Country report - 2. The Netherlands

Posted: 20 July 2001

Author: Jacqueline Cramer

Green partnerships take root In the last few years, new patterns of co-operation have been established in The Netherlands between government, industry and the environmental move-ment. Jacqueline Cramer reports.

Until recently, direct co-operation between Dutch industry and environmental activists would have been unthinkable, but both are now beginning to work together to achieve specific objectives. The Government is also revising its original, mainly regulatory, role in environmental policy to take on a more orchestrating stance.

These changes have come about as the attitudes of all three parties have matured. Until the mid-1980s Dutch environmental policy focused on laws to control and cure specific pollution problems ­ involving water, air and soil, as well as noise. The poor results led to action based on a more integrated, preventive approach. Instead of bureaucrats laying down the law, the Government experimented with inter-active decision-making involving all the parties talking together at an early stage.

One example of this is the way decisions are being taken over the expansion of Rotterdam harbour. First a 'need-necessity' debate was organised among all the relevant groups, over the availability of space for the harbour extensions. In a second round of debate, following agreement that there was, indeed, a the shortage of space, the various groups were asked to come up with possible solutions. (Ideas included a new polder in the North Sea, better use of current space in the Rotterdam area, or expansion elsewhere). Various options are now being considered.

Consensus building

Industrial firms, local municipalities as well as environmental and nature conservancy groups all took part. This so-called 'green polder' model of consensus building is comparable with the way Dutch employers¹ organisations and trade unions make deals about pay and conditions without government intervention.

Since the 1990s, the forerunners in industry have gone beyond mere self-regulation, acting within set environmental guidelines, to embrace the notion that ecology and economy should go hand in hand. Instead of regarding environment as a defensive issue, they are beginning to see it as a business opportunity.

The chemical company Akzo Nobel is one such front runner. It has carried out eight pilot studies to identify promising eco-efficiency improvements in its whole product chain. The most promising have already been adopted, and others are being further investigated.A similar initiative has been taken by Philips, leading to products that are more energy efficient for the user ­ including television sets ­ or ones which are easily recyclable.Philips semiconductorPhilips Semiconductors' new GreenChip reduces the electricity wasted by TV's and VCRs by up to 99 per cent© PhilipsOther companies, such as the sweets manufacturer Van Melle, have reduced their own consumption of fossil fuel energy by switching to solar power. Such initiatives have led to changes in attitude by environmentalists, many of whom now see industry as an Å’ally¹ in the battle for sustainable production.

Greening industry

The Netherlands World Wide Fund for Nature (WNF), for example, is co-operating with Unilever to sell fish certified by the Marine Stewardship Council. Because the WNF is seen by industry as a respected organisation firms like Unilever benefit from being associated with it. More radical groups such as Greenpeace and the Dutch Friends of the Earth (FoE), are less ready to co-operate and more inclined to adopt an action-orientated approach.

Dutch FoE, for example, criticised certain chain stores selling tropical forest wood. Some of these then adopted the Forest Stewardship Council certification scheme and were duly praised buy FoE. Similar agreements were made with the potato and bulb producers.

More recently FoE, with financial support from the Government launched a Factor Four initiative. Working with front-runners in industry it hopes to reduce their material consumption. Industry, in turn, can expect to improve its image, reduce its cost and introduce improved products.

Such changes in the behaviour of Government, industry and the environmental movement have resulted in new forms of co-operation. Delicate relationships are being establish whose success depends very much on the views and behaviour of those involved. Despite the inevitable difficulties involved, this is a promising way to elicit the creativity in society needed to make big steps forward towards sustainable development.

Jacqueline Cramer is a part-time Professor of Environmental Management at the Erasmus University Rotterdam and works as an independent consultant for government and industry.