Why I sit with a detergent company to talk about garbage

Jan 23, 2019

Contributing to the debate and action of sustainability standards and regulations is important to me both as a board member for the German Federation of Green Economy, European Sustainable Business Federation ; as a business owner of a cacao social enterprise who sees that the decisions in Berlin and Brussels directly impact our ability to grow and evolve great cacao farming in Mindanao, Bougainville and Sulawesi.

Like many of us starting our new year, I sat in the half-yearly update of an organisation, this one today was Ecopreneur EU Circular Economy Advocacy Group and was delighted to hear the deep debates from forerunner companies who have made the shift to the green economy discuss everything from #GreenWashing, to extended producer responsibility, to copper regulation to textile micro-plastics.

 Our meeting today involved direct discussion from the policy experts at Tarkett, Rockwool and Werner & Mertz regarding the push for more ambitious green goals and circularity in mandatory regulation. We talked about recycling materials to form new products, as Werner and Mertz have with #Frosch detergent packaging and much more.


1) How advocacy for sustainability can work

In context of agroforestry and voluntary sustainable standards, the research from (Lambin and Thorlakson 2018)  research outlines two key points; firstly that a that policy sphere is surrounded by complimentary and antagonistic standards and secondly, that there is a high degree of exchange and collaboration between regulators, advocacy organisations and companies.


The Ecoprenuer EU organisation well defines this as we are both a body of highly functioning companies with regards to traditional measures of P&L, as well as embody pioneering methodologies for the circular economy and social entrepreneurship implementation.


One can see this in our top approaches :

Within Ecopreneur.eu’s overall aim of creating a sustainable economy in Europe and beyond, we generate advocacy for ambitious circular economy policies in Europe. Our focus is on implementation of strong measures in circular economy and the green economy. For example in circularity, it is in detailed focus for circular procurement, economic incentives (Extended Producer Responsibility, tax shift, VAT differentiation to incentivise greener decisions), ecodesign regulation and transparency, and on Small Medium Enterprises. Subsequently, we seek a wider development of green or circular centres of competency to enable upskilling and share the #howto to companies who are yet to transition to more sustainable processes.  We see ourselves with a clear link between our activities, the climate at large and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and policies.  As part of this, I take active participation in governmental organised advisory groups such as the European Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform (ECESP) Coordination Group and in the and my colleague Arthur Ten Wolde in the Ecodesign and Energy labelling Consultation Forum (EELCF) at the European Commission


Lambin et al well describe the connection between company action, NGO advocacy (and even certification) and public policy with their diagram here:


Picture credit: Lambin et al. p 6.5

 My experience at Ecopreneur, and together with other sustainable business organisations is the peak example of how this interaction taking the best practices from business to legislators directly occurs, and while making the red thread between what makes sense, what legislation prevents a more even playing field, the sweet spot between resource usage and protection, the risk regarding in-danger-materials and processes.

As Lambin et al points out, in the realm of voluntary sustainability standards and legislation, there can be room for misdirection, the research points to examples of duplication and diffusion:

‘When one stakeholder group (e.g., producers or civil society advocates of a particular cause) feels excluded from an existing private sustainability initiative or affected in its ability to compete, it is likely to create its own certification’

(Lambin and Thorlakson 2018 p 6.5)


During our Circular Economy Advocacy Group meeting this morning there was a long discussion about #GreenWashing and the impact it has on regulatory understanding, as well as consumer perception.


2) What sustainability in companies is like

In their research about the content review of sustainability in companies,  (Amini, Bienstock et al. 2018)  the researchers found that the triple bottom line communication has been mostly used in a sample group of 201 of the Fortune 500 companies as they relate sustainability topics, and reference social, environmental and economic sustainability as their operating framework.  Over the 72 industries they found that each sector had a unique combination of what they saw sustainability as, for example

  • Aero-space/Defence industry -> community, support, training, development, environment and programmes
  • Chemicals industry -> work, training, health and programmes
  • Commercial Banking industry -> training, opportunities, business and suppliers
  • Engineering/Construction industry -> and communities, support, development and programmes
  • Food/Consumer Products industry -> support, families, communities, programmes, diverse and development

(Amini, Bienstock et al. 2018 p 9) 


In my role as board member of the European Federation of Sustainable Business, and also the German Federation of Green Economy, we see these examples above as quite basic in comparison to the sophisticated and responsibility-focused green companies which make up our membership, who take product design for low carbon emissions, secondary raw material use, transparency in supply chain, fair exchange, reduced high risk mineral use as concrete measures whereby they communicate their sustainability measures.


Thus to bring this together, as organisations, we

  • Focus on national and EU legislation and politics, and on the business sector of Small Medium Enterprises and demonstrate the opportunity of positive agenda and examples in contrast to the reluctance of laggards in EU policy debates. We see that approximately 50% of the laws affecting German business like mine, actually come from Brussels directly and so the combo of national and EU approach is vital
  • We identify and promote the cross-sectoral approach, which is unique in the market because we focus on materials and materials-use (and post-use), with a strong and determined profit and loss laser on opportunities for classic procurement and price incentives (like extended producer responsibility, or a differentiated tax bracket for green products)

You can see excellent examples of many great European companies who have made the transition here : https://circulareconomy.europa.eu/platform/en/good-practices

 In their case study on Ricoh (Hopkinson, Zils et al. 2018)  the team presented a very well documented case from Ricoh over the 30 year transition they took towards circularity in their business process which demonstrated the the ups and downs of the approach with functional examples of ideas for other organisations.

The researchers well-rounded the issue as it pertains to the complexity of evolution in sustainability in the economy:

'The shift to a Circular Economy (CE) is not straightforward, and the current transitional phases may collide against many entrenched features of the highly successful and much older linear economy model. However, many features of our current economies are predicated on an era of low-cost, readily available resources and a system of national accounts that fail to take into account much of the degradation and degeneration of natural capital on which our entire economies and societies depend.

The responsibility for CE should not be left with manufacturing and operations managers. Marketing is very much needed to do its share, and it is a change in the culture of consumers (including business users) that should be the focus of marketers. There is no question that the industry has spent the better part of a century educating consumers that new is best. However, with marketing work, this could change.'

(Hopkinson, Zils et al. 2018 p 9) 


Thus in context, this model between NGOs, companies and regulators working together to define sustainability standards that evolve from voluntary to mandatory are complex and already full of much debate. I am delighted to participate in it, and very proud of the organisations I have the honour to represent at the national German, and European level.


I believe their work is vital :

− Make consistent advocacy, at national and EU level with sitting members of parliament as well as with operational agencies from the governments

−  Evolve coordination for joint action towards the different member states, e.g. via networking with the EU Permanent Representatives in Brussels as well as civil servants in various member states together with subject matter industry groups, for example textiles, copper etc.

− Write position papers when useful, e.g. on Circular Hubs and on Product Policy

− Continue attending relevant EU meetings in Brussels to influence the political agenda, as a speaker, panellist, with MEPs, ministries etc.

− Organising regular partner meetings among the pioneering companies to ensure we hear their most urgent issues, translate that from business sense to regulatory measures and represent at the most opportune times.



References and recommended reading:

  • Amini, M., C. C. Bienstock and J. A. Narcum (2018). "Status of corporate sustainability: a content analysis of Fortune 500 companies." Business Strategy and the Environment.
  • Hopkinson, P., M. Zils, P. Hawkins and S. Roper (2018). "Managing a Complex Global Circular Economy Business Model: Opportunities and Challenges." California Management Review 60(3): 71-94.
  • Lambin, E. F. and T. Thorlakson (2018). "Sustainability Standards: Interactions Between Private Actors, Civil Society, and Governments." Annual Review of Environment and Resources 43(1).
  • Laurel-Fois, D. (2018). "Beyond Appearances: The Risk-Reducing Effects of Responsible Investment Practices." Business & Society 57(5): 826–862.