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Critical Issues in Sustainable Development: Conference Summary of Central Themes and Outcomes
Dr. Theo de Bruijn
GIN- Europe Coordinator
Associate Professor
Center for Clean Technology and Environmental Policy (CSTM)
University of Twente
P.O. Box 217
7500 AE The Netherlands
theo.debruijn@utwente.org  +31 53 489 3203
The GIN2005-1 conference basically looked at progress with respect to sustainable development. The conference announcement put it like this:
Over the past decade sustainable development has been a central element in many conferences, books, Ph.D. theses, public policies, and corporate strategies. Yet, the question is, What has it brought us? Do we now understand what changes are necessary to realize sustainable development? Are we any closer to realizing these changes or developing strategies for them? Which actors, partnerships, and strategies are the most successful, and why? Or are the only tangible results new jobs for researchers and consultants? Time to take stock.
The central questions at the conference were:
  • To what extent has business changed its practices around the world? Has CSR become common practice or merely a buzzword? How do we detect and measure that?
  • To what extent have governments been able to incorporate the concept of sustainable development into their policies? Are they driving business toward more sustainable strategies?
  • Have NGOs become partners in crime? Can they combine dialogue with protest and action without losing their credibility and independence?
  • Have the different actors built the competencies needed for their changing roles?
At the conference we had a keynote session, a plenary panel, and three breakout sessions.
The keynote session “From Confrontation to Collaboration” had two speakers: Hans Muileman, program manager at SNM - Policy for Sustainable Production and Consumption, largest Dutch environmental NGO; and Marc van den Eijnden, from De Hoeve, a pork processing company, one of the companies SNM is collaborating with. For the past two years SNM has been actively collaborating with business firms to stimulate them toward sustainable production and to create a network of CSR leaders. During the session we focused on the dilemmas of the new strategy. No definite answers were provided during the session but the discussion highlighted the crucial questions: How easily can a NGO alternate between different strategies? Is there a way back? How about credibility? Does the system change or are the partners creating just another niche?
The panel discussion “Dogma and Dilemmas” had participants from research, governments and industry:
·         Graham Daborn, Acadia University, Canada.
·         Jan van Wijngaarden, Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment-VROM, The Netherlands.
·         Alfons Wispels, Raedthuys Holding, The Netherlands.
The debate focused again on roles of actors. Remarkable was the consensus on the role of the consumer: although the consumer is crucial in changing product chains, he can hardly be steered in a more sustainable direction. The driving force for sustainable development will have to come from elsewhere.

In breakout session I the main focus 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.

One conclusion that could be drawn from the debate was that while there are actors who are trying to change their role, overall there is little evidence of shifting roles. The discussion during the session also pointed out that changing roles is a quite problematic process. If roles are beginning to shift, actors can get lost in multi-role strategies.In breakout session II, “Production and Consumption Systems” the issue of sustainable development was addressed using a system perspective at various levels, from a micro (firm) to a macro (societal) level. Presentations referred to many different instruments and strategies that have been proposed or implemented in dealing with system change (for instance supply chain management, Product Service Systems, Net National Product, scenario building,  stakeholder participation). Overall, the session showed how difficult the implementation of such a broad and abstract concept as sustainable development still is.
Breakout session III on Sustainability Strategies provided an assessment of current business’s efforts towards sustainability and identified the opportunities and challenges entailed in a transition towards more sustainable business practices. The session showed that currently little evidence exists in favour of a “greener” business transformation, albeit a few exceptions. Moreover, such exceptions usually form the central object of research concerning sustainability transitions while the business mainstream is less under scrutiny. Hence, a strong message that came out of this session is the need to expand the focus of future empirical research to include laggards as well as frontrunners in order to better understand the processes that shape the greening of industry as a whole. A number of challenges were also identified, including the complexity of decision-making, the types of instruments that governments need to adopt, the difficulty of sustained collaboration over time between business and governments or business coalitions, the role of the media, the time frame required for real change, the fact that there may be winners and losers in the process and the opportunistic character of many politicians (and businesses).  Clearly, however, the need for further research not only on business’s strategies per se, but also on the context within which businesses operate was a strong message from this session.
Overall, the debate at the conference provided some beginnings of answers:
First of all, sustainable development has proven to be a flexible concept with many meanings. While we need to acknowledge the broad and integral nature of sustainable development, we should look for more common understanding. Although there has been progress, there are some serious doubts whether real changes in terms of deviations of ‘business as usual’ have already taken place. During the past years we have learned mostly from frontrunners. One of the main questions is how the peloton can be reached.
Has there been real change or is it only case-based?
Some of the practices that have been developed also might hinder a real dialogue on sustainable development. Partners might have slipped into new routines already where sustainable development calls for more exploration and innovation. There are some doubts whether the actors involved realize how profound the necessary changes are. Not everyone seems to be aware that changing their societal role and identity is part of the learning process. Involving consumers has proven to be especially challenging. Making consumers aware of problems, opportunities and risks is difficult, particularly when those effects play out elsewhere.

While sustainable development calls for collaboration, this collaboration can only be effective when there is explicit mutual understanding and mutual interests. In order to be effective, the design of partnerships also need to be sensitive to the institutional context. Then there is the question on leadership: who should drive sustainable development? There are little indications that business can and will take on this role. After two decades little has changed in this respect. Governments are probably still seen as the major driver for change. Experiences from the past make it doubtful however whether governments can be a strong enough driver. Although multiple examples of partnerships for sustainable development are available, the search for effective partnerships continues. Results of increased collaboration often seem rather modest and they can only be reached at the expense of huge transaction costs.The debate on sustainable development also seems self-referential. The world is going to rapid transitions. The main problem is not how to induce transitions (one of the main elements in the debate) but rather how to make sustainable development a central notion in on-going transitions.
The debate at the conference showed how difficult it is to assess the progress that has been made. Although there are plenty examples of promising developments, it is hard to say if and where one can truly speak of systemic change. One issue that was put forward by the participants was that maybe we also do not know where to look for change. Are we using the right frameworks in evaluating industrial transformation processes? A clear call for more research, both methodological and empirical; and a clear call for a closer look at specific sectors, regions and issues to get a better grip on what sustainable development has brought us.
Theo de Bruijn
April 2006

 

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The Netherlands 2005 Meeting