10 September 2002 17:02 [Source: ICIS news]
The chemical industry can only benefit from greater dialogue with stakeholders, including employee representatives and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). There are bound to be areas of disagreement and pointed debate but if a greater degree of trust is developed then the industry has a better chance of delivering more in terms of better environmental, health and safety (EHS) performance.
Greater openness is a considerable challenge to chemical companies individually and to the industry as a whole. Both have reputations for being particularly secretive and reluctant to discuss just what it is they do. That is why it is encouraging to see the director general of the UK’s Chemical Industries Association (CIA), Judith Hackitt, being prepared to share a platform at the Trades Union Congress (TUC) in Blackpool with fierce critics of the sector: the environmental campaigners, Friends of the Earth (FoE), and with the GMB union which has been strong advocate of concerted action on the environment and for business competitiveness.
Hackitt has taken the opportunity to speak at a fringe meeting at the Congress to try to maintain the level of dialogue she has been quick to set since she took office five months ago. Hackitt does not shy away from difficult confrontations and is ready to work hard to develop constructive debate that she firmly believes will help the industry improve.
This is a new approach from the UK chemicals sector. "It is time now to listen, learn and engage," she said in Blackpool. "We all share responsibility for helping build the sort of industry this country needs to benefit the economy, the people and the environment by delivering sustainable development through competitiveness." The sector is very much following the lead set by the sustainable development charity, Forum for the Future, which suggests that the chemical industry is central to the pursuit of a sustainable society.
The debate about sustainable development is rapidly moving on from the conceptual to the practical level - the scene was very much set at the Earth Summit in Johannesburg, earlier this month. Despite widespread criticism of Johannesburg a great deal of work went on behind the scenes and it was made clear that only with the help of business will many sustainable development objectives be met.
Care for the environment and for worker as well as public health and safety requires effective regulation. But as Hackitt said in Blackpool, regulation that straitjackets business will, in the end, not deliver the social and environmental development it seeks.
In the run up to publication of the first set of draft new chemicals regulations from the European Commission (EC) – draft legislation based on the EC’s chemicals white paper – greater industry advocacy can be expected. Yet Hackitt makes the valid point that some of the most potentially damaging legislation the industry faces now is in no small measure the result of a lack of effective debate. In that respect it is not so much that the industry should talk more but that debate has to be joined. The chemical industry needs to listen but it also needs to be listened to.
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