Whether or not such institutions are democratic and participatory will depend not only on the whims of those who formally create the institutional structures in question, but also on the strength of those who are demanding a greater voice. Very often this voice is fractured - environmentalists are often at odds with one another, or with trade unions or consumer groups. The growing interest in partnerships should, therefore, also embrace the question of how to build a stronger civil society movement for change by strengthening links between NGOs and trade unions. Historically, trade unions and institutions such as collective bargaining have been crucial in promoting certain features of corporate social responsibility. Yet there are dangers that trade unions are being marginalized in the current drive to transform business policies and practices associated with voluntary agreements and partnerships. Various tensions currently strain relations between these two sectors.
Environmental and consumer NGOs, for example, sometimes adopt a narrow agenda, ignoring issues associated with the protection of livelihoods, labour standards and human rights, which are likely to be of more immediate concern to workers, women and farmers in developing countries. If the promotion of “sustainable forestry”, for example, involved greater attention to social issues, trade unions might be more active supporters of forest certification schemes (Development and Cooperation, 1999). Similarly, if the NGOs attempting to promote a “sustainable banana economy”48 were as concerned about basic human rights issues - such as freedom of association of banana workers in countries like Costa Rica - as they are with issues of pesticide use and fair trade, then a potentially far stronger alliance with trade unions might exist.
In the absence of governmental and international regulation and more concerted, co-ordinated civil society pressure, the process of promoting corporate environmental and social responsibility in developing countries will remain lukewarm at best. The above analysis of the forces underpinning change indicates that TNCs and other major companies will continue to adopt various measures associated with social and environmental responsibility. In this respect, changes in corporate policy and practice are not simply a public relations or “greenwashing” exercise, as is claimed by some commentators. However, the initiatives involved, are likely to constitute a fairly minimalist, fragmented and uneven agenda that is fraught with contradictions. By facilitating the smooth functioning of production and marketing processes, and often diluting alternative agendas for change, such initiatives may be more conducive to economic growth and stable capitalism than sustainable development.
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