The Bank is not against chemicals – but is campaigning for a safer future
The Co-operative Bank's Safer Chemicals Campaign is targeting industrial chemicals that don't break down safely in nature (persistent chemicals) and that tend to build up in living tissues, particularly animal and human body fats (bio-accumulative chemicals).
Its campaign literature recognises that industrial chemicals have made a huge contribution to modern life. However, since 1996, the bank has been pointing out in its Ecological Mission Statement the risks associated with using persistent and bio-accumulative chemicals.
Working in partnership with WWF-UK, in April 2003 the bank began campaigning for tougher legislation on the production and use of these chemicals. In addition, the bank is supporting three other charities – Pesticide Action Network (PAN) UKi, Friends of the Earth (FOE) UKii and Surfers Against Sewage (SAS)iii – which in very specific ways are trying to address some of the consequences of these risky chemicals being already widely distributed in the environment.
The purpose of this analysis is not to describe the campaign (follow this link for information on the safer chemicals campaign). It is to provide an independent view about: why the bank got involved - the evidence that it is committed to the issues behind the campaign and not just using it to market its banking services - and whether its actions have helped in delivering campaign objectives.
Why this campaign?
The bank's Ecological Mission Statement, published in 1996, identified persistent chemicals as a problem. In the 2001 Ethical Policy review, 88% of customers who voted supported the proposition that "The bank will not invest in any business whose core activity contributes to the manufacture of chemicals which are persistent in the environment and linked to long-term health concerns." At the same time the bank has been reducing its own dependence on, and eliminating where possible, materials that contain these risky substances, and reporting progress in its Partnership Reports.
Discussions between WWF-UK and the bank led to an agreement to campaign together particularly on a proposed new EU regulatory framework for chemicals. In October, 2003, the European Commission adopted a proposal for a new system for the Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of CHemicals (REACH). The stated aims are:
to improve the protection of human health and the environment while maintaining the competitiveness and enhancing the innovative capability of the EU chemicals industry.
However, lack of public awareness of the issues and resistance from the chemicals industry pose problems both for finalising and implementing robust REACH proposals. By supporting WWF-UK, the bank has tried to ensure that any emerging legislative framework does in fact protect people and the planet from persistent and bioaccumulative chemicals. At the same time, it is raising awareness of the issues through its customer mailings, its website and press advertising.
In addition, £100,000 has been allocated through the banks' Customers Who Care programme to help fund the efforts of three other campaigning agencies which are dealing with the legacy of problematic chemicals and extending awareness raising with different constituencies.
Have the bank's actions helped deliver campaign objectives?
Changes in legislation and the European regulatory framework may not be finalised until 2006, so it is not yet possible to measure success in this primary objective of the bank's campaign. While the press advertising in May 2004 and customer mailings will increase public and customers' awareness, they are unlikely to have any direct effect on the speed or effectiveness of European governments negotiating and implementing REACH. However, increased public awareness will put pressure on the manufacturers and users of the chemicals to find alternatives. Because of this long time-frame, WWF-UK has said it hopes the bank will extend its Safer Chemicals campaign beyond 2004. The bank's campaign is therefore perhaps more about helping to shape society's expectations about chemicals and the safety of everyday products, and creating a context for direct lobbying of decision-makers on REACH.
WWF's focus on the particular issue of the accumulation of persistent chemicals in human tissue makes a very direct appeal to people's sense of well being and their concern for future generations. Its UK Biomonitoring Survey in June 2003, which included senior staff from the bank, Michael Meacher MP, former UK Environment Minister, and Margaret Wallström, the EU Environment Commissioner, have been very effective in raising awareness of the issue. Another round of testing, targeting forty-four MEPs from ten member states, has also recently generated a lot of media coverage across Europe. These high profile 'science roadshows' to test volunteers' blood for persistent and bio-accumulative chemical residues not only attracted the attention of the media, but will probably give our democratic representatives pause for thought and a direct interest in seeing the new legislation progress. WWF says it would not have been able to do the MEP monitoring in Brussels, which it regards as a key campaign breakthrough, without funding from the bank.
The bank has also endorsed two WWF publications: on the results of the UK Biomonitoring Survey and on Innovation in the Chemicals Sector in response to REACH. They also collaborated on events at the Labour Party Conference in October and have maintained a flow of correspondence and lobbying of the UK Government.
WWF have worked throughout in partnership with both the bank and the National Federation of Women's Institutes. While WI would seem to be a natural partner for the bank, it has not engaged directly with the WI in the campaign.
WWF were also asked to suggest additional areas for bank campaign activities. Their main proposal was for the bank to make a business case study around its own successes in eliminating and replacing hazardous chemicals, as well as putting the case for phase out to other businesses and industries. While campaigning is vigorous and ongoing, they say it is much harder to find examples that demonstrate that there are commercially viable alternatives. While this proposal was not taken up as part of the campaign (primarily because substitution led to an increase, not decrease, in costs), the bank continues to publish the results of its own activities in the CFS Sustainability Report.
Turning to the three organisations the bank has supported with funds from the Customers Who Care programme, all three have been able to launch new initiatives they could not otherwise have undertaken. Apart from the money, all three greatly valued the exposure they have been receiving on the bank's website and in CWC newsletters.
Pesticide Action Network received 43% of the customer vote and £43,000. As well as campaigning, PAN is involved in monitoring the implementation of a UN convention to ban the production and use of 12 widely distributed persistent and bio-accumulative chemicals. PAN is particularly concerned with stockpiles of these materials in developing countries, often in huge quantities with other hazardous chemicals in poor and deteriorating conditions of storage. PAN's goal is to ensure that the local communities and NGOs get involved in the clean-up process and that the local health and economic impacts are properly assessed. The bank's grant came at a time when international funding was running out and has allowed PAN to work with programmes in Ethiopia, Tanzania, Mozambique and Senegal that it would have been unable to undertake from its own resources. This practical action to deal with the legacy is a clear success of the Safer Chemicals campaign and adds a necessary global dimension to campaign supporters' understanding of the problems. PAN appreciated the bank's sensitivity to their needs and the pressures faced by a small organisation and described the bank's management of the relationship as 'very light touch'.
Friends of the Earth polled 37% of the customer vote and received £37,000. Their Safer Chemicals campaign has focussed on getting retailers to identify, in their own label and the branded products they sell, chemicals that are bio-accumulative or interfere with the hormone, immune or nervous systems. The bank's funding has enabled them to run a programme surveying retailers in the UK and their policies on chemicals. Their campaign director said this support, and the exposure the bank has given FOE, stimulated renewed interest in their campaign and resulted in more major UK retailers signing the FOE Pledge to identify and eliminate hazardous chemicals within five years. FOE felt 'comfortable' accepting The Co operative Bank 'sponsorship' because of the bank's own policy and action to eliminate risky chemicals, and their commitment to other campaign organisations working on the issues. The support of their customer base for The Co-operative Bank programme was also seen as significant.
The smallest campaign partner is Surfers Against Sewage. The £20,000 they received was a massive boost to their campaign income. It is budgeted to cover the cost of a research project with the University of Plymouth Insitute of Marine Studies to identify the key persistent and bio-accumulative chemicals in consumer products that are entering the marine environment. SAS will also commission a survey of consumers' attitudes to buying alternative safer products. All this is scheduled for completion by Autumn 2004 and would not have happened without the bank's help. SAS might seem an unlikely partner, but they have strong youth appeal, which is good for the bank, and were themselves very aware when they were approached of the bank's history in campaigning and delivering against its Ethical Policy.
There is plenty of evidence of the bank's commitment to the issue of risky chemicals and its response to customers' concerns as expressed in its Ethical Policy. In my view this has been intelligently extended in the bank's choice of campaign partners to broaden the demographic appeal, to focus on EU politicians and changes to the regulatory framework, to highlight the legacy issues particularly in developing countries and to work for changes in retailers' and consumers' behaviour. It is perhaps unfortunate that there has been no direct involvement with WI but, apart from that, the relationships with the various campaigning organisations have made a significant difference to them and have been managed well by the bank.
It remains to be seen how quickly and how effectively EU governments will be able to protect their populations and the environment from these man-made hazards. The bank's interventions so far will no doubt contribute to the change. As to the future, WWF's request that the bank sticks with the campaign, as it did with Land Mines and Cluster Bombs, could make its distinctive contribution much more significant.
Richard Evans June 2004
i Follow this link to the Pesticide Action Network website
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ii Follow this link to the Friends of the Earth website
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iii Follow this link to the Surfers Against Sewage website
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