The Global Compact, Environmental Principles, and Change in International Environmental Politics

Article excerpt

Unlike rules, international lawyers commonly ignore the potential that environmental principles have to create change in international law and politics. Transnational actors do not easily conform to abstract and open-textured environmental principles because they do not prescribe a specific way of behaving and compliance with them is difficult to enforce. The Global Compact initiative of the United Nations relies on principles" to create a regime applying to transnational corporations. It is structured around encouraging corporations to socially learn rather than to comply with norms. In this context environmental principles within the Global Compact have the potential to create significant change in international politics but one that is better assessed in terms of how they frame ideas during the interactions of participants and stakeholders within the regime. This interplay between environmental principles and the social influence of ideas is an important steering mechanism for the kind of learning that potentially is taking place within the Global Compact. It also distinguishes the Global Compact from other attempts to consider the role of internationally developed voluntary codes as a common frame for multinational corporations to self-regulate themselves. Notably, it highlights an important role and function for environmental principles, which are often discounted in their potential to contribute to change at the international level.


In December 2005, the 191 Member States of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) officially endorsed the Global Compact (GC) initiative that the former Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, established within his office in 2000. (1) In a much generalized but useful summary of its mission, the GC seeks to establish "corporate citizenship among companies" in the world. (2) The GC is now a complex initiative that is coordinated by the Global Compact Office (GCO) and is part of the Secretary-General's Office at the United Nations (UN). (3) As of September 2007, the GC had 4600 participants and stakeholders from around 120 countries in the world. (4) This compares with 2900 participants and stakeholders in March 2006 when the GCO last reported on the growth of the initiative. (5) This is not to suggest that the GC is without its challenges or criticisms. (6) The "symbolism of the Global Compact's creation and its established brand as a major initiative of the Secretary-General" is, however, "surprisingly influential." (7)

The core idea behind the GC initiative is to establish a set of ten principles that aim to influence the values of corporations in relation to human rights, labor, the environment, and corruption, and "give a human face to the global market." (8) The environmental principles that are a part of the GC are listed as: the precautionary approach to environmental challenges; promoting greater environmental responsibility; and encouraging the development and diffusion of environmentally friendly technologies. (9) In 2004, McKinsey & Company were commissioned by the GCO to complete an "impact assessment" of the GC initiative. (10) This study singled out as the main focus for its empirical investigations the adoption by companies of the nine principles as they were in 2004. (11) It found that in the four years since its establishment, the:

   Global Compact has had noticeable, incremental impact on companies,
   the UN, governments and other civil society actors and has built a
   strong base for future results. The Compact has primarily
   accelerated policy change in companies, while catalyzing a
   proliferation of "partnership projects," development-oriented
   activities that companies undertake with UN agencies and other
   partners. The Compact has also developed a solid participant base
   and local network structure, establishing itself as the largest
   voluntary corporate citizenship network of its kind. (12)

Figure 1, which is from the McKinsey & Company study, provides more perspective on these comments in that 51% of those surveyed said that the GC initiatives helped them to make the decision to engage with the principles easier as opposed to initiating their interest in them. …