The Netherlands has a prominent and highly developed non-governmental sector that scrutinises local and international companies

Engbert Breuker has a vision. As president of the Dutch branch of the Social Venture Network, and as a former “chief emotions officer” of Pentascope, a consultancy and “change academy”, he wants corporations to move to the “third level of sustainability”. Entrepreneurs should be incapable of behaving in unsustainable ways. “They have the feeling that when they die, they have to tell their children that [they] at least did something: people who are really sustainable in their hearts.”

The Social Venture Network, an organisation of ethical entrepreneurs, has American roots and headquarters in San Francisco. But its European bridgehead is in the Netherlands, with offices in Alphen aan den Rijn, near Utrecht. Dutch entrepreneurs are well represented on the SVN board.

The Swedish branch is also strong. “Sweden is passing us if we look at the numbers of members and how they are involved,” Brueker admits. “Sweden and the Netherlands are both ahead in Europe with sustainability.”

Networks and campaign groups promoting sustainability have a particularly strong presence in the Netherlands. Creative thinking is emphasised. The Netherlands has “a big group of people that we call the cultural creators, who understand the sustainability message”, Breuker says.

The Netherlands is a centre for a number of global groups, including Greenpeace International, which is headquartered in Amsterdam. From there it pressurises companies over issues such as toxic chemicals, electronic waste and deforestation.

The Dutch were also early starters on development assistance, with the Netherlands Organisation for International Assistance, which later merged with Oxfam, founded in the 1950s. The Dutch NGO Solidaridad, originally a church group working in Latin America, founded the Max Havelaar label, which later became better known around the world as Fairtrade.

The Corporate Europe Observatory was founded in Amsterdam, though it has since moved to Brussels to focus on its main topic: the lobbying power of business in the European Union. The Global Reporting Initiative is administered from Amsterdam, as is the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (known as Somo – Stichting Onderzoek Multinationale Ondernemingen), which monitors corporations and their international supply chains.

Intense scrutiny

Somo initiatives include the Coalition for Fair Trade, campaigning for fairer international trade policy. OECD Watch “tests the effectiveness of the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises”. And Good Electronics monitors the human rights and environmental performance of companies that manufacture electrical and electronic goods in countries such as China and Thailand.

Somo has published, in alliance with a who’s who of Dutch NGOs, unions and church groups, a corporate responsibility frame of reference. This brings together into a single set of guidelines the relevant national standards on corporate behaviour in respect of social and working conditions, environmental standards, and issues such as corruption, fair competition and the payment of taxes.

The frame of reference notes that it is not intended as a “grab-bag of options to pick and choose from”.

Somo argues for more government intervention. The organisation’s Mariëtte van Huijstee says that international rankings such as the Dow Jones Sustainability Index appear to show Dutch firms doing well, but that ratings of companies are “based on own-reporting, not on real practice. The government should do more.” She suggests that a good place to start would be to accept that corporate responsibility shouldn’t be entirely voluntarily. “Pressure is necessary and the government is in the best position to apply it.”

Van Huijstee welcomes the Dutch government’s decision to apply sustainable purchasing criteria to all government contracts – which has been in force since the beginning of 2010. She says this is “an important first step”, but the government could also link social and environmental criteria to export subsidies, or oblige companies to file corporate responsibility reports, covering their full supply chains.

In the absence of these requirements, Somo carries out extensive monitoring work, in particular on the largest Dutch companies. Recent publications include research on social dialogue at Philips Lighting, and overviews of the “controversial business practices in 2009” of ING.

Somo’s report on ING focused on the bank’s holdings in “controversial companies”, such as cluster bomb and landmine component makers, infrastructure firms operating in countries such as Burma and Sudan, and mining companies involved in pollution incidents.

Tax issues

ING was also involved in dodging Dutch VAT through company structures in Switzerland, Somo alleged. Van Huijstee says: “Within the Netherlands, we in general have good working conditions and environmental regulations. But when we investigate the corporate responsibility performance of daughter companies or suppliers of Dutch companies in other countries, you sometimes get a totally different result.”

Rebutting the Somo allegations, ING points out that it now has a defence policy in place with a zero-tolerance stance towards cluster weapons and land mines. ING says it does not finance any projects or companies operating in Sudan or Burma. And the bank says it simply moved all its global procurement operations to Switzerland to make them more efficient.

The complaint about the overseas behaviour of Dutch companies is echoed by the Dutch union confederation, FNV. Lucia van Westerlaak of FNV says a core concern of the unions is that International Labour Organisation standards should be applied. “There are Dutch companies with a good name, but their companies elsewhere are not in line yet with the ILO standards,” she says.

Scrutiny from Somo and other organisations keeps Dutch corporations on their toes. And help is at hand. SVN Europe’s Engbert Breuker says the organisation conducts “brain train” tours, helping companies with CSR dilemmas. “We believe in inclusive thinking,” he says, adding that companies “can’t be perfect on all points”. Ultimately, he adds, sustainability campaigners want business leaders to “connect the head with the heart. Then the hands start automatically to do the right things.”

Additional research by Boris Peters

Social Venture Network Europe:
Max Havelaar Foundation:
Dutch CSR Frame of Reference:
Cambodian beer promotion women:

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