Are Voluntary Standards Working?

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Courtesy of Richard MacLean & Associates, LLC

The Move Toward Voluntary EHS Programs Since the early 1990s, environmental, health, and safety (EHS) regulatory agencies in the United States have placed increasing emphasis on voluntary programs and standards. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) actively promotes Energy Star, ISO 14001, Green Lights, 33/50, WasteWi$e, and similar initiatives. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) offers a Voluntary Protection Program.  But what are these efforts accomplishing?  Cynics claim these are feel-good measures that simply give the public an illusion of environmental protection. By contrast, defenders argue that in today’s complex world, detailed command-and-control regulations have reached their practical limits and voluntary measures provide needed flexibility. Who is right? 

Seeing the World Through Green-Tinted Glasses?

At a 2005 environmental conference, I noted that activists have criticized the American Chemistry Council (ACC) Responsible Care® program in the past because some ACC member companies were not performing up to the program’s high standards. At the break, one company representative cornered me to express outrage that I would make such a claim, particularly in front of the audience members, who represented regulatory agencies and environmental organizations. His company’s program was excellent, he claimed, and he took my comments as a personal affront.  Unfortunately, he did not stick around for the rest of the day. It would have been more interesting if he had done so because, later in the meeting, a representative from Responsible Care® openly admitted that they had had problems with “free riders” early on, and that this was one of the factors that had led to major changes in the program (e.g., independent verification).  This story is instructive at a number of levels, and reminds us of several key facts. First, some companies do not play by the rules. If they sign onto a program that places a significant burden on operations, some will skim off the public relations benefits and avoid the cost of full implementation.

Second, the actions of a few laggards can trigger scrutiny by environmental activists and tarnish an entire industry. Third, some individuals can be so blinded by their own company’s performance that they are oblivious to how others operate.

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