Chemicals and a sceptical public

For many years, the chemical industry’s Responsible Care initiative helped the sector take a lead in the development of environmental management as a discipline. The industry was able to position itself in the vanguard of measures on corporate disclosure and it worked hard to develop management systems to put environmental policies into practice long before environmental management standard ISO14001 was available.

Yet two decades of Responsible Care have failed to win public hearts and minds as to the industry’s merits - and it is now starkly clear that the initiative will never be able to do so.

Born out of the 1984 Bhopal disaster, Responsible Care has also failed to prevent the series of major accidents and regulatory breaches which continue to dog the industry. As we argue in our review of the initiative’s first two decades (see pp 19-23 ), it remains a valid question whether Responsible Care has brought about the profound behavioural changes claimed of it. At least as significant has been the development of legislative programmes and the related regulatory paraphernalia governing everything from emission limits to "right to know" databases and product testing.

It is well to remember that, if the chemical industry was once in the vanguard that was probably because the sector had most to worry about in terms of its environmental impacts and reputation.

A hazard for any early innovator in the business world is that "prime mover advantage" can lead to complacency and a reluctance to face up to changing circumstances. Indeed, many components of Responsible Care - continual improvement, open communication, verification procedures - are now recognised as best practice in sectors as diverse as power generation, minerals, electronics and consumer products.

It is essential that the chemical industry now grasps the opportunities at European and international levels to breathe new life into Responsible Care or its successors. A major shortcoming is the continued reluctance to apply sanctions against member companies for non-compliance. And in many countries, the UK included, the industry has yet to agree measures to disclose company-specific performance data.

Of course, scepticism as to the merits of Responsible Care is not confined to industry observers; the current generation of senior executives within the industry is also far from unanimous in the belief that the initiative has helped the industry prosper.

Recent research for the International Council of Chemical Associations has found that the industry continues to be regarded at best as "a necessary evil". The danger is that evidence of continued low opinion ratings across the world may support the perception that the industry can never win.

Society has changed over recent decades such that, in pretty much any walk of life, trust can no longer be manufactured. In the UK, the new legislation on freedom of information, which came into force on 1 January (see p 40 ), confirms the trend in terms of public expectations. Scepticism, individualism and information overload are the hallmarks of our times.

On this analysis, the chemical industry will never win hearts of minds, and should not expect to do so. But politicians, regulators, NGOs and investors are well aware that public opinion matters as never before. An industry with an environmental footprint the scale of the chemicals sector’s cannot afford to resist the trend towards external scrutiny, benchmarking and verification - but its efforts are never likely to win popular acclaim.

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