This paper examines how interactions among governments, businesses and NGOs in and around UN conferences serve to establish global regulations, such as those restricting toxic chemicals known as Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). It finds that businesses and NGOs can contribute to shaping regulations through their discursive activities, but neither can expect to fully control the debate in an international multi-stakeholder setting. As a result, firms should mitigate their exposure to legislative risk by considering their products’ potential harms and applying the precautionary principle – that is, avoiding the use of chemicals about which there is some scientific evidence but also uncertainty as to the risks they pose to human health or the environment.
The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), which took effect in 2004, regulates chemicals based on their potential harms to human health or the environment. It banned or restricted the use of 12 toxic substances (including PCBs and DDT), while outlining a process for including additional ones based on the `precautionary principle’, which allows for the restriction of chemicals despite scientific uncertainty about their harmful effects.
Actors influence new regulations by finding ways to reconcile different opinions on contentious issues.
The Stockholm Convention on POPs emerged from the interaction of two main discourses invoked to articulate approaches to regulating risky technologies: a new discourse based on the “precautionary principle”, and the legacy discourse based on “sound science”. The Stockholm Convention incorporates both but precaution dominates when there is scientific uncertainty as to the harms of particular chemicals.
Implications for Managers
The precautionary principle gives more power to NGOs to trigger deliberations about potentially risky products, and to governments to legitimately take regulatory action to reduce or eliminate the risks posed. Your firm needs to become familiar with the precautionary principle and how it is being applied in markets of relevance to you.
Consider the potential harms of your business’s products and production processes. This will help your firm stay ahead of emerging regulations that are banning or restricting risky products and production processes based on a lower threshold of evidence of harms to human health or the environment. Chemical risks are more easily and quickly translated into business risks with the precautionary principle.
Monitor public dialogue and be responsive to stakeholders’ concerns about potential risks, even if there is scientific uncertainty about them.
Chemical risks are more easily and quickly translated into business risks with the precautionary principle.
Implications for Researchers
This study furthers knowledge on institution-building processes and helps researchers to understand the emergence of new global regulatory institutions. The paper analyzes the creation of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) from a discourse perspective; and finds that new global institutions are outcomes of struggles over the meaning of particular risks and what should be done about them. Further, actors which are seemingly less powerful because they have fewer resources can nevertheless succeed in influencing regulatory outcomes through effective discursive strategies. According to the authors, the new regulatory discourse of precaution provided a symbolic resource for building a new institution which includes “new global rules for the production, use, import, export, release and disposal of dangerous chemicals classified as POPs”(p. 10).
This paper used a case study of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants to examine the interplay between discourse of precaution and the discourse of sound science. It obtained information from formal negotiating documents, journals, scientific studies, press releases, policy documents, speeches, etc.; as well as from observations of the negotiations, and interviews with individuals from governments, businesses and NGOs involved in the process.
Maguire, Steve, & Hardy, Cynthia. (2006). The Emergence of New Global Institutions: A Discursive Perspective. Organization Studies, 27(1): 7-29.
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