Dutch industry is a sustainable champion

RNW archive

This article is part of the RNW archive. RNW is the former Radio Netherlands Worldwide or Wereldomroep, which was founded as the Dutch international public broadcaster in 1947. In 2011, the Dutch government decided to cut funding and shift RNW from the ministry of Education, Culture and Science to the ministry of Foreign Affairs. More information about RNW Media’s current activities can be found at https://www.rnw.org/about-rnw-media.

Dutch companies appear to be locked in a battle to see who can be the most sustainable. Symposiums on sustainability in every imaginable sector follow each other in rapid succession and any company that has yet to embrace some kind of a green image is lagging seriously behind. But the real surprise is that all this is not simply for show. The business world and the industrial sector are making a genuine commitment to sustainability.

Despite tough economic times and sobering forecasts, an unexpected development seems to be afoot: Dutch companies are putting serious effort into acquiring a green image. Sustainable production methods, premises and transport: these are just a few of the areas where the race to become environmentally friendly is being run. And no, it’s not all about appearances.

“This is something I could never have imagined. That it’s the businessmen, the industrialists of all people who are taking the lead on sustainability.”

These are the words of Lucas Reijnders, grand old man of the environmental movement and a thorn in the side of Dutch industry for decades. Mr Reijnders is delighted with all the change that seems to be taking place.

Large-scale industries
We are not simply talking about modest business plans involving the installation of solar-powered boilers, a solitary wind turbine or a biogas reactor next to a farm. According to Louise Fresco, Professor of Sustainable Development at the University of Amsterdam, these changes are focused mainly on large-scale industries not readily associated with sustainability concerns. They include construction firm BAM and the Dutch division of US giant Dow Chemical. She explains:

“It’s fair to say that the Netherlands is doing incredibly well. That’s because a large number of leading multinationals are based here in Holland, yet operate internationally and perform well in their sector. Look at the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, an annual survey of how well companies are doing in this area. In four or five key categories, Dutch companies have been in the top two for years.”

Inconsistent policy
This green shift in the commercial sector is taking place in spite of and not thanks to the measures taken by the Dutch government, says Teun Bokhoven who represents the interests of all companies engaged in renewable energy. He argues that the government’s inconsistent policy has delayed the breakthrough in renewable energy and energy savings. And the half-hearted, bureaucratic subsidy regulations for renewable energy have done more harm than good.

There is no better illustration of this than the sudden explosive growth in the number of solar panels installed once the subsidy regulations were scrapped. This enabled the normal laws of demand, supply and competition to kick in, prompting a 40-percent drop in the price of panels. All of a sudden it became impossible to keep up with demand.

Business, pure and simple
Teun Bokhoven is well aware that all these companies suddenly pouring their efforts into saving energy, green energy, recycling and all manner of environmentally friendly issues are not motivated by idealism alone:

“It’s business, pure and simple. I mean, let’s be honest … people need to make money and in this area they are able to do just that. You can see that it’s gradually growing and growing. Despite the fact that we’re in a recession, energy prices are continuing to rise. It’s therefore becoming more and more logical to invest in savings and sustainability.”

Outmoded subsidy
Professor Fresco therefore believes that the notion of subsidising sustainability is actually outmoded. She also sees that industry is taking the lead:

“These companies are doing all this without subsidies and I am convinced that sustainability without subsidies is possible. That is to say, it’s better to pump those subsidies into research for innovation. If, instead of subsidising wind turbines, you work very hard to find cheaper and possibly smaller scale turbines, the rewards will be greater.”

So should we conclude that it’s time to remove the government from the sustainability equation altogether? No, says Teun Bokhoven:

“Unfortunately, our energy supply – like our roads and our education system – cannot do without government intervention.”

He hopes that the government will reconsider its commitment to energy generated by massive coal-fired power plants, since that is setting a very bad example indeed.