August 26, 2002 – Friends of the Earth today slammed the UK Government, British business and lobbyists for fighting against binding regulations and pushing weak voluntary agreements. In a new report, Friends of the Earth reveals how voluntary agreements on business standards have failed to deliver sustainability [1]. The UK Government is pushing for voluntary controls rather than binding regulations on business and rights for people at the Earth Summit which starts today (Monday) .

Thousands of Friends of the Earth supporters have been phoning the Labour Party help line to ask whether the Government were going to act on Foreign Secretary Jack Straw’s statement that, “we cannot leave companies to regulate themselves globally, any more than we do in our national economies” [2]. Despite initial insurances that they would press for binding rules, in fact the Government has stuck to its policy that only voluntary business measures are necessary. In practice, even the United Nations Environment Programme has concluded that voluntary measures have not worked.

Friends of the Earth today published a short but devastating critique of the voluntary approach, which demonstrates that it is:

  • Ineffective in achieving change and ensuring compliance – the motivation for companies to comply with voluntary goals are weak because penalties cannot be imposed on the firms without government legislation. Voluntary agreements that have clearly failed include the OECD Guidelines for Multi-National Enterprises (where there are numerous examples of firms ignoring the code) and the Forest Principles agreed at the last Earth Summit.
  • Secretive and undemocratic – voluntary schemes nearly always place the power for policy making in the hands of business. Decisions over the goals, wording, monitoring and reporting are invariably made the responsibility of business. There is also no mechanism to ensure transparency in meeting the goals, for example six years after the chemicals industry’s Responsible Care programme was launched an independent analysis revealed that “only a few companies provide meaningful information”.
  • Short sighted with poorly defined goals – a study at Harvard University concluded that because industry representatives are not likely to sign-up to agreements that would force dramatic changes, the consensus approach preferred by business prevents tough targets and inhibits innovation. In contrast work by the OECD concluded that clear, stringent and universally applied regulations can stimulate innovation by reducing risk and uncertainty.
  • Fails to free-up government resources – an argument used by governments in favour of the voluntary approach is that legislation takes too much time to draft and enact. Friends of the Earth’s research shows this patently not to be the case. For example, negotiations over whether to introduce an aggregate tax or have a voluntary agreement have now dragged on for years, with the Treasury finally having to resort to the tax because an effective voluntary approach could not be agreed. Another example is on packaging recycling, where after years of attempting to find industry consensus on a voluntary approach the industry gave up and asked for regulations. It is likely that a voluntary approach only saves government time when the government itself has no real desire to see results – ie. When a voluntary approach is used to give an impression of action.

Tim Jenkins, Senior Researcher at Friends of the Earth, said: “The voluntary approach does not work and what is more, it is undemocratic. The Government should not be pushing this use of the voluntary approach at the Earth Summit if they are serious about getting results. As Jack Straw said a year ago, we cannot leave big business to control itself at a global level, we need binding global rules. The only reason for pushing voluntary agreements is if the Government wants to give the impression of action rather than really forcing change. If Tony Blair were so convinced of the merits of the voluntary approach he would produce examples of where it has worked.”

1. The research is available from the press office at Friends of the Earth and on-line at
2. Jack Straw, answering questions after his ‘Local Questions, Global Answers’ speech in Manchester on September 10th 2001.

Mike Childs Tel 020 7490 1649