At the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, the global community discussed which environmental objectives have been achieved over the past 20 years and the sustainability strategy needed for the decades ahead. 40 years ago, the trade unions launched a debate on “qualitative growth” and “quality of life”. At the time, however, the congress “Quality of Working Life” held by the IG Metall trade union had no practical impact on union policy in the environmental sector. Short-term thinking and action – as a rule focused on wage and working conditions alone – dominated union demands vis-à-vis companies. Industrial policy concepts reflecting the already then necessary strategy of sustainable management were lacking. Not until the end of the 1980s did the previously academic debate on the “limits of growth” reach the unions. New political overtures were made to environmental and nature conservation associations. The unions sought out and found new alliance partners.
Rio 1992 – think globally, act regionally
Preparations for the world’s largest conference on environment and climate change in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 demanded new ways of thinking and a holistic sense of responsibility from the trade unions as well – globally, but also nationally and regionally. IG Metall’s “debate on the future” at that time triggered a change in thinking and action within the German Trade Union Confederation (DGB) [as a whole]. Nothing could be glossed over, much less ignored, any longer. Environmental disasters such as Bhopal (toxic gas accident), Chernobyl (nuclear reactor accident, nuclear meltdown) and Basel (chemical spill) led to a change in social awareness that also reached the unions and called for new options for action.
IG Metall adopted bold resolutions for phasing out nuclear energy and worked on projects for reversing course “before it’s too late”. A difficult phase of rethinking consequently commenced, especially among union members of works councils and supervisory boards as well as “plant functionaries”.
In 1988, for the very first time, representatives of environmental associations and IG Metall jointly held an environmental forum on the topic “Environmental protection versus jobs?” In the course of this event, many union members discovered more common ground than differences in the participants’ approaches to the future. This laid the foundation for constructive cooperation that later, unfortunately, became only sporadic.
On the occasion of the international “Congress on the Future” in Frankfurt am Main in 1988, the [then] president of IG Metall, Franz Steinkühler, stressed that the trade unions must develop a holistic approach to work, production and product. “Job-related interests and vital interests are becoming one and the same,” he stated. “In the field of environmental policy it is no longer enough to merely address concentrations of pollutants at the workplace. Rather, the question almost inevitably arises as to what happens with the emissions and how environmentally sound the product itself is.”
The IG Metall guidelines (April 1989) stated that environmental policy must become an overarching thrust of IG Metall.
IG Metall would therefore
- formulate proposals for an environmentally sound automobile within the framework of an ecological transport system;
- discuss changes in the state system of taxes and levies to enforce an ecological economic policy;
- implement the industry environmental performance programme and further develop structural policy proposals;
- together with environmental associations, champion a resolute and consistent environmental policy vis-à-vis governments and parliaments.
Prior to Rio 1992, a joint clearinghouse for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) was established to coordinate the demands of the trade unions and NGOs and advocate these vis-à-vis the Federal Government.
Within the scope of the union programme “Collective bargaining reform 2000″, environmental performance was incorporated as a new regulatory area and as a new objective for shaping work and technology. In the event of violations of environmental requirements and legislation, for instance, special protection against dismissal was to be introduced for those who reported corporate environmental offences. There were calls for corporate environmental management, the development of ecological balance sheets for production and products, and the inclusion of environmental performance as a corporate objective in strategic corporate planning. The programme also called for the appointment of an “ecodirector” at corporate level in order to uphold corporate responsibility in the area of environmental performance and demanded that supervisory boards address the ecological balance sheets.
What sounded utopian back then is reality today. 20 years on, all major international corporations engage in comprehensive environmental performance reporting and have a management board member who is responsible for the area of environmental performance. No international corporations can operate without ecological balance sheets anymore. Both areas – product and production – are assessed in terms of their environmental impact. Environmental indicators have been developed for documenting compliance with minimum standards. Sustainability reports and ongoing development of ecological balance sheets are now standard and are currently in demand at European and international political level in preparation for the Rio+20 summit as an important instrument for assessing the sustainability of corporate activity worldwide.
“If ecological responsibility is to not be reduced to management alone – and this would be foolish in the interests of the cause – then ensuring transparency of data and the provision of comprehensive information to the workforce will be a self-evident task of companies in the future.”
Notwithstanding all the progress that has been made, this is still not enough – also because the environmental activities of trade unions in companies have unfortunately ebbed due to a lack of drive. In the meantime, much has been initiated by companies themselves because the “ecoprofit” pays off. Saving energy, water and other resources is also commanding management attention in the context of technology-related design of work and product.
In its earlier position paper on employee suggestion schemes, IG Metall stressed the importance of employee motivation for corporate environmental performance. Under the old hierarchical structures, it stated, the innovation potential of the workforce was always underestimated, and environmentally-friendly production happened more by chance than design. There was consequently a strong movement to tap the skills of people in companies in order to drive innovation.
Today this is common practice in companies and part of an enlightened corporate strategy for innovation and workforce qualification.
Globalisation between environmental and climatic disaster and the ‘social justice trap’
In the meantime, forecasts concerning climate change, scarcity of resources, population development and global poverty have proven true. “20 percent of the global population – to which we belong – currently consume 80 percent of the world’s energy. Taking into account the economic growth required in the countries of the Third World in order to meet the minimum survival needs of their populations, the energy issue will – if no new, renewable energy sources are developed – consequently come to be the key distribution conflict between industrial nations and developing countries.”
It is thus no wonder that climate change and the attendant environmental changes, especially in the developing countries, such as floods, drought and agricultural depletion will be the centre of attention in Rio this year.
How can economic growth be generated without exceeding the two-degree threshold? This question will pose a challenge to newly industrialised and developing countries in particular. 20 years after the Earth Summit in Rio, the crux is nothing less than the question of how the distribution of essential resources should be carried out – and, above all, how the climate protection measures that must go hand in hand with energy generation and consumption can be implemented.
The funding volume required to adapt to and mitigate climate change is already estimated to be in the hundreds of billions of U.S. dollars, and it will continue to rise. At Rio+20, attention therefore focused above all on the options for action available to developing and newly industrialised countries. The industrial countries will have to commit to offsetting their previously negative emissions balance by contributing to a “financial equalization scheme” to fund environmental and climate protection. In Copenhagen, the industrial countries already committed themselves to make 30 billion U.S. dollars available to the developing countries in the short term; in addition, 100 billion U.S. dollars are to be jointly mobilised annually by the year 2020. With this funding, economic growth in the developing countries is to be combined with sustainability and environmental protection. At the same time, however, the industrial countries are called up to reduce their own CO2 emissions through the development of renewable energy systems and through energy-saving and energy-efficiency measures.
The task at hand is thus to restructure the economies in the industrial countries as already discussed 20 years ago and make up for lost time.
The responsibility of the industrial nations and their extensive competence in all areas is undisputed here. This is also true of Europe and, ultimately, of Germany as well.
In the coming decades the world will be faced with the necessity of profound and social structural change in order to safeguard the future prospects and natural bases of life of coming generations. This will not be possible without a radical reorientation of the economy. The window of opportunity for action will close quickly, probably by the year 2030. The trade unions are therefore not outsiders but essential actors – nationally as well as internationally – in order to preserve the basis for work and prosperity and further build on it worldwide. Only through transformational change involving the strong and widespread socially-minded participation of civil society, including the trade unions, can this process be controlled and managed. It is, after all, a shared future for all that is at stake.
The trade unions have set much in motion, but the momentum of earlier years has not been maintained. Germany’s unification led the unions to set other priorities. The economic crisis, together with mass unemployment, called for a strong stand in the workplace and many a compromise that union members found hard to accept. While the parallel Europeanisation and internationalisation of policy over the past 20 years was indeed registered by the unions, it was not sufficiently shaped by their input.
It is consequently time for a new debate on the shape the future should take. For globalisation also demands answers from the trade unions, above and beyond individual companies and sectors.
How can the trade unions help to ensure that this transformation process is structured in a socially equitable manner – not only in Germany and Europe but also between developing and newly industrialised countries? What can German and European companies do to meet their social responsibility in the world?
The [renewed] EU strategy [2011 – 2014] for Corporate Social Responsibility published by the European Commission is an important step towards global implementation of internationally recognised principles. It aims to promote social and environmental responsibility across the entire supply chain and the disclosure of non-financial information on respect for human rights, ensure equal rights for women and men in the workplace, protect health and the environment, prevent environmental pollution, combat corruption and further the integration of persons with disabilities. Companies are to be required to publish sustainability reports that are to then be discussed with civil society and the trade unions. The Federation of German Industries (BDI) has sought to have this instrument introduced in Europe on a merely voluntary basis, as has been the case in the past, whereas the Commission envisions a commitment. The German trade unions have voiced their support for a binding EU policy and consider it a significant starting point for further substantive elaboration of the OECD guidelines. This is an important signal – not only for the German economy but also for the EU and for the European trade unions.
It is now time to move forward in this spirit and spearhead discussion within companies about the future viability of their products. The issue of resource distribution will also play a role in this context. As a newly industrialised country, China is already pursuing a new neo-colonial policy in all countries with important raw materials.
Industrial production without raw materials is not possible in our country either. But how should raw materials supplies be secured through fair trade relations in order to prevent future conflicts over resources?
There is reason to fear that new North-South and South-South egoisms will manifest themselves and give rise to new distribution conflicts. We will run straight into an open ‘social justice trap’ if we fail to find answers to these questions.
In the end, the debate on how to shape globalisation in a socially equitable and sustainable manner will be a difficult but necessary one. National – and above all international – answers from the trade unions will figure crucially here. They must speak up more loudly!
IG Metall, Solidarität und Freiheit, Cologne 1988, p. 253
Ibid., p. 556
Karin Roth: “Ökologische Innovation und Verantwortung: Perspektiven aus gewerkschaftlicher Sicht”, in Ulf D. Laub, Dietram Schneider (eds.): “Innovation und Unternehmertum”, 1991, p. 188
Karin Roth: “Ökologische Innovation und Verantwortung: Perspektiven aus gewerkschaftlicher Sicht”, in Ulf D. Laub, Dietram Schneider (eds.): “Innovation und Unternehmertum”, 1991, p. 193
Karin Roth: “Die verlorene Unschuld – Umweltpolitik und Gewerkschaften” in “Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik”, April 1988, p. 451