The creation of the coalition Government has led to much speculation as to future waste and resource policy. The Conservatives have historically favoured less regulation and preferred a more consensual approach towards change within business and manufacturing. The Tory manifesto proposed a ‘Responsibility Deal On Waste’, an agreement among producers to cut waste production and improve disposal. Since this approach might be gaining favour in the corridors of power, it is worth looking at existing voluntary approaches to reducing waste and consider how well they work.
Perhaps the highest profile example is the Courtauld Commitment. Launched in 2005, the first phase focused on stopping the growth of packaging and claims to have saved around half a million tonnes. The Commitment signed up more than 40 major players, including retailers representing 92% of the UK’s grocery supermarkets.
The more demanding second phase, which began in April 2010, aims by 2012 to reduce the carbon impact of grocery packaging by 10%, reduce UK household food and drink waste by 4% and reduce grocery product and packaging waste in the supply chain by 5%. It has 31 signatories so far, including the main supermarkets.
Other examples include the 2008 retailer agreement, which saw a 23,000-tonne reduction in the weight of, and a 26% fall in the total number of, single-use plastic bags in circulation since 2006. And since 2003, an agreement between Defra and the Direct Marketing Association to promote the junk mail opt-out Mail Preference Service has led to an increase in awareness that contributed to an estimated reduction of around 25,000 tonnes a year.
So, clearly, the voluntary approach can be effective. But research from the University of Essex has suggested that this may not always be the case, and that success depends on the nature of the sector it applies to, the clarity of the issue at stake and how
easily an action can be attributed to one player or another. For instance, would so many retailers have signed up to the original Courtauld Commitment if packaging were not such an obvious issue affecting consumers? And the intense competition between the ‘big four’ supermarkets meant that once one was on board (and enjoying the green PR benefit), others were sure to follow.
Experience from outside the resource sector suggests that success is not always guaranteed. A German agreement in the 1990s between the government and car makers to reduce CO2 emissions in car designs was widely considered to have achieved little more than what would have happened anyway. What is more, the standards that were agreed were non-binding. Indeed, the German government’s stated preference for an agreement, rather than legislation, was widely seen to have weakened its position during negotiations.
So voluntary agreements have a place on the policy landscape but, counter-intuitively perhaps, work best when part of a broader mix of policy tools - with the threat of strong action in the background just in case a sector does not get its act together. This is what happened in the case of single-use plastic bags, leading to swift action by retailers.
Voluntary agreements are key to the Conservative vision of a Big Society, with business reacting directly to public pressure for action without the need for Government intervention. Arguably, an early example of this is the greater focus of Courtauld 2 on food waste - perhaps a direct reaction to the greater public awareness of associated issues engendered by the ‘Love Food Hate Waste’ campaign and others.
This clearly demonstrates the importance of public awareness in this whole approach. And to ensure that business and manufacturing continue to reduce waste and become more sustainable, the public will need to remain on their case.
Mike Webster is a senior consultant at environmental charity Waste Watch