Session I Summary: Changing Roles and Identities
Chair: Trudy Heller, Executive Education for the Environment, USA.
Rapporteur: Arno Mathis, University of Twente
As the theme of the session indicates, the main focus of the discussion was on changing identities and roles of key actors involved in sustainability issues. Key actors in the process towards sustainability are corporations, governments, and NGOs. A question addressed during the session was if these actors changed their roles in the interaction process towards more sustainable ways of production and service delivery. Among the involved actors, business is of crucial importance if substantial improvement with respect to sustainable development is the target. Volker Hoffmann indicated that business in Switzerland did not change its role in the last couple of years. Sustainability is still seen as an add-on feature of business activities and not as a crucial must-have competence. The impact of sustainable development policies is still not sufficiently measurable for Swiss firms. Hence, business is not able to connect activities related to sustainability with improved financial performance or other business advantages. From the business perspective, customers and governments as regulators and incentive-makers continue to be the key driving forces for implementing policies and possible new strategies. The necessary stimuli for more engagement by corporations in sustainable development issues have to come from these two important stakeholders. The problem right now according to Volker Hoffmann’s observations in Switzerland is that these essential stimuli are lacking. Other societal actors such as NGOs are apparently not able to influence corporations directly but also not indirectly through media and customers.
 The observed weakness of NGOs in the process towards more sustainable development has to do with its dilemma of not knowing what their most efficient role in the process should be. Blaming and shaming used to be the main functions in the early days of NGOs. Defining characteristics of NGO’s role were watch-dog activities and mobilising the public to influence corporations or governments. During the 1990s, NGOs became more interested in more collaborative policies and started to join partnerships with business to improve business practices and policies. Here came the dilemma into play for NGOs: What is the most efficient role for a NGO to improve sustainability? Nowadays, some NGOs are involved in partnerships with business while others restarted blaming and shaming strategies. NGOs with different roles and strategies can lead to a situation in which trust with business gets undermined. Business to some extent perceives NGOs not as trustful partners due to experiences from the past. Consequently, the potential of NGOs to influence business in the field of sustainable development gets reduced, if not completely lost.
 Governments are also confronted with a similar dilemma: The primary role of governments is rule-setter, but increasingly governments also function as innovators and communicators. Businesses face the problem of not knowing with whom they talk to. Is it the law-maker, innovator, or communicator who is approaching a company? Such multi-role strategies by governments can also lead to reduced trust and, hence to hampered interactions between the private and public sphere. It became clear during the discussion that governmental involvement in sustainable development is crucial for further improvement. Other roles can proof to be fruitful; however the ‘human factor’ requires the ‘stick behind the door’ to make substantial change possible.

 The discussions during the session also showed an obvious need for a more comprehensive approach to studying sustainable development. To focus only on the ‘iron-triangle’ in sustainability – business, NGOs (society), and governments – is not enough. All relevant stakeholders in a society need to be involved in upcoming studies to improve our understanding. Network approaches which enable researchers to study all involved actors were mentioned as potential options. Complex issues such as sustainable development need more innovative approaches to improve our knowledge, but also to help practitioners on the private and public sectors to really ‘walk the talk’.


All Submissions
7:00 AM-5:00 PM, Thursday, 28 April 2005, Oral

The Netherlands 2005 Meeting