Voluntary or non-regulatory initiatives (VNRIs) operate instead of, or as a complement to, regulations designed to achieve environmental policy objectives. Recent years have seen an increase in the number of VNRIs but there is as yet no widespread agreement on how to develop these programs, their essential design features and the circumstances in which they should be applied. Existing programs are thus uneven in their rigour and quality. To engender public trust in VNRIs they must be applied appropriately and designed according to a standard set of principles.
Business and industry now shoulder many of the responsibilities formerly taken on by governments. Multinational corporations, for long powerful forces in the global economy, have led the action to establish and implement voluntary actions such as codes of conduct, responsible care programmes and voluntary reporting on environmental performance (environmental auditing). This has occurred usually where a conducive national framework was in place in the country where the multinational headquarters was located. Although it is impossible to assess the exact contribution of these actions to overall environmental protection and global environmental stewardship, there is no doubt of their general utility. As yet, however, the improved environmental performance of large-scale industry has not been echoed by small and medium-sized firms, which need both help and encouragement.
The International Chamber of Commerce, Business Charter for Sustainable Development and voluntary initiatives like it provide a common, global basis for improved environmental performance, cooperation between companies, and for interactions with stakeholders. The emphasis is on a process of continuous improvement rather than judgement on any absolute standard, given the diversity of the business community.
The Ontario Ministry of the Environment (MOE) is working on a new model to support voluntary non regulatory environmental measures (VEM's). It is working with the Canadian Chemical Producers Association and six major chemical companies. The chemical industry in Canada started one of the most successful voluntary initiatives, "The Responsible Care" program. Their leadership is being followed by many of the other industry sectors including aluminum, utilities, and oil refining.
In 1998 the Environment Council endorsed a voluntary agreement - negotiated by the European Commission with the Association of European Car Manufacturers (ACEA) - to reduce average emissions from new cars to 140 grammes per kilometre by 2008, and move towards the Council's overall objective which is 120 grammes per kilometre by 2010 at the latest. This is the biggest voluntary agreement with industry within Europe. It will deliver some 15% of the EU's CO2 Kyoto target and could cut emissions by as much as 85 million tonnes a year by 2010. This agreement is an important first step. It will drive innovation and push technology forward.
The chemical industry's Responsible Care initiative seeks to continuously improve the environmental, health and safety (EHS) performance of the chemical industry's operations and products in a manner responsive to the concerns of all stakeholders. Responsible Care was first adopted by the Canadian Chemical Producers Association (CCPA) in 1985 and has since been implemented by chemical associations and their members in an additional 39 nations. Responsible Care represents an important corporate cultural change which has led to improved performance and new levels of openness with the public.
Networking is an effective way for enterprises to learn about each other's strong points and offsetting their own weaknesses. It allows enterprises to draw on each other's merits in order to achieve common progress and improvement. Networking could be instrumental in showing the capacity of industrial and other enterprises for self-regulation and the willingness of industry to collaborate with governments and international organizations.
The main mechanism for effective networking could be benchmarking comparisons in environmental performance between enterprises in the same branch or sector - though it needs to be recognized that much has to be done to develop and implement cross-industry and cross-sectoral indicators if benchmarking is to be more than an enterprise-level activity. The performance of one enterprise, presented as sets of quantitative and qualitative indicators, would be used as a reference or benchmark for evaluating the performance of other enterprises that share the same set of indicators. The results would enable participating enterprises to assess their own situation.