of voluntary initiatives in Agenda 21 as an experimental policy tool to achieve sustainable development objectives. Voluntary initiatives have since multiplied in use and diversity, ranging from improving environmental practices in specific industry sectors such as chemicals and finance, to the sustainable management of resources such as forests and fisheries.

But "there are diverse points of view as to the real environmental effectiveness of voluntary initiatives, their relation to regulations and other government policy tools, and the role of different stakeholders in making voluntary initiatives an effective tool for sustainable development", said Jacqueline Aloisi de Larderel, director of UNEP's division of technology, industry and economics (UNEP/DTIE).

The role of UNEP in internationally spreading best practice and developing a common, global reporting framework Global Reporting Initiative was considered essential in making voluntary initiatives more environmentally effective, credible and relevant in today's context of rapid globalization.

"UNEP has given the Financial Institutions Initiative the credibility it needs to convince other banks and investment agencies that environmental principles make good business sense,” said Richard Cooper, Head of Group Environmental Risk of Lloyds TSB Group plc.

UNEP plans to follow up the issues raised with industry at its annual industry and trade association consultation. UNEP will also continue discussions with other international organizations with whom it works on voluntary initiatives (UN Secretary-General on the Global Compact, UN Commission on Sustainable Development, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, International Labour Organization and others).

A second workshop on voluntary initiatives will be held in Nairobi in February 2001 during UNEP's 21st Governing Council, to enable more participation from developing countries.

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