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CSD-6 Follow-up: Multi-Stakeholder Review of Voluntary Initiatives and Agreements for Industry

Multi-Stakeholder Consultations to Identify the Key Elements of a Review of Voluntary Initiatives and Agreement (VIA)
Toronto, Canada, 10-12 March 1999

Summary of the Discussions


1. The Multi-Stakeholder Consultative Meeting to Identify the key elements of a Review of Voluntary Initiatives and Agreements was convened in response to a decision of the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) taken at its Sixth Session. CSD endorsed the interactive dialogue that took place between industry, trade unions, NGOs and international organizations at its Sixth session and noted the "potential value of a review of voluntary initiatives and agreements," to give content to the dialogue between governments and the representatives of these different stakeholder groups. As a first step, CSD said that representatives of industry, trade unions and NGOs "should examine voluntary initiatives and agreements to identify those elements that can be considered for this review" with assistance from the CSD Secretariat. The Secretariat was requested to make the results of the initial examination available to governments. CSD invited DSD, UNEP and UNIDO to report to the CSD at its seventh session on "how voluntary initiatives and agreements could contribute to the future work of the Commission."

2. A steering group was established consisting of representatives of industry, trade unions, NGOs and UNEP to ensure that the views of all parties would be taken into account during the organizational phase. The steering group decided that a larger multi-stakeholder consultative meeting would be required to examine experiences with voluntary initiatives. Thanks to the generous offer of support from the Government of Canada and Industry Canada, it was agreed to hold the consultative meeting in Toronto with participants drawn from all the major stakeholder groups including selected representatives of government with relevant experience and/or interest in voluntary initiatives and agreements.

3. The purpose of the meeting was to examine, based on individual experiences of participants, the valuable lessons (positive and negative) that have been learned about voluntary initiatives. A number of case studies were presented on different aspects of voluntary initiatives and participants were called upon to identify and discuss the elements that worked or didn't work in relation to each initiatives’ stated goals and objectives. The aim was to generate by the end of the meeting a set of conclusions and recommendations about the key elements that might make voluntary initiatives and agreements part of the policy mix needed to achieve sustainable development.

4. It was agreed that the main conclusions and recommendations of the meeting would be reflected in the Chairman’s Summary and that this summary would provide a key input to the Secretary-General’s Report to the CSD on "how voluntary initiatives and agreements could contribute to the future work of the Commission."

5. The Consultative meeting held plenary and working group sessions over a period of two and a half days. The opening session on Wednesday afternoon was preceded by a field trip organized by Industry Canada to the Chrysler-Bramalea Plant near Toronto that provided an excellent example of a voluntary initiative in action.

6. The meeting was opened by Mr. John Banigan, Assistant Deputy Minister, Industry Canada, who welcomed participants from over 20 countries representing five continents. Mr. Banigan emphasized that stakeholders in Canada strongly support voluntary initiatives to complement regulations. He outlined the success of the Responsible Care Program that was developed by the Canadian Chemical Producers’ Association. This program demonstrates the importance of environmental stewardship around the world by working with domestic and international partners for sustainable development. He underscored the goal of the meeting to determine what factors are critical for successful voluntary initiatives.

7. All participants expressed their profound appreciation to the Government of Canada and to Industry Canada for the excellent facilities and support provided for the meeting that contributed to an atmosphere conducive to productive dialogue and cooperation.

8. A representative of each of the main stakeholder groups made an introductory presentation setting out their perspectives and expectations for the meeting. Dr. Andrew King of the Stern Business School at New York University provided an overview of voluntary initiatives and agreements suggesting several typologies for their possible classification. Voluntary initiatives could be categorized by their sponsors, by their goals, or by the nature of the specific topics that they cover. Among possible goals he identified: more efficient regulation, or to provide business greater flexibility; coordination of common resources; simplification of contractual relationships; or improving corporate identity. Another typology he suggested was looking at voluntary initiatives as strategic games. Dr. King identified some possible problems that arise when voluntary initiatives are more strategic games than exchanges, such as the free rider problem and its affect on goal achievement. Of particular importance in Dr. King’s view is to have informed outsiders who can help monitor the performance of a voluntary initiative or agreement. It is a challenge to find such qualified outsiders. They need to be honest, have an ongoing commitment, and extensive analytical resources.

8. In three separate panels, 12 cases of voluntary initiatives and agreements representing a wide range of experiences were presented, focusing on voluntary initiatives and agreements initiated jointly or singly by business and NGOs, business and governments, and business and trade unions respectively. They included such cases as the BP-Amoco/ Environmental Defense Fund initiative on emissions trading, the Mitsubishi/Rainforest Action Network initiative on forests, a presentation on experiences in local participation in voluntary agreements and initiatives, ABB’s experience with implementing the ICC’s Business Charter for Sustainable Development, the Canadian National Packaging Protocol, the ILO Child Labor Elimination Initiative, the UNEP initiative with Financial institutions, experience with voluntary initiatives and agreements in Costa Rica, Benzene Accord initiative by trade unions in Brazil, TCO 6E program by trade unions in Sweden, Responsible Care, and the European Cement Industry initiative on energy and materials efficiency.

9. The presentations highlighted as least five important features of voluntary initiatives and agreements, namely (i) multi-stakeholder participation, (ii) commitment, (iii) mutual trust, (iv) assessment, and (v) verification.

10. These lessons learned from applications of voluntary initiatives and agreements and others that participants brought from their personal experiences were shared in plenary and breakout session discussions. A common overall theme throughout the discussions was the role of Governments in providing standards and regulations on which voluntary initiatives and agreements can build. The particular needs of developing countries in this process, especially in terms of building capacity related to regulatory systems and in creating an enabling environment for the institutional development of stakeholder groups were recognized.

11. The Toronto meeting, as a first truly multi-stakeholder process from design to delivery, was seen as unique. Participants expressed their support for this process to continue and saw the Toronto meeting as the first step in an on-going exploration of voluntary initiatives and agreements and their role in sustainable development. The role of the CSD in enabling such a process was appreciated.


12. Participants in presenting and discussing their experience with voluntary initiatives and agreements, both in plenary and breakout sessions, emphasized that any review of voluntary initiatives and agreements should take into account their great diversity and the need to place a voluntary initiative or agreement within its appropriate social, environmental and economic policy context. Voluntary initiatives and agreements should complement regulatory frameworks and foster continuous improvement. They are one of a range of instruments that can be used to achieve sustainable development. The particular needs of developing countries, including capacity building of various stakeholders, should be given special attention.

13. Participants identified, at least, nine elements that could be considered in the context of any review with a view to stimulating better understanding and continual improvement. These nine elements are set out below along with a few key questions or issues that might need to be addressed in respect of each element.

Impetus and Context
  1. What are the conditions, events, considerations that led to the start of the voluntary initiative or agreement, e.g. response to external pressures, policy gaps, social responsibility, to pre-empt or complement regulation etc.?

    In what ways are stakeholders involved and what induced them to participate?

  2. Purpose and Design of the Voluntary Initiative and Agreement

    What are the goals and objectives of the voluntary initiative or agreement and how do they relate to sustainable development?

    How are the goals and objectives identified and by whom?

    What strategic mechanisms are selected to achieve the goals?

    What are the mechanisms for transparency and accountability?

    What are the anticipated risks and benefits and how are they addressed in the design?

    What is the timetable of the initiative?

  3. Multi-stakeholder participation

    How are stakeholders identified and how is their participation ensured?

    Who takes the lead?

    Which groups play a supportive role?

    How do the varying interests get represented?

    What kinds of groups are involved and what roles do they play, e.g. government, business and industry, NGOs, trade unions?

    How are issues of the responsibility of different stakeholders dealt with?

  4. Commitment to sustain the voluntary initiative or agreement

    What generates stakeholders commitment?

    How is commitment sustained in the face of changing circumstances?

  5. Mutual trust and respect

    What working methods are used to build and sustain mutual trust and respect among the various stakeholders?

    How does mutual trust, once established, contribute to successful problem solving and conflict mediation?

  6. Monitoring and Assessment

    To what extent does the voluntary initiative or agreement meet its stated objectives and goals and how does it contribute to the goals of sustainable development?

    Who assesses performance, results and impact of the voluntary initiative or and agreement?

    How are assessment results to be shared and reported?

    What methodologies are used to measure the costs and benefits of the VI?

  7. Verification

    What independent external involvement and expertise is helpful in reviewing and validating the assessment?

    How is verification to be structured in terms of finance, independence and credibility?

  8. Communication

    What types of information are generated and shared among the stakeholders and the public?

    Was the information provided adequate for full and informed stakeholder participation?

    How is this communication achieved in ways that ensure transparency as well as respect for confidentiality?

    How is learning and feedback used to promote continuous improvement?

  9. Replication and Capacity Building

    How do voluntary initiatives and agreements contribute to capacity building and broader replication and adoption so as to ensure continual improvement?


A representative of the ICC presented a draft toolkit for voluntary initiatives and agreements indicating that such an information tool would need to be created with the needs of its direct users in mind in order to make it user-friendly and sensitive to cross cultural differences. The preparation of the Draft Toolkit may be seen as a multi-stakeholder initiative in itself. The draft included ten core modules organized around two main questions: (a) do you need a voluntary initiative? and (b) what steps would you need to follow to produce an effective voluntary initiative? The modules walk a potential user through the logical steps of how to develop a voluntary initiative or agreement, how to disseminate information about it, how to implement it, how to measure its performance, and its continued improvement.

Discussion of the draft Toolkit showed that the participants saw the draft as a good beginning to provide guidance to parties interested in launching and monitoring voluntary initiatives and agreements. The comments also indicated that a number of improvements could be made through a multi-stakeholder process, including governments, as this would, among other things, increase the sense of ownership of the Toolkit by all stakeholders. One improvement was found necessary, that is to expand the current focus of the draft to ensure that all aspects of sustainable development are covered.

While some participants felt the Draft should be more prescriptive, this caused some participants to worry that the goal would be a one-size-fits-all approach that they felt strongly should be avoided. It was agreed that this issue needed to be explored further using a multi-stakeholder process. Another issue requiring further discussion is self- versus outside-assessment of voluntary initiatives and agreements regarding their impact and effectiveness.

It was suggested that the Draft Toolkit could be improved through a multi-stakeholder process, under CSD auspices. From the perspective of developing countries, participants felt that guidelines, such as those mentioned in the Draft Toolkit, would be helpful. However, guidance manuals of this type often mistakenly assume that (a) organized stakeholder groups exist and (b) regulatory frameworks exist in developing country settings. Neither is always the case. These concerns should be factored into the process of further developing the Draft Toolkit.

Participants pointed to the need for an appropriate process, such as the multi-stakeholder Steering Group that organized the Toronto consultation meeting, to further explore and develop the Draft Toolkit.


Overall, the stakeholder groups expressed their view that the Toronto multi-stakeholder consultation meeting was a useful starting point for follow up activities. Representatives of Business, Trade Unions and NGOs made the following comments, proposals and commitments regarding future steps and activities to follow the Toronto meeting:

Business will continue to emphasize the diversity of voluntary initiatives and agreements as a resource of expertise and innovation and to encourage their development, dissemination and continued improvement. These future efforts will pay special attention to the needs of developing countries and countries with economies in transition as well as to the continued improvement of voluntary initiatives and agreements. Regulatory mechanisms at the local, national, regional and international levels in the form of laws, standards and agreements are important and Business will continue to endorse the complementary as well as, in some cases, the leading role voluntary initiatives and agreements play in that regard. Supporting the engagement and partnership of all stakeholders will continue to be a key aspect.

Business participants welcome the further development of the Draft Toolkit for voluntary initiatives and agreements through a multi-stakeholder process to enable a better understanding of these instruments, stimulate their further use for sustainable development, generate systematic information on voluntary initiatives and agreements to assist the interested parties, and to continue improving them. The results of this follow up could be reported to the next overall review of Agenda 21 implementation in 2002 (Earth Summit III).

Trade Unions consider that voluntary initiatives and agreements should clearly identify the regulations or standards they purport to complement. Trade unions do not accept the limited view of voluntary initiatives and agreements as mere 'complements to regulation'. In their view voluntary initiatives and agreements should take place within the context of a clearly marked-out and integrated regulatory reform process where standards are improved and strengthened. Therefore, trade unions will seek to link a CSD review of voluntary initiatives and agreements with the current OECD PUMA review of the state of regulatory compliance. While promoting the uses of voluntary initiatives and agreements as positive instruments for sustainable development, trade unions will also promote the defining of minimum social, environmental and economic indicators with which voluntary initiatives and agreements must never conflict or undermine (e.g. minimum social indicators would include ILO core labour standards, child & forced labour provisions and employment equality requirements).

Trade unions also pledge to continue to engage employers and governments in fashioning or supporting acceptable sustainable development agreements with them, be they through codes of conducts, environmental agreements or collective agreements. Trade unions support the continuation of the multi-stakeholder process launched by the CSD, particularly for the review process itself and for its implementation, as well as for the further development of the proposed tool-kit. In that context trade unions propose that the steering group which prepared the Toronto meeting continue to exist to co-ordinate future efforts. In pursuing these activities the primary focus of the trade unions will be the collective bargaining process, in which sustainable development is an important part, to engage employers and their organisations in developing codes of conduct. Trade Unions support the continuation of the multi-stakeholder process launched by CSD, particularly for but not limited to efforts to further develop the Draft Toolkit. In that context, the trade unions propose that the Steering Group that prepared the Toronto meeting continue to exist and co-ordinate these future efforts.

Non-governmental organisations see the Toronto meeting as the beginning of a long-term process that will require the continued commitment of all stakeholders. A key focus of follow up actions need to be exploration of the value of voluntary initiatives and agreements in developing countries. This exploration needs to be made not in the abstract but through a multi-stakeholder process including governments, business, trade unions and NGOs. The non-governmental organisations wish to let the CSD know that the stakeholders can work together towards concrete products such as the conceptual framework of elements, the voluntary initiatives and agreements toolkit, and the multi-stakeholder review process. It is essential to ensure that these activities take place in a transparent, accountable and focused manner. The NGOs propose a three-year plan for the follow up that focuses on multi-stakeholder roundtable discussions on voluntary initiatives and agreements in thematic areas such as agriculture, forests, energy and transportation. The outcomes of these roundtables would be an input to the next overall review of Agenda 21 implementation in 2002 (Earth Summit III).

Comments from participants on the above proposals included the following:
Follow up activities will benefit from the development of a clear typology of these instruments; identification of the drivers and legal frameworks that surround voluntary initiatives and agreements; and from a further look at the political economy of voluntary initiatives and agreements (that is, their costs and benefits) compared to other instruments.

There is a need to look at how multinational businesses that adopt voluntary initiatives and agreements for their operations in developing countries can involve stakeholders from the these countries.

It will be useful to explore the possibility of NGO support for engaging developing country governments and multinational businesses in a dialogue to scope the possibilities of developing trans-boundary voluntary initiatives and agreements.

The Agenda of the Meeting and List of Participants are attached as Annexes to this Summary.

Meeting Details