Introduction: what is the role of voluntary approaches in German environmental policy--and why?

Author:Toller, Annette Elisabeth

This GPS-Special issue deals with the role of voluntary approaches in German environmental policy. While the editors of this volume are rooted in public policy research, with some interest in German environmental policy in particular (see Bocher & Toller 2012a), the authors of this volume come from a broader range of sub-disciplines of political science, including comparative politics, international relations and forest policy analysis. However, this special issue could be of relevance to a much broader audience of scholars and practitioners with an interest in both, environmental policy and public policy as well as, more broadly, regulation, in particular with regard to policy instruments.

What exactly do we mean by voluntary approaches and why is this topic relevant? If we look at the world of policy and regulation with a Weberian view of the world in mind, the core of regulation is that the state adopts collectively binding rules that can be sanctioned by courts and--if need arises--can be implemented by the use of legitimate force. Within such an understanding of the world, voluntary approaches to regulation provoke puzzlement, because there are no binding rules, no role for courts and no implementation by force, no state that can give orders and in some cases no public agency at all (see Kirton & Trebilcock 2004, p. 9)--yet we call it regulation. We can define voluntary approaches as "rule structures [...] that seek to persuade firms to incur nontrivial costs of producing positive externalities beyond what the law requires of them" (Potoski & Prakash 2009, p. ix).

Thus, the core and the common denominator of these approaches are that they are established, implemented and complied with on a voluntary basis and that--in terms of regulatory substance they go beyond what is required by law. Conceptually and empirically, the term voluntary approach is broader than other terms (such as civil or private regulation, co-operative regulation, negotiated regulation, third party regulation, self-regulation, regulated regulation, soft law, e.g., Gunningham & Rees 1997; Mol et al. 2000; Everett et al. 2008; Kirton & Trebilcock 2004; Porter & Ronit 2006, p. 42). Focusing on environmental policy, there are several specific instruments that fall under this label of "voluntary approaches": voluntary agreements between industry associations or companies and the government (either as unilateral declaration by industry alone, as bilateral agreement or as a program offered by the government), eco-management-schemes (which belong to the category of procedural instruments, but are voluntary at the same time), certification schemes (with or without external verification), green label schemes and reporting programs (cf. Perez 2011, p. 347; Bartley 2011). Examining such instruments in order to identify and explain their (changing) role in public policy is relevant because, if it is true that policy instruments are much more than technical devices to pursue political objectives (Majone 1976, 1989; Immergut 2011), major changes in the use of such instruments could be indicators of changes in overall governance patterns or even "the state" (see Levi-Faur 2011; Toller 2012; and Wurzel et al. in this volume). In addition, the question of whether such voluntary approaches are effective at all certainly deserves attention as well. Yet, while the majority of literature focuses on the effectiveness of voluntary approaches (starting from different theoretical assumptions, e.g., Perez 2011; Potoski & Prakash 2011) there is much less literature on either the precise empirical dimensions of their use or their driving forces. Thus, we do not deal with questions of effectiveness here.

  1. The Role of Voluntary Approaches in German Environmental Policy

    German environmental policy started in the early 1970s. For a long time it has been considered to be characterized by a strong legalistic bias, favoring command-and-control approaches over any other instruments, and it has been criticized for the same reason (Hartkopf & Bohne 1983; Heritier et al. 1996; Janicke et al. 1999, p. 39). Whereas this characterization is definitely justified, it tends to disregard the fact that voluntary approaches were already being used in the early days of environmental policy (e.g., Oldiges 1973). As early as the 1970s, the first voluntary agreements in various fields were reached, e.g., agreements on the use of CFC in sprays (1978 and 1987) or the use of asbestos in construction (1982), just to mention some early examples. Many others followed, especially between the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s (Toller 2012). Apart from voluntary agreements between industry associations and government, other voluntary approaches were established: In 1978 Germany was the first country to develop an eco-labeling scheme (Blauer Engel) to help consumers choose ecologically sound products (Landmann 1998).

    In 1990 EMAS, the European Environmental Management System was established. From 1995 onwards, it offered industrial sites (and later services) the opportunity of improving their environmental performance on a voluntary basis (Heinelt et al. 2001; Wurzel et al. in this volume). In the 1990s, FSC and PEFC, the two most important forest certification programs, were established and also gained relevance in Germany (Klins 2000; Bartley 2003, 2011; Tosun 2012). In this way, voluntary approaches became "an element of a distinctly 'German' policy mix" (Lees 2007, p. 175).

    However, what one finds empirically and what topic is 'en vogue' to be addressed in scholarly work can be different things. It was mainly the debate on "new" forms of governance in the late 1990s that focused on these voluntary approaches, often addressing them as new instruments (which they were elsewhere, but not in Germany) (e.g., Ingram 1999; Aggeri 1999; Janicke et al. 1999, p. 41; Salamon 2002; Eliadis et al. 2005; Janicke & Jorgens 2006, Backstrand et al. 2010, Perez 2011, p. 347; Wurzel et al. 2013) and often expecting them to increase both their number and relevance for environmental policy overall (e.g., SRU 1996, p. 96; 1998, p. 147; Hansjurgens & Kock 2003, p. 10). Seen in a broader context, many authors considered these voluntary approaches - particularly in the field of environmental policy--as an element of a broader shift either in instrumentation or in governance (e.g., Benz 1994, p. 305, Kleger 1995; Kloepfer & Elsner 1996; Trute 1999), or, more generally, a "transformation of statehood" towards a "new regulatory state" (Braithwaite 2000), for example, or even a "post-regulatory state" (Scott 2004, p. 164, Black 2001).

    However, in the late 1990s and early in the new millennium, precisely as academic debate "discovered" voluntary approaches as "new" instruments and as some countries started to introduce, or continued using them, the excessive use of voluntary agreements as the major instrument in German environmental policy as seen in the mid-1990s came to a sudden end, while the number of legal acts increased (Toller in this volume). Furthermore, after the 1990s had celebrated the overwhelming success of EMAS in Germany (measured in registered sites, see Heinelt et al. 2001), more recently, companies opted for the scheme's less demanding international sister, ISO 14001 (see Wurzel et al. in this volume). At the same time, under the conceptual roof of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR, or Corporate Environmental responsibility, CER), new schemes, operating on a transnational level, such as Responsible Care, or the Global Reporting Initiative, were established and gained support from big multinational firms (Schwindenhammer 2011 and in this volume; Perez 2011, p. 348-349). In the field of forest certification, the PEFC, driven by the forest sector, became much more powerful than the FSC, especially in Europe and Germany: In Germany, more than 60% of the forest is certified according to the PEFC scheme, whereas only approx. 4% is FSC-certified (Schreiber 2011, p. 44). Here, it is interesting that two competing voluntary approaches have emerged: one (PEFC) driven by the economic interests of the forestry actors (forest owners associations, wood industry etc.), and the other (FSC) initiated by environmental NGOs. Additionally, in new subfields of environmental policy, such as biodiversity, voluntary agreements are being used as first steps towards a more encompassing and strong regulation (see Hubo & Krott in this volume). Traditional, law-based command-and-control approaches have not decreased in number and relevance (see Toller 2012, p. 82; OECD 2012), and market-based approaches...

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