Government backing for responsible business looks set to continue, despite recent political instability, with a number of initiatives well entrenched

Politics in the Netherlands has taken an unusual turn. The centre-right/centre-left balance, the norm since the second world war, was upset in October when a government supported by the far right Freedom party – a populist and explicitly anti-Islam group – came to power.

The government’s programme is likely to be dominated by immigration concerns and by public spending cuts – though more police are promised. Corporate responsibility seems safe, as might be expected from the new prime minister Mark Rutte, of the centre-right VVD party, who is a former Unilever human resources manager.

Dutch governments have pursued specific corporate responsibility policies since 2001, taking advice from the Social and Economic Council of the Netherlands (Sociaal-Economische Raad – SER).

SER’s Bart van Riel says that corporate responsibility is not a “fair weather policy”. He adds: “The Dutch government understands CR quite well and there is broad political support for it. Therefore, we do not think that government attention or policy is affected by the [current] political instability.”

The government’s view is that there is profit in values. A strategy document covering 2008-2011, prepared by former state secretary for economic affairs Frank Heemskerk, notes that corporate responsibility sharpens “the competitive edge of the business community”, and should be encouraged because it could “promote our commercial interests abroad”.

This is seen as especially important in difficult times. Michiel van Yperen works for the Dutch National Contact Point for the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. He says: “Bigger companies have already proved that in times of crisis, corporate responsibility efforts are not reduced. On the contrary, most companies have intensified their CR efforts. The government will follow this.”

While many aspects of corporate responsibility will remain voluntary, Dutch firms must already comply with extensive environmental and social legislation, and with norms set by the OECD and other international agencies. Corporate responsibility goes “beyond just meeting existing national and international regulations, which by definition means that [it] assumes voluntary participation,” the Heemskerk paper says.

Leon Meijer, senior policy adviser at the Dutch National Federation of Christian Trade Unions, which is part of SER, says some political parties had wanted regulation in order to put “a bit more pressure on companies”, especially on their management of international supply chains. But this was resisted by industry and employers’ representatives.

“We agreed that there would not be new laws about CR as long as we could be sure that ‘voluntary’ would not mean that nothing would happen,” Meijer says. “The idea is that the frontrunners, big companies like AkzoNobel or Unilever, pull other companies forward.”

Inspiring, innovating, integrating

Dutch governments like to alliterate. Responsible business policy up to 2008 was conducted under the heading “people, planet and profit”. This was seen as an educational process, moving firms “from a defensive position, avoiding a poor reputation, to a positive note, in which CR is seen as improving the quality of the enterprise,” the Heemskerk paper says.

Now the emphasis is on “inspiring, innovating and integrating”. The aim, Heemskerk says, is to “anchor CR in such a way that it leads to widespread commitment in the organisation and to more dramatic innovation”.

In practical terms this means the government sees itself as one of the frontrunners, attempting to pull others along. It has established MVO Nederland (CSR Netherlands), which advises companies and trade associations. And the ministry of economic affairs publishes an annual transparency benchmark, ranking companies according to how they report on the integration of corporate responsibility into their operations.

The latest benchmark, for 2009, considers 183 corporations, which put themselves forward for the ranking. Cooperative financial group Rabobank came top, as it did in 2008 and 2007. Other high scorers were ING, Unilever, TNT and pharmaceuticals and chemicals firm DSM.

Perhaps most significantly, since January 1 2010, the national government has operated a sustainable public procurement policy, insisting that the €50bn of goods and services it buys each year should incorporate “sustainability criteria”, such as energy efficiency standards or the presence of recycled materials. This requirement is to be extended to other levels of government.

Corporate responsibility professionals see this as a hugely positive step. MVO Nederland director Willem Lageweg says it will “certainly have an impact on companies”.

But others sound a note of caution. Lucia van Westerlaak of the Dutch trade union federation FNV says more monitoring is needed. “It is all praiseworthy, except for one thing: it is necessary to check that what is reported is indeed true.”

As with all corporate responsibility initiatives, it is between saying and doing that the pitfalls are found.

Additional research by Boris Peters

MVO Nederland:
Government vision on CSR 2008-2011:
Ministry of Economic Affairs Transparency Benchmark 2009 (in Dutch):

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