Author: Pieter Walraven. This article appeared on Afvalonline on 22 February 2021 and on the Dutch magazine Afval in February 2021.
I see an eroding mutual understanding between politicians and corporate executives. Instead of dialogues, both parties seem to wallow in their own rightness. Misunderstanding then arises when one sees that the political debate is mainly hijacked by, for example, a container deposit discussion. The current politically fragmented landscape means that the subject of circular economy is often one of many spokespersonships for a politician. As a result, members of parliament have little room to immerse themselves in the subject matter. The focus is then on the political game. And in the political game there is little room for pats on the back for companies. The distance between government and business is therefore becoming increasingly visible in the political debate. Even the VVD is increasingly distancing itself from companies in its election manifesto. This also does not encourage talent and top business people to become more actively involved in the public debate.
Public relevance goes beyond employment
Many companies and industry organizations often interpret their impact in society with figures and facts about employment or the contribution to the gross domestic product. However, the impact of such figures is limited in the current times. Both the COVID-19 pandemic and the growing distance between government and business ensure that another narrative has become more important. Namely, the way a company interprets its public role and especially the way it collaborates with other parties.
For example: Dutch brewers supporting pubs despite the fact that they themselves were also heavily affected. Or parties from the manufacturing industry that started to produce face masks and disinfectants in collaboration with suppliers. The COVID-19 crisis served as a magnifying glass for the public role, because parties who have already structurally organized cooperation with their social partners can count on more support from policymakers in The Hague.
Stakeholder management promotes cooperation
That brings me to a subject that has become increasingly important in the work of a lobbyist in recent years. That is stakeholder management. Like lobbying, it is something that many claim to do, but which is often practiced ad hoc and from one’s own interest.
A good example of stakeholder management is the way the three Dutch major banks are managing the transition of Geldmaat’s ATM network. By involving representatives of the hospitality industry, senior citizens’ associations and municipalities at an early stage and on a structural basis, this process can count on a great deal of support.
Stakeholder management should be a structural part of the agenda for all parties in the waste sector. After all, it is a complex field in which cooperation between different governments, companies and public organizations is essential.
Stakeholder management is not about speaking and consulting with other parties. It’s a process where you delve into the interests of other parties rather than their viewpoints. You often see a focus on opposing views in public debates about sustainability. By setting up a stakeholder dialogue you organize structural cooperation based on shared interests. Often you also organize political support well before issues are on the political agenda. The banks started their stakeholder dialogue well before Geldmaat became publicly known. Parties like the Dutch Railways and the Port of Rotterdam Authority also invest heavily in stakeholder management. It requires a willingness to be transparent and it takes a lot of time. This is because it is not something that is done by top management and the lobbyist. It has to be carried broadly in the organization.
If I look at the waste sector, stakeholder management can add a lot. For example, in the collection of textiles. There are many commercial (H&M) and non-commercial (Salvation Army) initiatives in the market. In combination with the patchwork of municipal collection policies, this ensures that not all parties achieve the volumes that could be achieved. When you look at initiatives such as Pals Brust’s Upset, the right volumes of the right materials are essential to achieve circularity in the textile sector.
The fragmentation of the political landscape will not change after the upcoming elections. This means that, particularly in the field of sustainability, opportunities remain unused. Anyone who has followed the latest debates on the circular economy will see a lot of ‘politics with the small p’. A long-term vision on the future of recycling is often missing. This is a pity, because it means there is little attention for innovations in chemical recycling and post-separation of waste streams.
It also shows a trend that manifests itself in several policy areas. The fragmentation or merging of policies into action plans. You see it at several ministries, including Health, Welfare and Sport, Education, Culture and Science, and also at Infrastructure and Water Management. They are smoothly written, bursting with ambition and contain something for everyone. The positive thing is that the action plans contribute to cooperation, but they are often too non-committal in nature. Goals are not always formulated in concrete terms, which makes action plans less measurable. As far as I am concerned, they often show the powerlessness of a ministry. It seems that we mainly look at measures from Brussels, such as the Single Use Plastics Directive.
In election programmes, the ambitions of various political parties are somewhat disappointing compared to the words used in recent years. They either contain few concrete measures or refer mainly to well-known measures about litter. Even an official advisory document to the next cabinet had an ambitious title (‘Towards a waste-free economy’), but anyone reading further could discover few concrete measures. They were mainly various variations on existing policy.
It is noted that circular business models are difficult to get off the ground, but if you look at the calculations, you see no commitment to make more budget available.
How can the government ensure that circular production methods and innovations are driven and supported? I see two opportunities for this. A greater involvement of the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate can spur the power of innovation. It is unfortunate to see that circular production models receive little attention and budget within the Top Sectors policy. Waste policy is an integral part of this and should therefore be viewed through a more economic lens. There is a link with a second chance. Collection of household waste is now a patchwork of rules per municipality. Initiatives like the aforementioned Upset have an interest in larger volumes and thus a more uniform policy for waste collection. The different methods make circular models more difficult to scale and sometimes unnecessarily expensive.
More control by the central government?
The COVID-19 pandemic has meant that a more leading role is expected from the central government. In times of crisis, people again realize that a government must lead, fight and manage. This has come as quite a shock, since policy in recent years had been based on polder agreements or had been delegated to lower authorities. The latter is currently being named more and more critically and may also have implications for the waste sector.
The Dutch Social and Cultural Planning Office, for example, recently concluded that the high expectations for the decentralization of youth care have not been realized. The need for more guidance from the national government can also be seen in the National Environmental Vision (NOVI). Municipal waste policy is currently a patchwork. This impedes the effectiveness of measures and thus of innovations in the circular economy. Just look at the fact that more than two hundred municipalities work with some form of source separation. That is why another official opinion is special. It is called ‘Building blocks for a better tax system’ and deals, among other things, with giving more rights to municipalities to levy taxes themselves. Few parties pay attention to this in their election programs, but the subject will certainly be on the table when the relationship between central government and municipalities is reviewed.
Photo: Hello Jumbo! by FaceMePLS (CC-BY) via Flickr