I've never been a big fan of self-regulation. I'd hardly regard myself as a rampaging hedonist, but the idea of regulating yourself still sounds like a bit too much of an oxymoron.
Sadly it is a fact of life that left to their own devices many people will set up internal regulations that allow them to do pretty much what they like. If we were all capable of regulating ourselves there would be no need for any form of legislation and we could do away with all lawyers and spend the rest of days kicking back in some kind of earthly nirvana. Unless I've missed something we're not quite there yet.
There are many reasons to oppose self-regulation as a means of governing corporate activity, running from the fact that it is inherently undemocratic for an unelected cabal to decide what should and should not be regulated, through to the more obvious problem that there are no sanctions to punish those that decide that regulating themselves is not in their best interest.
However, the most compelling argument against self regulation is that it simply doesn't work.
Self-regulation has long been a bete noire of the environmental movement on the grounds that it is the principle delaying tactic for firms wishing to avoid moving towards sustainable business models.
Firms under pressure to address their environmental impact will often respond by claiming that they are aware of the problem and plan to tackle it by regulating themselves - which sounds great in principle as it allows legislators to avoid implementing unpopular and complicated new laws.
But while some companies, particularly within consumer facing industries, get brand value from regulating themselves and have an incentive to do so successfully, others have no such incentive and simply set up internal environmental regulations that are never policed and never open to third party assessment. As a result these polluting firms get environmentalists off their back and more importantly head off proper regulations while investing next to nothing in actually transforming their business to meet their internal environmental targets, many of which are probably not strict enough in the first place.
No where is this scandal more obvious than in the auto industry where for over a decade car manufacturers managed to head off European legislation imposing legally binding fuel efficiency targets upon new vehicles through the simple expedient of telling lawmakers that they would instead hit their own voluntary targets.
In 1998, the car manufacturers promised they would cut average emissions from new cars down from 188 grams per kilometre to 140 by 2008. But with no incentive for them to reach this target and no punishment if they failed they are expected to miss the voluntary target by almost half.
After almost a decade of seeing this self regulation fail the European Commission has finally got off its backside and proposed legally binding targets, but rather than thanking its lucky stars for the ten years of grace they received the auto industry has been lobbying ferociously to torpedo the new law and has already managed to get the emission targets watered down.
If you ever wanted to know why environmentalists are so hostile to self regulation, this sorry little affair provides your answer.
However, several recent developments have forced me to reassess my views on environmental self-regulation, albeit only slightly.
A couple of weeks ago, leading garden chain Wyevale declared that it was to stop selling patio heaters because of their not inconsiderable contribution to climate change.
Environmentalists have been lobbying for years for a ban on these grossly inefficient outdoor heaters, citing studies from the Energy Saving Trust which show they consume enough energy every hour to boil 400 cups of tea. Now Wyevale has decided to do what the government didn't have the nerve to do and ban them from its stores.
The move represents quite a gamble for Wyevale, which reportedly sold £250,000 worth of heaters last year. But the company has obviously calculated that the positive publicity it gains from being seen to be environmentally responsible will outweigh any lost sales.
A spokesman for Friends of the Earth welcomed the move, claiming that with the decision following on from a similar commitment from electrical retailer Currys to stop selling incandescent bulbs it demonstrated a shift in corporate priorities.
"In the past these types of companies would simply say they were responding to customer demand and keep selling polluting products," he said. "But now some are realising that even though these products are legally allowed they are so damaging they should not be selling them."
Self regulation may have a decidedly mixed record of success when it comes to imposing complex regulations on companies that have little to gain from complying with them. But when the self control in question is a simple ban on a polluting product then evidently self regulation can work, particularly when the company imposing the ban stands to generate positive PR.
There is also the hope that self regulating decisions such as those taken by Wyevale and Currys will embarrass either their rivals or even the government into following their lead.
I remain unconvinced that corporate self regulation alone can deliver the scale of business transformation required to deliver the cut in carbon emissions required – too many businesses will simply not see the benefits in complying with internal environmental regulations and the sight of them failing to meet their own standards will only fuel the accusations of greenwashing that do so much harm to the entire green business movement.
But with governments unwilling or unable to develop strong, equitable and well thought out environmental regulations responsible businesses can fill the regulatory void with their own sustainable best practices - and refusing to sell polluting products is perhaps the simplest and most effective place to start.
Meanwhile, those businesses that can not see an immmediate PR benefit in environmental self regulation should look at the experience of the European car industry and ask if meeting the voluntary targets in the first place would have proved cheaper for them in the long run than having to now comply with strict new emissions laws.
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