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RFF-Resources-164_VoluntaryPrograms

RFF-Resources-164_VoluntaryPrograms - How Well Do Voluntary...

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T he explosive growth in voluntary environmental programs since the early 1990 s in the United States, Europe, and Japan reflects, in part, changing so- cietal attitudes about the environment and a growing optimism about the pos- sibility of enhanced cooperation between government and business. It also reflects widespread frustration with the long and expensive battles often as- sociated with new environmental regulations. In most cases, voluntary programs are being used to control pollutants that have not yet been regulated and for which legislative author- ity may be difficult to obtain. Unlike market-based approaches to environmental manage- ment, where the conceptual roots are largely academic, voluntary programs have emerged as a pragmatic response to the need for more flexible ways to protect the environment. But do these programs actually work as advertised? That is, do they deliver significant en- vironmental gains without the burdens associated with traditional, command-and-control regulation? Quantitatively, how large are the likely gains? And can they really substitute for mandatory requirements, or should expectations be more modest? Getting credible answers to these questions is important. Friends and foes of voluntary programs are increasingly at odds, sometimes drawing opposite conclusions about the same program. The former, typically on the side of industry, see voluntary programs as a more prac- tical, flexible approach to regulation. The latter, including some environmental advocates, often see them as an obstacle to more stringent, mandatory programs. This polarization may be partly a consequence of poor information. A Loose Taxonomy B ecause the existing literature on voluntary programs primarily focuses on why firms choose to participate, rather than on the final results, we chose to take a different ap- proach, relying on case studies of representative programs (see the box on page 24) . The re- sult of this work is a book that we edited, Reality Check: The Nature and Performance of Environ- mental Programs in the United States, Europe, and Japan (RFF Press 2007) , which this article is excerpted from (see the RFF Press advertisement on the back cover). Regulators have come up with numerous terms to describe particular mechanisms: self- regulation, negotiated agreements, environmental covenants, business-led environmental strategies, and others. Nonetheless, a loose taxonomy has evolved, with three reasonably dis- tinct bins, based on how the parameters of the commitment are determined: Unilateral agreements by industrial firms. Business-led corporate programs fall under this heading, as do commitments or reduction targets chosen by firms or industry associations. Examples of such agreements in the United States include the American Chemistry Coun- cil’s “Responsible Care” initiative for reducing chemical hazards, and McDonald’s replace- ment of its Styrofoam “clamshell” containers with paper packaging.
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